SUNCOAST PRIMATE SANCTUARY // The home stretch for haven?

Published Dec. 9, 2002|Updated June 20, 2006

Cheetah the aging chimpanzee savored his midday snack of grapefruit like a child munching a handful of candy. Later, a handsome 550-pound gorilla named Otto daintily sucked on a Tang slushy.

For them, this might be the highlight of their day.

Cheetah and Otto are some of the menagerie of animals at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, which is the new and improved version of the storied Noell's Ark Chimp Farm on Alt. U.S. 19.

The decades-old roadside attraction was closed to the public about four years ago after state and federal officials found that it kept animals in undersized and outdated cages.

Since then, volunteers have worked to reopen the facility as a nonprofit sanctuary that complies with government regulations. They have come a long way, volunteers say, especially since they have had to beg and scrimp for just about everything.

Now they are appealing for more help from the public.

"The bottom line is, we are too close to not be successful," said Donna Stiteler, a volunteer at the sanctuary. "We are at the home stretch and we need the push and the help from the community."

The sanctuary estimates that it needs about $250,000 to complete its 19,000-square-foot Great Ape Habitat, which has bigger and cleaner enclosures than the old cages. The habitat is halfway completed and was built with donated services.

"We keep stressing that donations and volunteers run this place," said Debbie Cobb, the main caretaker of the animals and the granddaughter of the Chimp Farm's founders, Bob and Mae Noell.

The sanctuary also is running out of time.

The state has given it until next summer to reopen for public viewing. If the sanctuary misses that deadline, it could be forced to give up its larger animals _ such as the chimps, monkeys and a gorilla _ and transfer them to other facilities.

That's because the sanctuary is required by Florida law to exhibit the animals publicly during regular business hours in order to keep its state wildlife license. State law allows only licensed exhibitors and wildlife dealers to own big exotic animals. That's because officials don't want people to try to keep animals like lions, tigers and elephants as pets.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission granted conditional approval for the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary's state license this summer and is giving the facility a year to comply.

"They just need to wake up and smell the coffee and get themselves right," said Maj. Kyle Hill, who is with the conservation commission's division of law enforcement.

But before the sanctuary can open to the public, it also needs to meet federal standards and get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1999, the USDA revoked the Chimp Farm's federal license and prohibited the facility from showing the animals publicly.

Federal officials charged the Chimp Farm with using cages that were rusty, small, dirty and had jagged edges; keeping incomplete records about the animals; improperly storing food and bedding; and housing animals in uncomfortable conditions.

Supporters say they are doing what they can with meager resources and they hope that the public understands that the facility is no longer a tacky roadside attraction.

"We really hope that people understand we are a sanctuary now," Stiteler said. "What we are doing is God's work."

Not everyone believes that the facility can change.

The Chimp Farm was castigated by an animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The facility "was easily one of the worst roadside zoos in the country when it was in operation," said Amy Rhodes, a PETA animals-in-entertainment specialist in Norfolk, Va.

"They have a long and sordid history of neglecting animals," Rhodes said. "I cannot believe that all of a sudden they have decided to turn things around when all these years they have just been in it for profit."

The Noells founded the Chimp Farm in 1954 as a winter home for their traveling ape show. After they retired, they developed a reputation for taking in abandoned, old and sick animals, mostly apes and monkeys.

But the facility could not keep up with changing government regulations. In 1997, new rules required larger cages for the animals and gave everyone in the state three years to comply, Hill said.

The Chimp Farm was the last exhibit in Florida to comply with the new rules, Hill said. But since the facility had been around for so long, the state was willing to cut them some slack.

"We kept looking for a good-faith effort to change their cages," Hill said. "It was just a long, drawn-out process to get them to the new standards."

The new Great Ape Habitat that the sanctuary is working to finish does exceed state regulations, Hill said. "They have a really nice facility now."

In the sanctuary's office are glossy pictures showing a spacious, lush habitat for the monkeys and chimps, complete with covered brick walkways. That's the goal. But near those drawings is a plastic water jug marked "Donations." It's barely filled with coins.

"The only thing holding this project up is because we have had to nickel-and-dime everything," Cobb, the caretaker, said.

The first phase of the improvements is the ape habitat. The sanctuary also plans to build large, moated islands on its 6.4-acre property. The islands would be designed to mimic the animals' native environment and give them room to run, climb and swing.

It would cost at least $150,000 to build the islands, Cobb said.

While the sanctuary is short on money, it does have plenty of passion. Cobb becomes emotional when she talks about the animals and not giving up.

"I feel that God has placed me here to do this," said Cobb, 43. "And the community needs this because who else will do it. I can't imagine running out on them."

When Cobb walks by the cages, some of the animals, such as Rosie, a chimpanzee in her 30s, start clapping and making sounds to get Cobb's attention. When Rosie seemed a little upset that Cobb couldn't spend more time by her cage, the chimpanzee became even more animated.

"I hear you," Cobb said, trying to soothe Rosie. "I'll be back. I promise."

Like many of the animals, Rosie has a story of neglect. The animal's previous caretaker was bulimic so Rosie inherited some of those characteristics, Cobb said. Another monkey was addicted to Valium because its caretaker gave it the drug to calm it down.

Some of the animals are famous.

Cheetah, for example, is said to be a former star from the old Tarzan movies. The animal, which has a graying muzzle, ended up in a research lab after Hollywood replaced it with another chimpanzee. Otto, the hulking gorilla, appeared in American Tourister advertisements in the back of 1996 road atlases.

The facility has more than 60 animals, including alligators, iguanas, goats, 25 chimpanzees, 27 monkeys, one gorilla and three orangutans.

Throughout the day, the animals listen to music _ nature sounds and Christian songs _ and sometimes watch television. Most seem to like cartoons. Otto doesn't care for football games.

"I know Scooby Doo is one of their favorite (cartoons)," Cobb said. "I don't know why."

Cobb also boasts that the facility celebrates the birthdays of the animals and gives them presents.

"These guys have been garbaged up by humans," Cobb said. "They don't understand that everybody in life, whether big or small, needs a special day."

The sanctuary plans to apply for grants and corporate sponsorships, and sponsors special events such as Chimpfest 2002, a fundraiser held Saturday featuring local bands. The facility also is looking for volunteer laborers and donated equipment and supplies, such as towels, blankets, plywood and buckets.

With half of the Great Ape Habitat completed, the facility thought it was time for a second push for help so it can reapply for its federal license.

"We wanted to get far enough along so we could let people know we meant business," Stiteler said. "This has been all grass roots. Our No. 1 goal is to give these primates the quality of life that they deserve."

When a volunteer started talking about how the facility did not have any money, Cobb was reassuring.

"That's okay," she said. "We made it this far."

_ Ed Quioco can be reached at 445-4185 or

To learn more

For information on the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, check online at www.suncoast

or call 943-5897. The facility is at 4612 Alt. U.S. 19, Palm Harbor, FL 34683.