Giovanni Sferrazza, 2, offers some food to Buddy the monkey during a recent visit to the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary March 8. Buddy’s age is estimated to be between his late 40s to early 50s, the equivalent of an 80-year-old human, sanctuary outreach coordinator Debbie Cobb said.
PALM HARBOR – The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary – home to more than 70 retired, rescued or abandoned primates – holds an unobtrusive and almost hidden spot off Alt. U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor.
Along a winding path, in dozens of large enclosures, monkeys and lemurs sit in perches, swing and clamor over ropes and bat at colorful baby toys tied to their metal bars of their homes. Some primates are more stoic, including the male orangutan who is a solitary creature by nature, a group of female baboons who have retired from show business and several macaques who spent a lifetime in diabetes research.
“We’re here more for the aging animals,” said outreach coordinator Debbie Cobb, as she led a 50-year-old monkey named Buddy on a leash.
The nonprofit organization that runs the sanctuary maintains an emphasis on education, especially of the endangered species it cares for.
“I believe if you touch it, see it, smell it, you’ll save it,” said Cobb. “In the next 15 to 20 years, there won’t be any more gorillas, orangutans or chimps in the wild.”
The sanctuary is home to 14 chimpanzees, including a 7-year-old male that is the offspring of a pair of longtime residents. Volunteers also care for a blue-eyed spider monkey, several capuchin monkeys, brown and ring-tailed lemurs, three female orangutans, a collection of alligators, a Burmese python, turtles, goats, geese, ducks and several exotic birds.
Cobb said she is a fifth generation animal caregiver. Her grandparents settled in the Palm Harbor area in 1948 and purchased the property along Alt. U.S. 19 in 1952. The sanctuary, only recently a nonprofit, has gone by other names over the years: Monkey Ranch, Noah’s Ark Chimpanzee Farm and Chimp Farm.
Cobb said she stepped up to help care for the facility after her grandmother died in part because she knew so much about primate care and in part because she felt an obligation to provide something valuable to her community.
“I decided that I wasn’t going to wait for everybody else to help. I was going to do the jobs that nobody wanted. And I didn’t know how many jobs there were,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that what I was able to do that the next generation in the area could do.”
Cobb also emphasizes financial and time-consuming responsibility that comes with owning a primate or one of the long-living exotic birds the sanctuary cares for, making sure that potential pet owners know what they’re getting into. Along with necessary licenses and an expensive enclosure, primates can live decades longer than an average pet.
One example of that would be the sanctuary’s most famous resident, Cheetah, the chimpanzee who starred as Tarzan’s companion in the movies and television show of the 1930s. When a volunteer leaked out news of Cheetah’s death in 1984, the sanctuary’s website saw 2.5 million hits from all over the world, Cobb said.
Many raised questions as to the validity of the sanctuary’s claim, arguing that a chimpanzee couldn’t live to age 79 as Cheetah allegedly had.
“It saddened me that here we are evolved in 2012, and no one knew that a chimp could live into their 60s, 70s and 80s,” Cobb said. “They want you to think they’re better off in the wild.”
Cobb argues that the domesticated life, where food, shelter and healthcare are provided in a safe environment results in a longer life for primates.
“There’s always a tradeoff. But the quality of care (decreases) the stress in your life and (increases) the longevity of a happy life,” she said. “People always want to complicate things.”
Recently, Sue Cardwell brought her teenage children Katie and Christopher to the sanctuary. Cardwell, who now lives in the area with her family part time, remembered visiting 30 years ago with her father, back when the property was called Noah’s Ark Chimpanzee Farm. She said she had such fond memories of the place that she wanted her children to experience it as well.
“It looks a lot more organized,” she commented with a laugh.
The personal connections Cobb and the volunteers seek to facilitate is part of the reason for the success of the sanctuary, Cobb said.
“Why are we here for 62 years? I think it’s because we’re doing a lot right,” she said.
Cobb said the sanctuary has always sought to keep prices low. Recently, she’s had success using Groupon.com to help promote the sanctuary’s existence, as well as bringing in people from all over Florida.
“It’s never been about money for this place,” she said. “Do we need money to function? Absolutely. Are you going to turn down a family of four or five people? We want to make it user-friendly for the families.”
The sanctuary has big plans if money suddenly does come in. For the last year, the sanctuary’s board of directors has been working toward the construction of a 10,000-square-foot veterinarian clinic that could serve the sanctuary’s animals as well as be open to privately owned exotic pets. Already, about a dozen medical doctors, dentists, veterinarians and an EMT volunteer their time to care for the primates at the sanctuary who need medical attention.
The clinic would include classrooms to teach veterinarian interns, an ecology library, a lecture hall and gift shop.
“That’s what we’re trying to focus on,” said Deanna Green, a volunteer whose focus is in fundraising. “We have all the plans drawn up. We just need the money.”
The space at the south side of the property, next to new enclosures still under construction, already has been cleared for the clinic.
Organizers also would like to expand the sanctuary. On the other side of the Pinellas Trail, about 21 acres are up for sale.
“We want it to expand the sanctuary because we’re out of room now. We can’t go any farther,” Green said.
The new land could provide space for new enclosures and potentially a park with cabins, she said.
In general, the sanctuary has an annual budget between $80,000 to $100,000 just to care for animals, Cobb said.
“With the economy the way it is, we’ve taken on more hits with bringing on more animals, and so far have we had to turn one away? Because somebody’s come out of the woodwork and stepped up,” she said.
In the past, the sanctuary was supported by private family money, but now relies on donations, Cobb said.
“The endangered species that are in here that are going extinct, I could euthanize them all today and nobody cares. But I have to carry nine licenses to do what I’m doing, with no government money, to educate people on why we should keep them around,” she said.
Aside from funds, the sanctuary is always looking for more volunteers. Currently, about 65 volunteers help keep the sanctuary going. The program works with students looking for Bright Future volunteer hours and with those who need court-ordered community service.
Cobb said she knows the sanctuary has the potential to remain sustainable and knows it’s important to keep its educational mission going. Besides, she lives for the moment when the face of a visitor lights up upon meeting a primate for the first time and making a personal connection.
“If I can offer that to one kid in my lifetime, before I leave this earth, then I know I’ve done my job,” Cobb said.
“A normal life is boring to me,” she adds.
The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary is open Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is a $10 donation for adults or $5 for children ages 3 to 10. Visitors are allowed to feed the animals, and more interactive opportunities are available on weekends.
An annual family membership, which includes admittance to the Sanctuary seven days a week among other benefits, is $150.
The Sanctuary is at 4600 Alt. U.S. 19, also called Palm Harbor Boulevard.