Suncoast Primate Sanctuary (Chimp Farm)
Tarpon Springs, Florida
This report dates from the 1990s; Mae Noell has since passed away and the Chimp Farm is now the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary.
Mae Noell's Chimp Farm is a resilient gulf coast retirement home for gorillas, orangutans and chimps. The crotchety ill-tempered ones, who would tear your arm off and use it to beat you to death? Well, maybe . . . but there's no chance of that happening in this well-fortified sanctuary. The Chimp Farm is small, several of aisles of tall cages, each a residence for a primate or two.
Mae, now 84, used to complain that the Farm was under attack by "evil people" and "do-gooder" animal activists who wanted to take her chimps away and shut her down. "I think the whole damn thing is a conspiracy," she said. "They're trying to make criminals out of us."
"In '93 they almost got me. The Federal Government told me that I had to get the zoo up to 'specifications.' You wouldn't believe all the nitpicking! And here we were, just two women keeping things together." So Mae did her own inspection. "I said, 'We're going to fix every thing that they can possibly find!' And they STILL tried to keep me closed!" Happily, the Chimp Farm had friends in town and was rescued. "This community came, a hundred people strong, and volunteered to do all the work." Volunteers still help to this day.
Mae seems to have turned the tables on the activists -- now she gets out to the schools and community to preach the humane care of these forgotten animals. It's a stark contrast to the early days, when Mae and her late husband Bob ran "Noell's Ark," the ultimate traveling animal act. For 31 years, they followed the show circuit, staging performances with their "athletic apes" in small towns throughout the Southeast. Their chimps would box or wrestle (and inevitably pummel) anyone who would get in the cage and fight them. It was a terrific show, but that was 25 years ago when you could still have guiltless fun with an ape.
Many of the original pugilists have passed on, but some here are more than a half century old. The three eldest chimps -- Johnny (53), Sheila (51), and Kongo(50), lurk in the murky rear of their cages during our visit. Kongo steps forward, and entertains by sticking out his tongue every few seconds.
A warning sign reads: "Caution: Dung Throwers Ahead," while the chimps in the cages next to the restrooms have the disturbing habit of spitting water at passersby. Mae defends their antics like a doting mother defending her children. "Chimps only repeat what they've seen people do," she scowls.
You can show your support for the continued care of the animals by purchasing a T-shirt, or one of the chimp's paintings (which are grubby but authentic chimp art).
January 2002: Tarpon Springs Chimp Farm is now the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary. According to volunteer Jim Caldwell: "The first of the new buildings is nearly complete and eight chimps have been relocated to the new quarters. The new building will eventually house all the chimps which will eventually have an outside play area for the chimps. We hope to reopen to the public within the next few months. Fundraising plans are still going on -- the ultimate plan calls for a complete sanctuary and education center for veterinary students who wish to work with exotic animals."