By Dr. Becker
At the Center for Great Apes in Florida, its founder Patti Ragan has dedicated her life to providing a home for chimpanzees and orangutans in need. Some have spent years in research facilities. Others traveled in circuses or lived in roadside zoos, while others were kept as pets — until their owners realized great apes are meant to live in the wild, not in human houses. Bubbles, a chimpanzee formerly owned by Michael Jackson, even lives there.
Unfortunately for the nearly 50 great apes living in the sanctuary, their life circumstances are such that returning to the wild would put their health and safety at risk. They wouldn’t know how to survive, and other apes would not welcome them into their societies.
Fortunately, living at the Center for Great Apes is the next best thing. Described as part rehabilitation facility and part nursing home,1 apes in Ragan’s care are able to live out the rest of their years in peace and tranquility, with plenty of wild ape companions to keep them company.
Specialized Habitats Give the Rescued Apes Room to Roam
The Center for Great Apes sits on about 120 acres of tropical forest. Twelve outdoor living areas were built to house the animals; each is three stories high with room for running, climbing and swimming. An innovated elevated tunnel system allows the apes to meander between the enclosures. The tunnel system spans more than 1.5 miles, so the apes can see new environments and mingle with each other.2
There are also night houses attached to the enclosures, which give the apes a place to sleep indoors or retreat to in extreme temperatures or storms. Special enclosures also exist for geriatric and special needs apes, complete with rubber flooring to cushion against injury.
One chimpanzee, Knuckles, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. He receives special physical therapy and a specially chosen docile chimp as a roommate. In most other situations, Knuckles would have been euthanized since he can’t defend himself — likewise with another resident, Allie the orangutan. Allie is unable to use her legs or feet due to chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) and also receives physical therapy.
Allowing Apes to Live as Apes
Perhaps most important of all, the sanctuary offers the animals a chance to live undisturbed in as close to as natural an environment as possible. No orangutans or chimpanzees are bred at the facility, which is funded entirely by donations from private donors as well as grants from animal welfare foundations.
Except in the case of the special needs animals, the caregivers do not enter the enclosures with the apes, and only limited visitors are allowed. As The Christian Science Monitor reported:3
“The sanctuary, she [Ragan] makes clear, is neither a zoo nor a research facility. The rules are strict: no breeding of apes, no buying or selling of apes. No research is allowed except what is learned from nonintrusive observation of their behaviors. And no visitors are permitted except by special arrangement, such as school groups.
Instead of being forced to act like and perform for humans, the residents here finally live as apes. While people at the center provide care (about 26 staff members and more than 50 volunteers), they stay in the background; workers don’t enter a habitat when an ape is present. For the first time for many of these orangutans and chimpanzees, their main social contacts are with their own species.”
Why Great Apes Shouldn’t Be Kept as Pets
Sadly, both chimpanzees and orangutans are endangered species, with only 170,000 and 41,000 estimated to be left in the wild, respectively. Among Sumatran orangutans, only an estimated 7,500 exist in the wild, making them critically endangered.4 Meanwhile, there are thought to be more than 700 chimpanzees currently living as pets in the U.S.5
These animals are intelligent, inquisitive and adorable, which is why they’re often used in the entertainment industry and traded as pets, at least when they’re young. But in the wild, chimpanzees and orangutans nurse for up to six years and stay with their mothers until they’re up to 9 years old. When taken from their mothers as infants, they suffer emotionally and do not learn the skills and behaviors they need to survive in the wild.
After being taken from their mothers within just weeks or months of birth, chimpanzees and orangutans quickly outgrow their human caregivers and, with their incredible strength, become dangerous to be around by the age of 5 or 6. The Center for Great Apes continued:6
“[W]hen these human-like pets grow to be only about 5 or 6 years old (still considered infants and almost juveniles), they become extremely strong and have an intelligent mind of their own. Then, the trouble starts for the family. These hand-raised apes are used to living in a house in the company of their human family and are unhappy being suddenly restricted full-time to a cage, or worse, sent to a breeding compound or roadside zoo.
To make matters worse, ex-pet great apes have the most trouble interacting with their own species when they've been raised alone in a home because they have not learned the necessary behaviors and protocols to interact with their own species.”
Animals once raised as pets, or used in Hollywood films, may be sent to research facilities or roadside zoos to be used as breeders. To end this sad and inhumane cycle, please do not consider chimpanzees or orangutans as pets, and don’t support industries that use them as entertainment. If you’re interested in learning more about these magnificent creatures, head over to the Center for Great Apes Meet the Apes page.
There you can read a detailed profile on each chimpanzee and orangutan at the center, including their history, favorite foods and toys and best friends. What you’ll quickly learn is that each animal has their own personality, likes and dislikes, and deserves to be treated with respect and care, which is what they’re finally receiving at the center.