Showbiz apes find peace through paint­ing in Florida re­tire­ment

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES -

One of them worked along­side Clint East­wood, oth­ers acted in the re­make of sci-fi clas­sic Planet of the Apes, while yet another was the dar­ling favourite of Michael Jack­son.

They are the 53 chim­panzees and orang­utans who live in a unique sanc­tu­ary in cen­tral Florida.

All of these great apes were raised by hu­mans and lack the ba­sic sur­vival skills to ever live in the wild. They do not know how to gather food, and the moth­ers would be in­ca­pable of car­ing for their off­spring.

For that rea­son, they had no other place to go when Hol­ly­wood or sci­en­tific re­search labs had no more use for them, or when they grew too big and pow­er­ful for their celebrity own­ers to con­tinue car­ing for them. The lucky ones make the fi­nal jour­ney to this oa­sis, of­fi­cially known as the Cen­ter for Great Apes (CGA) in Florida, in the south­east­ern US.

It is the only ac­cred­ited orang­utan sanc­tu­ary in the west­ern hemi­sphere and one of only nine chimp sanc­tu­ar­ies in North Amer­ica.

One of the more re­cent ar­rivals is 33 year old orang­utan San­dra, who joined CGA last Novem­ber, af­ter a court in Ar­gentina de­clared her a "non-hu­man per­son" with the right to lib­erty from a Buenos Aires zoo where she had been kept. Af­ter that his­toric le­gal find­ing, she was sent here to get over her de­pres­sion.

Now she is the spoiled girl of Florida's most ex­clu­sive re­tire­ment com­mu­nity. "She plays a lot. She's do­ing re­ally well," said Patti Ra­gan, who founded the cen­tre.

"She is meet­ing sev­eral orang­utans right now. The one that I think she's most in­ter­ested in is a male named Jethro," she said. "Pretty soon we're go­ing to open the door so they can be in the same space. So we hope that goes well."

Another res­i­dent is Popi, a 48 year old orang­utan who was eight when she played the girl­friend of Clint East­wood's simian side­kick in the movie Ev­ery Which Way but Loose and then again in the se­quel Any Which Way You Can.

She wounded up act­ing in Las Ve­gas un­til hid­den cam­era footage showed she was be­ing mis­treated by her trainer.

Then there are the 23 year old twin chim­panzees Ja­cob and Jonah, who ap­peared in the 2001 Tim Burton movie Planet of the Apes, as well as Bub­bles, once the adored baby chimp of Michael Jack­son and now a hulk­ing 37 year old, the al­pha male in his group.

Fur­ther­more, there is Tango, an orang­utan who for years served as the face of the or­ange bev­er­age Tang.

"We have a lot of for­mer en­ter­tain­ment great apes here," Patti told AFP.

Not all of them are for­mer Hol­ly­wood stars. Oth­ers were in cir­cuses, re­search lab­o­ra­to­ries or were sold as ex­otic pets when they were still ba­bies. Some wound up liv­ing in cramped cages or garages be­cause they be­came more dif­fi­cult to con­trol when they grew up.

Ape art

The CGA is lo­cated on 98 acres of wooded land near Wauchula, sur­rounded by cen­tral Florida's or­ange groves. The en­trance to the sanc­tu­ary does not call at­ten­tion to it­self, with well-trod­den dirt tracks snaking be­tween the trees and con­nected by raised cor­ri­dors along which the apes can move about. In the clear­ings are the en­clo­sures, like gi­ant bird cages, full of plants, toys and things for the apes to climb on.

It is one of the few places in Florida to have been opened in se­crecy, rather than with the usual fan­fare of theme parks and tourist at­trac­tions. It is nei­ther a zoo nor a park, does not ac­cept vis­i­tors and does not pro­mote it­self. Only donors can visit, and then only by in­vi­ta­tion, and just a cou­ple of times each year to get to know the apes. Even then, they are banned from post­ing pic­tures on so­cial me­dia. "There, the apes' well-be­ing is pri­or­ity," said Patti.

As a re­sult, very few peo­ple even know the place ex­ists, said Jeff Thomas, 76, who to­gether with his wife Ter­rie were among a group of donors vis­it­ing the cen­tre dur­ing a re­cent auc­tion of "ape art".

On ta­bles ar­ranged among the trees, the or­gan­is­ers had dis­played paint­ings cre­ated by the chimps and orang­utans, ab­stract and vi­brant with colour. On a pa­per to one side, the vis­i­tors write down their bids for the art­work.

"I'm very proud to know that this is a won­der­ful place for them," said Ter­rie Thomas, 60, her voice trembling slightly. "It makes me re­ally emo­tional to talk about it be­cause I re­ally, truly love these an­i­mals. I think they're amaz­ing."

The de­scrip­tion of one paint­ing by Ja­cob ex­plains that the chimp "es­pe­cially en­joys paint­ing, and he usu­ally likes to taste each bright colour be­fore he puts it on his can­vas."

Sup­port­ing each an­i­mal costs around US$23,000 per year, and to­gether with other run­ning costs, the sanc­tu­ary needs US$1.8mn ev­ery year. It is fi­nanced solely by vol­un­tary do­na­tions.

The foun­da­tion sprang up al­most by chance. Patti was liv­ing in Mi­ami and do­ing vol­un­teer work at the city zoo when she was asked to look af­ter a baby orang­utan, due to ex­pe­ri­ence she had gained in Bor­neo.

A year later, a baby chimp was added to her care, and in 1993, Patti reg­is­tered her sanc­tu­ary as a not-for­profit or­gan­i­sa­tion.

The baby orang­utan she was orig­i­nally asked to look af­ter is still with her, named Pongo, and now 29 years old.

This Novem­ber 6, 2019, hand­out photo cour­tesy of the Cen­ter for Great Apes shows the orang­utan San­dra at her new home in Wauchula, Florida

the Cen­ter for s that live in chim­panzee and De­cem­ber 14, 2019 orang­utans by the event on ‘ape art’ cre­ated fundrais­ing in a Some of the auc­tion shop and silent sold in a gift Great Apes

(AFP pho­tos)

Bub­bles, who once was the favourite pet chim­panzee of Michael Jack­son, in his habi­tat at the Cen­ter for Great Apes

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