A Little Monkey Business in Central Florida

About 15 years ago when I worked for WGCU Public Media, I attended a public broadcasting meeting near Wauchula, in central Florida. There I met Patrick Harris from WLRN in Miami. He offered to take a group of us to visit a nearby animal sanctuary called The Center for Great Apes, where he was, and still is volunteering and a board member. He gave us a personal tour and introduced us to its founder, Patti Ragan.
 
Patrick explained to us how Patti had created a non-profit dedicated to serving Chimpanzees and Orangutans from a single rescue of a chimpanzee she was fostering while living in Miami to purchasing 100 acres in the middle of nowhere in central Florida after her passion to help these apes outgrew their living space. They are the only accredited sanctuary for Orangutans in the US. The residents of the Center came from lab experiments, former circus animal acts, and private owners who could no longer care for them. They now have approximately 71 resident Chimps and Orangutans. These apes can live well into their mid 60s, and the majority of them are between 25-60 years of age. Each animal has a heartbreaking but interesting story about how they arrived at the sanctuary.
 
The non-profit Center is not open to the public, but they have two open houses for members and their guests twice a year as well as special tours for small groups.Since Covid had struck Florida, the sanctuary had been closed and when we received an email that they were having members day for the first time in two years, we quickly got our reserved tickets.
 
On the Saturday morning of the event we made the 2 ½ hour drive up to Wauchula past miles of citrus groves and cattle ranches to reach the sanctuary. The large forested area stood out from the farmland around it.

We parked our car outside the entrance and joined the crowd of people waiting to be checked in. As we approached the main sanctuary grounds, we walked past a gift shop as well as a silent auction featuring artwork created by its residents.

An unusual silent auction prize was this windshield protector-last bid was well over $200!

As we approached the main area, overhead in the trees were what seemed like miles of enclosed walkways.

These walkways allowed the apes to move freely between their night houses and their large airy enclosures

where they spend their days. Our first encounter was with a female Orangutan named Pumpkin. We listened to her caregiver talk about her history and then moved on to visit the other apes.
 
Their most famous resident is Bubbles, a male Chimp once owned by Michael Jackson who shares a cage with 8 other Chimps.We were warned to stay far back as he likes to take advantage of an audience by swallowing a large amount of water and spitting at his audience—and spit he did! One man got too close and got sprayed!

We then moved on to the cage where their newest arrival, a newborn Orangutan named Cahaya lived with her mother, Sunshine and two other Orangs. She was an unexpected baby, born in February, 2020. Now she is one of their poster children and she is cute!

Sunshine and Cahaya

We walked the grounds and visited the cemetery where their residents spend their final days.
 

the ape cemetery
We then headed over to a large brand new enclosure that was built during the pandemic to see the seven–7 Chimpanzees recently rescued from a research lab in Alabama that were kept together in their own enclosure. One of them got into a discussion with someone who had done him wrong and a loud chorus of screeches and sounds erupted throughout the sanctuary.
 
We saw several more of the Orangutans and again met Patti, the founder while we took a rest break with water and cookies donated for the event. As it was past our lunchtime, we asked Patti where she would go for lunch as there were not many places nearby. She recommended Giovanni’s Main Street Kitchen in downtown Wauchula. Their food was excellent and their prices were very reasonable.

After lunch we drove home through two major rainstorms that washed off the accumulated lovebugs that had stuck to the front of my car. It was another excellent adventure!

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