Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Deputies: Chimp attacks woman at Palm Harbor primate sanctuary

PALM HARBOR — Andrea Maturen, a young but seasoned volunteer, is known to horse around with the chimps she cares for at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary.

Shawn, an 11-year-old chimpanzee, is known for her gentle way, quirky mannerisms and fingerpainting skills.

Friday morning, something went terribly wrong when Shawn relentlessly attacked and chased Maturen, 22, who had been cleaning a nearby cage.

Maturen's arm was severely broken in the scuffle, authorities said. Here's what they say happened:

Around 11:30 a.m., Shawn and another chimp got out of their cage and into an adjacent cage the volunteer was cleaning. Shawn began attacking Maturen. The young woman struggled, but the chimp Shawn kept coming after her.

They both ended up outside the primate sanctuary. Maturen fought to break free, and tried to run inside, but Shawn followed her. Maturen finally had to lock herself in a bathroom to escape Shawn's wrath.

Handlers got the chimps back in their cage, asked everyone to leave and put the sanctuary on lockdown. Maturen was taken to Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs for treatment of serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

"The potential could have been a lot worse," said Lt. Steve De Lacure of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who is investigating the incident.

Chimpanzees may seem docile and cute, but they can be aggressive, especially in the wild, according to primate experts. They rarely attack people, but there have been cases of violent attacks on humans.

"When you have animals in captivity and you have humans involved, there's always a likelihood of injury," De Lacure said.

Shawn is in heat, and changes in hormones may have affected her behavior, he added.

Sanctuary officials said little about the attack Friday.

Debbie Cobb, the sanctuary's outreach coordinator, said the incident happened because of "human error." The sanctuary's board is also investigating what happened.

Cobb wasn't there, but others at the sanctuary told her that Maturen was able to walk off of the property and that her face appeared to be okay, she said.

De Lacure said at this point in the investigation, there don't seem to be any criminal issues. It appears Maturen and another volunteer didn't follow proper sanctuary protocol, he said.

The caregivers were supposed to move the chimps to another cage farther away and to make sure the door to the adjacent cage was securely locked, he said. But they did neither, he said.

Friday afternoon, De Lacure said he was just starting the investigation.

"I haven't had a chance to talk to the victim," he said. "To be honest, I think they're probably prepping her for surgery."

De Lacure said Maturen had volunteered for the chimp farm for more than five years. She was trained to do all of the maintenance and handling of the animals, he said.

Shawn's fingerpainting skills were featured in a 2006 St. Petersburg Times article about the sanctuary's fundraising efforts.

According to the sanctuary's online bio of Shawn, she is "a very gentle and affectionate chimp." She was named after the veterinarian who saved her life and was raised much like a human baby. In order to ensure she was well socialized, she was given plenty of time with other chimps.

The 12 1/2-acre park, which abuts the Pinellas Trail, houses dozens of animals, mostly primates. It opened as a roadside attraction in 1971 and was originally known as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm.

De Lacure said he's worked in the area for about 14 years and there has not been a problem of this type during that time.

But the sanctuary has had its share of issues.

In the 1990s, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals dubbed it one of the worst roadside zoos in the country. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stripped the sanctuary of its license for public exhibitions, citing small, rusty cages used to house the apes.

Two years later, the state declined to renew its license for keeping exotic animals, citing similar concerns.

That license was reinstated after a major renovation in 2003. And in 2008, the sanctuary reopened to the public after receiving a valid USDA license.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at or (727) 445-4155.


Chimpanzee attacks on humans

February 2009: A 200-pound pet chimpanzee once seen in TV commercials mauled and blinded a woman in Stamford, Conn. It went berserk after its owner asked Charla Nash to help lure it back into her house. Nash lost her hands, nose, lips and eyelids in the attack.

March 2005: A 62-year-old man, St. James Davis, survived an attack from two chimps that escaped from their cage at a California animal sanctuary. His nose and mouth were ripped off, an eye was gouged out, his left foot was mangled and most of his fingers and buttocks were devoured.

July 1989: An out-of-control chimp at a safari-themed amusement park in Loxahatchee in South Florida attacked two zookeepers, causing one of them to accidentally shoot the other.

May 1987: A 170-pound pet chimp in Pennsylvania escaped from his cage and injured a man working nearby before being shot to death. The man suffered bites on his back, leg, hip, hands and arms.

Deputies: Chimp attacks woman at Palm Harbor primate sanctuary 02/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2010 11:49pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. St. Pete qualifying ends. Seven for mayor. Eight for District 6 on primary ballot


    The smiles of the faces of the workers in the City Clerk’s office said it all. The qualifying period for city elections was almost over.

    City Clerk Chan Srinivasa (2nd left) and Senior Deputy City Clerk  Cathy Davis (1st left) celebrate the end of qualifying period with colleagues on Friday afternoon
  2. 'Garbage juice' seen as threat to drinking water in Florida Panhandle county


    To Waste Management, the nation's largest handler of garbage, the liquid that winds up at the bottom of a landfill is called "leachate," and it can safely be disposed of in a well that's 4,200 feet deep.

    Three samples that were displayed by Jackson County NAACP President Ronstance Pittman at a public meeting on Waste Management's deep well injection proposal. The sample on the left is full of leachate from the Jackson County landfill, the stuff that would be injected into the well. The sample on the right shows leachate after it's been treated at a wastewater treatment plant. The one in the middle is tap water.
  3. Registered sexual predator charged in assault of woman in Brooksville

    Public Safety

    Times Staff Writer

    BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County deputies arrested a registered sexual predator Thursday after they say he attempted to assault a woman and fled into a storm drain.

    Lee Roy Rettley has been charged with attempted homicide, attempted sexual battery and home invasion robbery.
  4. Honda denies covering up dangers of Takata air bags


    With just a third of the defective Takata air bag inflators replaced nationwide, the corporate blame game of who will take responsibility — and pay — for the issue has shifted into another gear.

    Honda is denying covering up dangers of Takata air bags. | [Scott McIntyre, New York Times]
  5. Former CEO of Winn-Dixie parent joining Hong Kong company


    The former CEO of the Jacksonville-based parent of Winn-Dixie grocery stores, Ian McLeod, has landed a new leadership role in Hong Kong. He is joining the pan-Asian based Dairy Farm International Holdings Ltd. as group chief executive.

    Ian McLeod, who is stepping down as the CEO of the parent company of Winn-Dixie, has been hired by Dairy Farm International Holdings. 
[Photo courtesy of Southeastern Grocers]