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Primate loving people bond

Gini Valbuena of Clearwater put some colorful toys into the playpen, then frowned a minute later when a woman reached down to stroke her 4-month-old.

"We don't touch her," Valbuena told the woman as politely as she could.

Little Tanzee, dressed in a sailor jumpsuit, navigated awkwardly around the playpen on her hands and knees as Valbuena put white netting over it to keep bugs _ and hands _ out.

Valbuena says Tanzee, a chimpanzee, craves attention and needs protection just like a human baby, and Valbuena treats her like one.

Sunday about 230 people who feel much the same way about primates traveled from 25 states to a site near Tarpon Springs for the Florida Primate Picnic. They and their 63 small primates spent the afternoon playing together.

Even older monkeys and chimps _ they can live to be 30 or 40 years old _ retain the energy, personality and grab-everything curiosity of a toddler. The parklike grounds of Manimal Exotics, a private wildlife refuge north of Lake Tarpon, were filled with small primates and humans willing to commit to that kind of protracted chaos.

The gathering gave primate owners in the United States a place to meet others who have the unusual pets and to share advice. Previously isolated, many of the owners said they have found each other through the Internet. Word of the picnic spread through e-mail.

In many cases, the pets were better dressed than the people. One wore a tiny Tommy Hilfiger oxford shirt, and another a red-white-and-blue polo shirt that matched his owner's exactly.

"They're just like little people," Sally Underwood of Destin said as Sue, her white-faced ringtail, or capuchin, climbed up her leg.

Indeed, monkeys are susceptible to all the diseases that affect human beings. Because their bodies are so similar to a human's, they are better cared for by a family physician than a veterinarian, several owners said.

Monkeys have hands and feet, not paws, complete with tiny fingerprints. Holding one felt similar to cradling an infant, especially because most of the monkeys at the picnic wore disposable diapers.

Newborn-size diapers fit average-sized monkeys, after the owners cut a hole through which the animals' long tails protrude. Some young monkeys require more expensive diapers designed for premature human babies.

Diapering is easier than house training, especially at a gathering like the picnic, Underwood explained.

One of the little 5- to 10-pound beings can support its weight with one hand, one foot or its muscular prehensile tail.

Sena, a 1-year-old black cap capuchin, climbed up a new human friend, holding onto his shirt with her tiny hands. She grabbed and gnawed on the ID cards hanging around his neck on a cord, looking him in the eye.

Then she made a giggling noise and began to stroke the hair on his arm and to gently knead his skin. Her owner, Barbara Parker of Oklahoma City, said monkeys help groom each other when they feel close.

The animals are intelligent and need continual attention and mental stimulation.

"It's not a habit; it's a lifestyle," Parker said.

Many owners hire a babysitter when they leave home.

"They'll display the same signs of being emotionally neglected as a child, such as sitting in a corner and rocking back and forth," said Geni Hernandez, who traveled with her husband, George, from Key West with their cinnamon capuchin, Harley.

As with raising children, the feeling of emotional closeness is what makes all the effort seem worthwhile, or even trivial, said Cheri Johnson of Irving, Texas, whose common marmoset, Jackie, died three weeks ago.

"It's more trouble than a child," she said. "It's 24 hours a day _ and they never grow up. But as much trouble as she was, my life is empty now."

Paul Rosner of Casselberry has lived with Corky, a cinnamon capuchin estimated to be 38 years old, since 1975. Rosner bought him in a pet store in Asbury Park, N.J. He also owns Ringo, a tufted weeper capuchin about 13 years old.

Sure enough, the two monkeys groom each other and sometimes move to protect each other from perceived danger. That is, when Ringo is not catching miniature basketballs and slam-dunking them into a miniature hoop on top of Rosner's replica of an organ grinder's cart.

Rosner is the president of the non-profit Monkey Antics Primates Helping Primates Inc. The group helps monkeys abandoned or neglected by their owners.

But the assistance works the opposite way, too. Humans are primates, Rosner points out. He often takes Ringo and Corky to hospitals and nursing homes, where the animals cheer up humans who are feeling hopeless.

"The non-human primates help the human primates by helping them feel better," he said.

Some who attended the picnic do not own monkeys, but have become fascinated by them. Kathleen Wooddell and her daughter Rhea Drysdale, 15, of Jacksonville, attended because Rhea is studying primates. She is working on her second science project about primate behavior.

Wooddell said she started off driving her daughter around, but now the language arts teacher is hooked.

"It's put me into sort of a career crisis," she said. "Now I'm sitting here wanting to go into primate communications studies or something."