A Wild World in Captivity

By Greg Lindberg

October 2009

Feature Writing class at USF St. Petersburg

He is a former movie star.

His beard is graying.

He hasn’t been offered any roles in decades.

He lives in Florida among many other retirees but usually keeps to himself.

He once had his heyday. Cameras would capture his every move.

Now he can do whatever he wants without having to deal with paparazzi.

This is no ordinary former Hollywood-type.

This is a chimpanzee.

Cheetah, the ape sidekick who starred alongside Johnny Weissmuller in the original Tarzan films of the 1930s, now resides at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Fla. Estimated to be 83 years old, he was just one of several chimpanzees used for the role. He now lives in sunshine among 19 chimps and other primates.

Debbie Cobb has been a lifelong volunteer at the sanctuary since she was eight years old. Cobb, now 50, is the granddaughter of the habitat’s original owners, Bob and Mae Noell. She currently serves as the trustee to the property.

Cobb starts to tear up when she talks about working with the animals and the relationship she has developed with them.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said, “but the most rewarding thing.”

She also has a special bond with Cheetah, who is one-of-a-kind for more reasons than just his age.

“Cheetah is one of the most personable, outgoing, well-adjusted chimpanzees I’ve ever met in my life,” she said. Chimps typically live a year and a quarter of human years. But they won’t enjoy longevity unless they are socially adjusted to their environment – a trait she believes the animals at her sanctuary possess.

After his movie days, Cheetah was put in Weissmuller’s trust. He was later sent to a research lab when someone found out about the Pinellas County facility, where they insisted he be taken. He arrived in the 1950s when the property was first being developed. Now he is one of the oldest chimps in the world.

Cheetah recently had several teeth extracted after caregivers at the sanctuary discovered an abscess on one of his gums. Dr. Matthew Burton, a general dentist who practices in Clearwater, performed the procedure. He extracted three teeth on the first occasion and a molar the second time.

“I didn’t do anything until he was knocked out cold,” Burton recalls.

Burton, 32, said age was the main reason that necessitated the operation.

“He’s lived too long for his teeth,” he said. “When you live that long and don’t brush and floss, it catches up with you.

”It was the same as taking out a human tooth. But I was cautious – not because he’s a chimp but because I didn’t know what the roots were shaped like. There was some unknown that most doctors are usually more comfortable knowing instead of having to guess.”

The 12-acre sanctuary off Alt. U.S. 19 houses about 100 animals. Most are primates that were either rescued or came from zoos. Species include chimpanzees, orangutans, rhesus monkeys, capuchins and lemurs. The chimps are considered the main attraction for visitors, especially Cheetah. They live in large enclosures with plenty of space to move about, play and dance.

Cheetah lives in a spacious enclosure by himself. Cobb admits that he is not interested in female chimps and thinks he is probably too old to want to be with one. He did have a mate about three years ago named Donna, a chimp in her forties. But their relationship did not last.

“She might be too young for him,” Cobb said. “But when you get to be 80, you can do whatever you want.”

Cobb, the mother of a 25-year-old son and two-year-old twins, has dedicated her entire life to animals. She worked as a nurse for 10 years and managed a restaurant. But taking care of animals has always been her passion. Growing up, she had several exotic animals she considered her friends, including a gorilla named Otto who died over two years ago.

“He taught me more about life than any person or book,” she said.

Cobb describes herself and the rest of the volunteers as “caregivers” for a good reason.

“We’re called caregivers – not caretakers – because caregivers give more than they take.”

The sanctuary has about 50 active volunteers from teenagers earning volunteer hours for school to senior citizens wanting to stay active. On a warm fall afternoon, there are several volunteers scurrying about the property.

Mark Novosel has been a volunteer since 2003. He works two days a week for four hours each day. Currently unemployed, Novosel has earned the title of Reptile Coordinator for his love of snakes. He manages the reptiles for the sanctuary and has several boa constrictors as pets.

“It’s a hobby, it’s a passion,” he said. “I like to educate the public when I can [too].”

But the 35-year-old also has a soft spot in his heart for chimpanzees. His favorite one is Mary, a female chimp in her mid-thirties. The story goes that Mary was shipped over from Africa in a crate made of barbed wire. When she tried to escape from the crate, she poked one of her eyes and lost some of her sight.

“She’s very personable,” he said. “We have a close relationship. We call her Sweet Mary.”

Novosel said everyone at the facility must be cautious when they are around the animals.

“You have to be on your toes,” he said. “It’s like playing with fire. If you don’t do things right, you might get burned.”

Novosel recalls an unsettling incident from several years ago. The chimps were being moved into new enclosures, and a team of doctors was on site to administer tranquilizers to them before the move. During this procedure, one of the doctors was trying to inject a female orangutan with ketamine, an anesthetic. But it resisted and grabbed his shirt.

“That shirt came off of him like that,” Novosel recalls. “I thought he was going to get ripped up right in front of me and it would be a bloodbath.”

The doctor immediately fell to the ground and the orangutan backed off. It no longer felt threatened.

After witnessing that incident, Novosel knew exactly what to do when Jewel, a middle-aged female chimp, started pulling on his shirt one day. He said he was “scared to death,” but he got down on the ground and was relieved.

“I learned from watching somebody else,” he said.

Sylver Profeta, 61, has volunteered at the facility for four years. She was immediately drawn in to the refuge after her initial visit.

“I used to drive by all the time,” she said. “One day my car pulled in and I started working here.”

But she was a bit skeptical of the place early on, only to learn what it was really about.

“I was afraid I would find it sad and feel sorry for the animals. But then I saw how much love and attention they got and I was hooked.”

Profeta is one of several Great Ape Coordinators. She is retired after a long career as a financial analyst. Her husband is also a volunteer.

On this particular day, Bobby, a 5-year-old chimp, was having a temper tantrum. He screamed out and jumped around like a wild banshee.

“It’s okay, Bobby,” Profeta said in a sympathetic tone.

Donna, an older female chimp, walked over to the side of Bobby’s enclosure to calm him down. She stood there for a few moments and looked him in the eye. Immediately he was quiet.

Profeta also likes to stimulate the primates with dancing. She started doing a version of the cha-cha outside Cheetah’s enclosure, and he was soon imitating her every move.

“He loves to dance,” she said.

Profeta speaks highly of Cobb and recognizes her unselfish dedication to the animals.

“When you see how the animals respond to her when she steps on the property,” she said, “you will know love.”

With Cheetah watching with a close eye behind her, Cobb said she is blessed to be working with primates and knows that she must be doing something right at the end of the day.

“When I lay my head down at night, I know I have run as hard as I can to what I feel like God’s purpose is for me,” she said. “And I can’t tell you how good that feels.”