By Saundra Amrhein
Their days were once lived out before Hollywood cameras and in circus acts, some with brief flashes of fame followed by years locked in cages.
Today their surroundings in a forest of oak, pine, willow and sweet gum trees are so peaceful and tranquil that the arrival of several hundred human visitors sets them stirring, anxious with anticipation.
At the sounds of high-pitched screeches, the visitors jump and look up into the branches.
“You’ll hear a lot of that today,” says an amused Patti Ragan, the force behind the Center for Great Apes near Wauchula – the sole orangutan sanctuary in North America and one of only 10 sanctuaries for chimpanzees.
This ape sanctuary in Florida is purposefully located in a remote, serene setting in the heart of Central Florida, on more than 100 acres nestled between miles of citrus groves and farmland. It’s a forest setting that closely resembles the apes’ native habitat – a habitat from which many of them were taken as infants and sold to exotic pet dealers.
On this rare, special day when visitors are welcome, they enter and gaze upward to spot Jam, a 12-year-old orangutan, perched atop his favorite blanket inside a 5,400-foot wire skyway that snakes more than mile through the treetops. One of the first of almost four dozen ape residents here the visitors will see, Jam, with fluffy auburn hair, calmly stares down at these two-legged guests, matching their curiosity.
“Joey, which one is this?” one of the visitors whispers to another. After a few minutes watching guests take his picture, Jam – born into a Hollywood entertainment compound and now a mischievous and playful adolescent who loves to take leaps and swing on vines, poking caregivers to entice them into a game of tag – slides away through the sky chute behind his orangutan friend Kiki, and disappears.
The Center for Great Apes is a testament to Ragan’s unflagging determination – and the work of a team of supporters, staff and volunteers that grows every year. On this membership day in March 2013 that has drawn 500 visitors, Ragan explains the origins of the 20-year-old nonprofit – traced back to the day when she volunteered to care for a 4-week-old old infant orangutan for a Miami tourist attraction. The arrangement was supposed to be temporary – until Ragan learned that Pongo could be sold to a circus trainer.
“I fell in love with him,” Ragan said, refusing then to let Pongo fall victim to a life in the circus.
With most accredited zoos usually unwilling to take hand-raised great apes, Ragan began a journey that led to a tragic education in the large number of chimpanzees and orangutans kept chained or in cages as exotic pets and lab experiments or cast aside by Hollywood after brief stints as entertainers. In need of long-term care, they had no place to go.
Since those early days, the Center has rescued and provided a home to more than 50 great apes from across the country – including the current 45 residents.
To reach them, the visitors slowly make their way down a wooded path covered in pine needles – parents carrying babies, toddlers ahead of parents, seniors using walkers, teenagers with their grandparents. First they pass the displayed paintings and artwork created by these intelligent creatures, many of whom speak to caregivers in sign language. The guests stop before one of 12 domed enclosures, each three stories high and filled with swinging vines, climbing structures, toys and tubs.
Eager to play with these visitors, Jacob and Jonah, two adolescent chimpanzees, climb up the sides of their enclosure and hurl a fistful of dirt at them. The adults duck and laugh, but the surprise upsets a baby, who starts to wail.
“It’s okay,” his mom says trying to sooth her son. “Remember how we were playing in the sand? It’s the same thing.”
When Jacob and Jonah were not much bigger than the baby, the twin brothers were taken from their mother at a drive-through safari park in Oklahoma and sold to a California trainer, placed in movies and advertisements, including the original “Trunk Monkey” commercials. Jonah starred in the 2001 version of Planet of the Apes alongside Mark Wahlberg. By age 8, considered too old and too big for Hollywood to handle, they eventually were brought to the Center. Best friends, they now spend their days playing in their group – Jonah grooming and wrestling with their companions, and Jacob busy building nests and gathering magazines to flip through.
Unique with vibrant personalities, each chimpanzee and orangutan has his or own story – sometimes a mixture of tragedy of lives spent in cages or raised as human children on diets of pizza and beer, with a post-rescue resilience that elicits both tears and anger from the visitors, who are disturbed by the hubris and cruelty inflicted by members of their own species.
Meg Loomis, 66, of Sarasota, wipes tears from her eyes as she and her friend Deb Studebaker, watch a video that includes the story of Linus – a 300-pound orangutan who had been kept in a garage cage for more than a decade. Linus was rescued and arrived in 2006 unable to walk, trembling constantly and with pounds of feces matted to his long mahogany hair.
When he spotted daylight at the ape sanctuary in Florida, Linus ran out of his night house and into his outdoor enclosure, the video explains, showing Linus sitting outside, looking skyward as drops of rain fall upon his enormous face.
“Here’s a rainforest animal that has never seen rain before,” Ragan narrates. “When it rains, he stays out in the rain.”
After the video, Loomis says she has returned twice a year the last four years, once buying membership for her grandchildren as Christmas presents. “It just hits a chord when someone can help an animal this big,” Loomis says.
Linus’ enclosure is several feet away, where caregiver Susan Allen is calling to him to give him a drink of Gatorade to make sure he stays hydrated amid all the excitement. When he appears, gliding through the chute, the visitors gasp.
“Wow, look at those cheek pads,” whispers one woman about Linus’ massive flanges, which are twice the size as those of the sanctuary’s other male orangutans. Tender and shy, and fascinated by fabrics – like the red, blue and purple blankets he’s now dragging with him – Linus, who has slowly bonded with other apes, especially the female Geri, sits down on the other side of the enclosure from Allen.
Allen pours the Gatorade into his lower lip. Seated on the ground, Allen slowly moves a leg and shoe against the mesh enclosure, close enough for Linus to touch but not invading his space or startling him. Gently he reaches a giant finger through the enclosure and tentatively caresses her.
Moved, a watching visitor, with anger in his voice, asks Allen why more state laws don’t prosecute owners who abuse apes and keep them as pets. She explains that as long as owners are providing food and water, many states won’t prosecute them.
Throughout that afternoon, there are lighter moments – as visitors watch Murray the chimpanzee groom Casey; Chipper chasing Natsu in their enclosure; orangutan and chimpanzees alike communicating with staff and caretakers for their healthy snacks of dried fruit, oatmeal and peanut butter. Other visitors rush to see an adult Bubbles, the chimpanzee once owned by Michael Jackson.
On many nights, when things have quieted down at this ape sanctuary in Florida, with most staff members long gone and many of the apes retired to their night houses for the evening, Ragan, who founded this place, will sit outside under the oaks and pine trees. She knows her efforts are only part of the picture. She wanted to provide a place for these great intelligent creatures to heal, thrive and live out their lives in dignity. And through what is natural to them – playing, socializing or roaming through the treetop chutes – they are learning how to do just that.
If you go…
The Center for Great Apes is located near the Central Florida town of Wauchula. Not a public attraction, the Center, which is run on private donations and grants, welcomes guests for visits twice a year with a $50 annual membership fee. Members joining at higher levels can schedule special visits. For more information, call 863.767.8903. Or to learn more about the center and read individual biographies on each orangutan and chimpanzee, visit www.centerforgreatapes.org.