Going Ape

center for great apes

A sanctuary in Central Florida gives chimpanzees and orangutans a better life

They came from cruel and inauspicious conditions. Some were exploited as circus animals. A few “performed” in Hollywood movies. Others were biomedical test subjects. Perhaps the unluckiest of the bunch were kept as pets and confined in cramped cages where they literally did not see the light of day for four decades.

That was then. Now, the 31 chimpanzees and 22 orangutans that live in the Center for Great Apes, a sprawling sanctuary in rural Central Florida, are demonstrably happy. They have free rein of several dozen enclosures, in which they climb ladders and wooden posts, lay on hammocks and frolic on the aerial chutes connecting the various living spaces.

“It’s important that they have choices—of where they want to be, of who they want to be with,” says Patti Ragan, the center’s founder and operator for the past 26 years. “They are in enclosures, but they don’t have to be on exhibit like they do in a zoo.”

center for great apes

When I visited the center earlier this year, Ragan spent several minutes trying to coax its largest orangutan, Harry, out of his indoor quarters. Finally, he bounded out, all energy, and proceeded to put on a show for us—leaping from the connecting chute onto a sturdy fire hose tied to the ceiling, and swinging, Tarzan-style, back and forth across the enclosure.

“We’ve had Harry two years,” Ragan said. “He was residing as a tourist attraction. Isn’t he magnificent?”

Ragan lives on the property too, and she’s a walking encyclopedia of her fellow-residents. She knows all of their ages and their backstories, which are often heartbreaking—like Mari, a research orangutan from Georgia who lost both her arms as an infant, but who now thrives, at 39, without them. Another orangutan, Allie, lost the use of her legs to disease; she gets around just fine too and, according to her official bio, “enjoys watching ‘Sesame Street’ videos and adores playing with water and bubble baths.”

center for great apes

Some of the center’s great apes know how to paint, make masks for visitors—including, most famously, Jane Goodall, who wore hers during her tour of the facility—and speak American Sign Language. One chimp, Noelle, acknowledged my wife’s lipstick.

The center is even home to a couple of bona fide celebrities: Sandra, who, in a landmark 2015 legal case, became the first orangutan to attain personhood status; and Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s pet chimpanzee from Neverland Ranch.

Ragan, whose affection for these animals dates to 1984, when she volunteered on a rehab project for wild orangutans in Borneo, never expected her venture to expand to its current size. “This wasn’t my vision,” she says. “My vision was 5 acres, and not more than 10 apes.”

Today, the Center for Great Apes is a $1.8 million annual business, as each ape requires $22,000 in care each year. Since the center is not open as a tourist attraction, part of Ragan’s job is fundraising. She still adopts new wards, which has required further growth of the property, to accommodate 10 chimps currently waiting for homes following the bankruptcy of a sanctuary in California. When this expansion is completed, she’ll be seeking donations to build an education center.

While meeting these financial goals is always a challenge, Ragan enjoys her life, and her love for the apes is infectious. “I feel privileged,” she says. “It definitely is a joy to be around these animals, because they’re so intelligent and so deserving, and they’ve had such rough lives. … We would love them to be in the wild, but when they can’t be, we want to give them the highest quality of life.”

center for great apes

HOW TO VISIT

The Center for Great Apes is discretely located on an unmarked property in Wauchula, with an address that is not publicly listed. But it is possible for visitors to tour the facility. Those who subscribe to annual individual memberships of $50 or higher (or $75 for couples) receive invitations to the center’s two annual membership events, in December and March of each year. If you become a member at the $250 level, you and three others can schedule a private walking tour with Ragan, which can be scheduled on Wednesdays, Fridays or Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. or 12:30 p.m. For information, call 863/767-8903 or visit centerforgreatapes.org.

This story is from the April 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.