In a dense patch of forest a few miles outside the south-central Florida town of Wauchula, surrounded by ongoing acres of orange and grapefruit groves, is a retirement home for former movie actors and circus entertainers. That hardly sounds that out of the ordinary, except that the residents at this particular home all happen to be chimpanzees and orangutans.
There is the inseparable chimp duo of Butch and Chipper, former Ringling Brothers clowns who, with two others, rode a four-seated bicycle around the ring. Another chimp named Roger played cello in that circus’s all-chimp orchestra. The male lead of a recent Hollywood film called Dunston Checks In lives there, along with the stars of popular television commercials for American Tourister and Career Builder.com, and a chimp actor who finished his career playing a female nurse called Precious in the daytime soap opera Passions.
More than 40 retirees reside at The Center for Great Apes, all of them former stars of the big screen and television, of Big Top circuses and smaller traveling ones – and all of them with memories as long as their careers were brief. It’s a little-known fact about the ape entertainers we see: after the age of 5 or 6, they’ve grown too strong to use in entertainment; they’ll live another fifty to sixty years behind bars. Some get sent to medical research labs. Some go to roadside zoos. (Large accredited zoos don’t accept former entertainers because they’re too spoiled and antisocial). Some, the lucky ones, end up in the woods outside Wauchula, Fla.
I visited early in the afternoon, as I’d been directed, and pressed the buzzer at the front gate. Moments later, the Center’s founder and director, Patti Ragan, was speeding toward me on a golf cart, one hand on the wheel, the other clutching a diapered baby chimpanzee to her chest.
“This is Knuckles,” she said as she opened the gate and shook my hand. “He had an MRI this morning for his cerebral palsy and is still groggy from the anesthesia, so I don’t want to leave him alone.”
Ragan was struck by the impulse to create the Center for Great Apes after a trip to Borneo in the late 1990s. It was there that she saw her first orangutan in the wild. Deeply moved by the experience, she returned to her home in Miami, where she ran a prosperous temp service; she sold it, in order to devote herself full-time to taking care of captive orangutans and chimpanzee entertainers in the U.S. With the help of private donations and grants from a number of philanthropic organizations, she was able to secure 100 acres of forest outside Wauchula and begin construction on what has become, in effect, a simian Delray Beach – a shining example of how far we humans can extend the paradox of trying to liberate a wild creature in captivity.
Ragan, Knuckles, and I got in her cart and sped off into a semitropical tangle of oak and bay trees, Florida pines and sable palms. In the upper boughs I could make out an array of furry silhouettes, hunched over or swinging through the branches. The arcing green curves of their geodesic-like homes blended so seamlessly with the surrounding flora that for a moment it seemed as if we truly were in a remote jungle wilderness. As we advanced, the Center’s convoluted architecture became more apparent. Something like an Erector set of barred domes had been built high into the canopy; these were connected by a series of enclosed overhead walkways with sliding doors, which enable the residents to shuffle back and forth between the enclosures, or to the kitchen for food, or to the infirmary when they’re ill. It’s a strangely metropolitan rendering of a wild chimp’s fluid, freewheeling life. Yet for the animals that we’ve forever wrested from that life, and who’ve become too “enculturated” to successfully return to the wild, Ragan’s haven is the best possible halfway house between their ongoing captivity and their rightful sky.
Ragan’s cart came to a stop in the middle of the grounds directly beneath one of the enclosed overhead walkways. I followed her upward gaze to the furry red back of an orangutan lounging directly above us. Still holding Knuckles, Ragan stood in the cart and reached up to give a protruding toe a squeeze with her fingers.
“Hi, Bam Bam,” she said, as a startled, baby-faced visage turned to take me in. “He’s the one who was in the soap opera Passions,” she said to me. “He’s a very sweet and gentle ape.”
Settling back behind the wheel, Ragan drove us next to the enclosure of the Ringling Brother circus-clown duo of Butch and Chipper. Suspended halfway up the front bars, Chipper began to madly scream and hoot as we arrived.
“He’s very neurotic,” Ragan said. “He needs constant attention, and I didn’t say my usual hello to him this morning.”
Just then anther chimp emerged from the back of the enclosure. Tall and slender, he strode nearly upright toward us, then sat down beside a suddenly becalmed Chipper.
“And this is Butch,” Ragan said.
Ragan had already cautioned me to watch what I say around the retirees, as they don’t miss a trick. A couple of her keepers were recently talking in front of a female chimp named Kenya about making a little pool for her and the others to play in; Kenya immediately ran off to grab a plastic tub from the back of her enclosure. Ragan herself mentioned one morning within earshot of a former chimp entertainer named Grub that two much-loved animal-activity counselors might be visiting the facility. Grub, who particularly loves painting and making cardboard cutout masks for people, excitedly dashed to the highest perch in his enclosure to watch out for the counselors’ arrival, but they never showed.
With Butch, I figured I’d be safe with just a simple “Hello.” But the second I said it, I saw Ragan’s hand cover her mouth. Butch stood bolt uptight, gave me a broad-toothed grin, and thrust his right hand straight above him in the classic “Ta-da” pose.
“Sorry,” Ragan said. “I should have warned you. He does that whenever anyone gives him an upbeat hello. It was part of his old shtick.”
Butch’s act set off Chipper again, along with several of the other retirees around us – a maelstrom of raucous ape high-jinx. But all at once it was punctured by a loud handclap, like the pounding of a judge’s gavel in a disorderly courtroom, followed by two more. I turned and saw a particularly imposing chimp, well over 5 feet tall, pressed upright against the front of his enclosure, his left hand holding high to the bars above him, his right hand manically worrying his bottom row of teeth.
“That’s Roger,” Ragan said. “He was the cellist in the Ringling Brothers orchestra. Roger was our most neurotic, a terrible insomniac. I often used to see him at night in the surveillance camera monitors in my kitchen: sitting up in his bed, rocking back and forth. He had to be apart from the others. He preferred people to his own species. Now, he’s not only interacting with the others, he’s become a peacemaker whenever trouble starts. But that’s the thing with these entertainment apes. They’re brought up by humans, they spend all their early lives around them, they eat from caterer’s tables. They really have to learn how to be apes all over again.”
Later, as we sat talking over a cup of coffee in Ragan’s house at the very front of the grounds, I realized what a delicate and difficult balance she has to strike there in her strange little patch of tropical forest. In essence, she is tending to a community of ape-human hybrids, call them “humanzees”: creatures so influenced by us that it would be the next form of abuse to fully deprive them of our company, yet wrong not to at least try to nudge and nurture them back in the direction of their original selves.
“Everyone, myself included, thinks apes in movies or commercials are hysterical,” Ragan said. “But no one wants to be responsible for what becomes of them afterwards. For a few minutes of our laughter, they get a life behind bars. The least we can do for them is make that life as decent and dignified as possible.”
Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”