For three weeks in 1984, Patti Ragan traipsed through the rainforests of Borneo, collecting ape feces, drying it out in the sun and poking through it for the seeds that helped researchers identify what the apes were eating in the wild.
That short volunteer trip opened Patti’s eyes to the needs of the great apes and forever changed the direction of her life.
“As soon as I got off the boat, a 7-year-old orangutan looked in my eyes, took my hand and led me down a path,” Patti says. “Once you really know them, how can you not help them?”
Initially, she envisioned fundraising. But it evolved into much more.
Early the next year, Patti returned to Borneo. She spent several months coordinating logistics for a research project and working on rehabilitation. Her duties included tracking wild orangutans for three days at a time to observe their behaviors for a long-term study, and providing foster care for infants being rehabilitated for a return to their forest homes.
But that was just the start.
“It is such an emotional connection,” Patti says. “When you really look into their eyes, you see friends, the world. You see hurt, laughter, a sense of love. How can you not be committed to them?”
In 1990, Patti was asked to help care for an orphaned 4-week-old orangutan at a small bird park in Miami. She thought Pongo eventually would live with other orangutans at an accredited zoo.
The owner had other intentions. Pongo was destined for circus work.
Pongo’s serious illness derailed those plans, and Patti was left to find an appropriate home for her young charge.
“I couldn’t find a zoo,” she says, noting zoos were not interested in a Bornean/Sumatran mix that had been hand raised. “I looked for a sanctuary, but realized there were no sanctuaries for orangutans.”
While at the bird park tending to Pongo, then 1 year old—and still trying to find a permanent home for him—Patti was asked to care for an infant chimpanzee, Grub.
She was horrified to learn Grub would be sold for work at a theme park when he turned 18 months old.
That led Patti to establish a nonprofit organization in 1993 dedicated to the care of rescued or retired orangutans and chimpanzees. Four years later, Patti moved the five apes at the Center for Great Apes from Miami to 15 acres of wooded habitat in Wauchula, a small rural community in central Florida.
The sanctuary has grown to 120 acres, and is home to 15 orangutans and 30 chimpanzees who roam the tropical forest setting through a series of elevated tunnels. They live and play in one of 16 three-story-high domed enclosures that provide plenty of room to run, climb and swing on the vines.
“We have grown more than I expected to, but probably not as much as we need to,” Patti says, noting 1,000 chimps are still being used in research, and the entertainment industry continues to use young chimps and orangutans.
People also try to make pets of them.
“When they are tiny babies, everybody loves them,” Patti says. “By 7 to 9 years of age, they can’t be trusted around actors, and they are out of the business. They are too strong and unmanageable.”
Apes used in the entertainment industry or sold as pets are ripped away from their mothers when just weeks or months old. In the wild, they nurse for 4 to 6 years and learn to interact with each other.
“Since chimpanzees can live in captivity for more than 60 years, where do they go after their career is over?” Patti asks.
For decades, she says, they have ended up as subjects in biomedical research, in deplorable and shabby roadside zoos, in tiny backyard cages or in breeder compounds where their babies are pulled from them to repeat the process.
More ex-entertainment apes are finding their way into legitimate sanctuaries, where they can live with their own species. But the few great ape sanctuaries in North America are all at or over capacity.
“People do not recognize how intelligent and loving these animals are,” Patti says. “They know everything going on around them. They know their names. They know each others’ names, and the names of the staff. They are so aware.”
Each of the animals at the Center for Great Apes—which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year—has a unique story.
Clyde, a 46-year-old chimp, spent 45 years living in a small cage as a pet.
Knuckles, a 13-year-old chimp, arrived from an entertainment compound. He has cerebral palsy.
Mari, a 31-year-old orangutan, was born at a research lab. Her mother bit her arms off at 12 weeks old.
Bubbles, a 30-year-old chimp, was born in a biomedical lab and sold to a Hollywood trainer. He gained fame as Michael Jackson’s first pet chimp.
Linus, a 23-year-old orangutan, hadn’t seen daylight in a decade when he arrived. He excitedly stood out in the rain.
“Here is a rainforest animal who hadn’t experienced rain,” Patti says. “He was in such terrible condition. He would draw back. Now, he looks at you with love in his little, deep eyes.”
Helping the apes heal from their scars is not easy, but is rewarding, Patti says.
“When they are raised by humans and think they are humans, there are all sorts of issues putting them together,” Patti says. “It can take a long time, but for the first time in their lives, they are able to live with their own species. They all have turnarounds. You can change lives.
“I started this so they could just be orangutans or chimpanzees. It is a place to retire to … to come out of a place where they had no future, to a place where they can live with dignity for the rest of their lives. We just let them be.
“My goal is to be out of business at some point—for laws to be passed so people won’t exploit them.”
It costs $1 million a year for animal care at the center. All support comes from individual memberships, private donations and grants from animal welfare foundations. Contributions to the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization are tax deductible. To support the center, send contributions to P.O. Box 488, Wauchula, FL 33873, or give online at www.centerforgreatapes.org.