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Victim's scars, medical bills replay horrors of chimp attack

Andrea Maturen, 22, shown in her Orlando apartment with her Great Dane, Soma, has mostly healed physically from February’s chimp attack, but she has $55,000 in medical bills and says the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary isn’t helping.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Andrea Maturen, 22, shown in her Orlando apartment with her Great Dane, Soma, has mostly healed physically from February’s chimp attack, but she has $55,000 in medical bills and says the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary isn’t helping.

PALM HARBOR —Almost a year has passed since a 75-pound chimpanzee named Shawn opened a cage door, jumped on Andrea Maturen's back and bit into the back of her head.

Maturen, a volunteer at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, ran. Shawn forced two more doors open to continue the attack, ripping at Maturen's arms, back and leg.

"I felt like I was in a horror movie or something," Maturen said earlier this month. "I could see (blood) in my hair, on my hands. There was just blood everywhere."

Today, she is mostly healed. Surgery repaired torn tendons in her right hand. A half-moon scar still marks her right elbow. A dent brands her left thigh.

But Maturen remains burdened by $55,000 in medical bills she says the sanctuary won't help pay, the belief that sanctuary officials worried more about their reputation than her safety, and anger that those officials kept a deputy waiting out front while she lay bleeding inside.

To this day, a glance at her scars or an animal show on TV triggers flashbacks of Shawn's rampage on Feb. 12, 2010.

It's an attack from which Maturen still tries to escape.

• • •

Maturen, 22, had been a volunteer at the sanctuary for more than three years. She recalls the events of Feb. 12 in great detail.

About 11:15 a.m., 11-year-old Shawn and her sister Lucy were in a cage inside the Great Ape building. Maturen was cleaning a connecting outside cage.

She turned to grab a bucket and heard the door between cages sliding up; she knew this was bad.

She ran, or tried to.

After maybe a step, 75-pound Shawn leaped onto her back. Maturen, 5 feet tall and 110 pounds, fell to her knees.

Shawn sank her teeth into Maturen's head. Maturen covered her face with her hands, then felt the chimp's teeth rip the tendons in her hand. Oddly, she felt no pain.

Shawn took a bite out of her elbow as Maturen tried to get away. She made it to the hallway, just inside the Great Ape building. Fellow volunteer Tina Ercolano tried to shut the door.

The chimp pushed it open and again jumped on Maturen, who fell into a fetal position on the concrete. Shawn bit her left thigh and right hip and scratched her stomach, shoulder and back.

Ercolano pushed Maturen outside through a nearby exit and shut the door. Shawn burst through the door and jumped Maturen again. Ercolano grabbed a hose and sprayed the chimp. Shawn made whining noises and backed off.

Ercolano threw Maturen back into the building and shut Shawn outside. In her panic, Maturen ran, straight through the building and out another door.

"You're awake through the whole thing," Maturen said. "You have this feeling you can't stop moving, and you feel like you're literally running from death."

Ercolano warned Maturen that Shawn was outside, too. Maturen dashed back into the building. She heard Ercolano on the phone, her voice raspy and frantic.

"I remember her saying to Debbie (Cobb, the sanctuary's outreach coordinator) 'No, she's out, and Andrea's been attacked. … Yes, she's hurt.' "

Maturen took refuge in the bathroom, lying on her back next to the toilet.

The pain had come.

• • •

No one from the sanctuary called 911.

Just before 11:30 a.m., someone else did call. A man told the dispatcher that he and his grandchildren had been ushered out of the sanctuary about 10 or 15 minutes earlier.

"Something's happening over there," he said. "I don't know if one of those apes got loose, but we had to run out of there real fast, and there were women screaming over there."

Deputy Gregory Mason arrived at 11:37 a.m. and found the gates locked. Here's what happened, according to his report:

A volunteer told him the sanctuary was closed and no one was allowed in. She said a chimp had grabbed Maturen, but she was okay. She agreed to go inside and get Maturen.

After several minutes, another volunteer came out and said everything was okay. Mason asked if anyone had been bitten. The volunteer said no.

A few minutes later, Cobb came out and told Mason she didn't think Maturen was there.

• • •

Maturen thinks it took about 10 minutes from the time the attack began until she found refuge in the bathroom. Several minutes later, she heard Cobb and her husband, Jon, outside the door, jingling keys and calling Shawn's name.

At one point, Jon Cobb peeked into the bathroom to check on her.

"I was wearing a hoodie and jeans," Maturen said. "He asked me to roll over a little bit because he wanted to see where the blood was coming from."

Eventually, Debbie Cobb yelled that it was okay to come out, Maturen said.

"They had me sit down in the building while one of the volunteers backed her vehicle up to the main door (of the Great Ape building) and they put me in her car," Maturen said.

The volunteer followed Jon Cobb's truck to a walk-in medical clinic on Tarpon Avenue near downtown Tarpon Springs, about five or 10 minutes away, Maturen said.

To get there, they likely would have passed Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital and its emergency room, on the same road as the sanctuary and about 11/2 miles away.

They arrived at the clinic about 12:30 p.m, Mason's report said, more than an hour after the attack began.

Debbie Cobb came to the sanctuary entrance again and told the deputy that Maturen had called a friend to get her. Mason, still outside the gate, called a sergeant, who arrived with another deputy about 12:40 p.m. After that, Cobb let them in.

As they walked to get Maturen's volunteer records, another volunteer said the reason they didn't call authorities was because "they did not want to be heard by the press on scanners," the deputy wrote.

About 1 p.m., Debbie Cobb told the deputies that her husband found Maturen at "Dr. Wendy's" clinic. She is Wendy Paracka, an advanced registered nurse practitioner.

Paracka later told deputies that Maturen's injuries were too severe for her to handle. Her office called 911 and Maturen was taken to Helen Ellis.

Mason summed up his report by saying sanctuary workers were "uncooperative and intentionally deceptive and evasive."

It appeared that Maturen "was at the sanctuary with severe and potentially life-threatening injuries while I was outside trying to find out what happened and check on her," Mason wrote.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the lead agency that investigated the attack, said the sanctuary was not criminally liable. The agency said Maturen and another volunteer failed to make sure the door between the cages was locked. In the days after the attack, Maturen took the blame; now she says she was trying to protect the sanctuary.

• • •

The 121/2-acre sanctuary is just north of Alderman Road on Alt. U.S. 19. It houses dozens of animals, mostly primates. Chimps are among those the state says pose a significant danger to people.

Originally known as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm, the facility opened as a roadside attraction in 1971. Debbie Cobb is the granddaughter of founders Bob and Mae Noell.

The sanctuary had to close to the public for nearly a decade after the U.S. Department of Agriculture stripped the sanctuary of its federal license to exhibit animals in 1999. The agency said the farm used cages that were rusty, small, dirty and had jagged edges.

In 2001, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission denied the renewal of the sanctuary's license for similar reasons. Two years later, the license was reinstated. But the sanctuary did not reopen to the public until 2008.

• • •

Maturen said sanctuary officials told her "not to worry," they would help with her medical bills. Months later, after bills topped out at about $55,000, they offered to pay about $50 a month, she said.

She plans to sue the sanctuary.

Sanctuary officials referred questions to lawyer Thomas Dandar, who declined an interview.

The Times sent him seven questions via e-mail. He answered one, about medical expenses, saying, "We attempted to assist in negotiating a reduction in her medical expenses, but she would not cooperate."

He also said he set up an account for her to receive donations for the medical expenses. He said the answers to other questions were in wildlife commission and Agriculture Department reports.

Maturen said she tried to cooperate and got as many hardship discounts as she could on her own. She also said Dandar's firm provided information about an empty account that was opened for her, but she did not feel comfortable soliciting donations for herself.

• • •

Maturen has tried to move on with her life. She works as a dog trainer at PETCO in Orlando. She attends Valencia Community College. And she plans to study biology at the University of Central Florida.

But she still thinks about the attack every day.

"I still am kind of living through it because I have these bills over my head that won't let me forget about it," Maturen said.

She hasn't sought psychological counseling because she thinks her experience is so unusual that no one can help her.

"It's not like there's support groups for people who have gone through things like this," Maturen said. "I feel like nobody understands it."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Victim's scars, medical bills replay horrors of chimp attack 01/22/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 24, 2011 7:00pm]

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