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Finding a Place of Sanctuary

The Center for Great Apes’ mission is to provide a permanent sanctuary in a safe and enriching environment for orangutans and chimpanzees in need of lifetime care. The Center for Great Apes’ mission is to provide a permanent sanctuary in a safe and enriching environment for orangutans and chimpanzees in need of lifetime care.

You’ve seen them in movies, television shows, on the side of the road, even in soap operas and Super Bowl commercials.

They work for us, feed us, entertain us, and die for us. And they do it all for free. They have no unions, no minimum wage requirements, virtually no legal rights.

We rarely hear about them, except when they are being shot or otherwise punished for something they’ve done.

One of the most famous of them, Clyde, co-starred with Clint Eastwood in the movie Every Which Way But Loose.

They are our closest living relatives, with whom we share 98% of our genetics and much of our cultural and physical heritage.

Who are they?

Primates…animals grouped by scientists in the same evolutionary class with humans, including chimps, apes, orangutans, lemurs, and monkeys.

If you’ve been to a circus, zoo, or a Las Vegas animal show, you’ve probably seen primates live and in person.

Throughout human history, primates have been hunted, eaten, captured and exploited.

They’ve been dressed as human babies, as hookers and in other ludicrous costumes, made to parade, jump, twist and dance for laughing crowds at roadside zoos and circuses.

In animal experimentation laboratories, they’re subjected to what could only be described as torture.

And other than captive animals born and bred for experimentation and exploitation, their numbers are dwindling worldwide as native habitat in Indonesia and Africa is decimated by human population growth, mining and logging.

Even worse, they are viewed as food by some people who hunt them as “bushmeat,” killing nearly 10,000 animals per year, or more.

And even though international sanctions are in place, these animals are still captured or bred for use in the entertainment industry, research labs and as pets.

According to Patti Ragan, the courageous and pioneering director of Florida’s Center for Great Apes, the animals are subjected to unfathomable suffering.

Many of them are separated from their mothers at birth, put in small cages that are like prison cells, isolated from the wilderness and maternal nurturing that literally teaches them how to be a primate.

What happens to them in animal experimentation laboratories is almost unspeakable, bordering on psychopathological, deliberately-inflicted pain.

Because primates share with us the ability to feel emotion, family bonding, loss, despair, and loneliness, inhumane treatment and surroundings create psychic wounds that are as real and intense as what any human would feel under similar circumstances.

Or even more intense…because unlike humans, primates do not have the ability to fully and rationally understand the reasons behind their captivity and ill treatment.

Many of them are babies or toddlers who are kidnapped, never socialized or taught who they are, never allowed to share in the joys of gathering amongst others of their kind. They are prisoners, property, and worse.

Ragan tells of female ape moms who die of heartbreak when their children are taken from them. And as a primate rehabilitator and sanctuary director, Ragan has seen the horrific psychological effects these animals endure.

They become locked into a psychology they cannot understand or remediate on their own. They become too large and too strong to be held in captivity by their exploiters, and are often put to death unless a facility like Ragan’s Center for Great Apes adopts them.

Ragan is an articulate and dedicated woman who lives, eats and breathes primate rehabilitation. She spends 95% of her time at her Central Florida sanctuary, where her staff and volunteers care for dozens of animals rescued from roadside zoos, basements, dungeons, research laboratories, and entertainment industry facilities.

“It started decades ago when I volunteered to help Earthwatch protect native animals in Borneo,” Ragan says, explaining that Borneo and all other countries that provide native habitat for non-human primates are seeing massive ecological destruction and other practices that threaten the very existence of primates in the wild.

After Ragan returned to her home in Florida, a South Florida animal entertainment and tourism facility named Parrot Jungle asked her to care for an infant orangutan named Pongo. Soon after, she encountered a chimp named Grub.

Ragan tried to find quality zoos or sanctuaries to take the animals, but couldn’t, so from 1993 to 1997 she dedicated her life to finding land and infrastructure for her own animal sanctuary.

Today, the Center for Great Apes is America’s largest orangutan sanctuary, visited by Jane Goodall, and heralded as a grand example of how to care for non-human primates with compassion, professionalism, and love.

The animals have thousands of feet of elevated walkways and geodesic living enclosures. They also enjoy the fact that Ragan’s 120-acre sanctuary is situated in a particularly verdant and undeveloped part of old Florida that has yet to be paved over for condominiums, strip malls and tourist hotels as much of Florida has been.

All of this costs money, but Ragan does not run her facility as a zoo or tourist attraction, so she relies on tax-deductible donations to meet the Center’s huge operating budget.

It costs a lot to provide veterinary care, appropriate food, and humane exercise, rest and play areas for animals whom in the wild would have huge areas of wilderness as their home.

Ragan is assisted by a growing number of volunteers and professional staff, and she counts on donations so she can continue to provide what animal experts describe as among the elite few of quality animal sanctuaries in the world.

Of special interest to Rosebud fans is that the Center for Great Apes has its own unique gardens that provide exotic food appropriate for its primate guests.

Ironically, Ragan’s Center got an unexpected jolt of media attention when pop star Michael Jackson died last year. That’s because Jackson’s former pet chimp Bubbles, a 27-year old, 165-pounder who used to hang out with Elizabeth Taylor, Jackson and other stars, became a resident of Ragan’s sanctuary five years ago.

Ragan didn’t exploit the media attention by opening her sanctuary to the public or the many international television crews who wanted to visit. But she welcomes the interest and support of anyone who cares about the welfare of animals who are so obviously our closest non-human relatives on earth.

“We’ve chosen to focus on providing sanctuary and rehabilitation,” Ragan explains, “but we’re just part of a worldwide group of people, foundations, sanctuaries and others who are truly worried that these animals could one day become almost completely extinct in the wild. We also want to absolutely end practices that put these animals into unnatural environments where they’re subjected to physical and psychological harm.”

For more information on the Center for Great Apes and what you can do to protect non-human primates, visit http://www.centerforgreatapes.org/

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Last modified on Wednesday, 03 August 2011 23:30

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