Among the boldface names you won’t be expecting to find exhibiting at Art Basel Miami Beach is Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s erstwhile chimpanzee companion.
His paintings -- two moody abstracts each priced at $1,500 -- feature in “Endangered,” a fundraiser in aid of the Center for Great Apes, the sanctuary where he’s lived for eight years.
Set in woodland near the Peace River some 200 miles north of Miami, it’s not ordinarily open to the public. Its residents live in a network of geodesic domes connected by elevated walkways, while staff zip around on golf carts below, their walkie-talkies squawking like tropical birds.
Bubbles isn’t the only celebrity here. Founded by Patti Ragan in 1993, the sanctuary shelters 29 chimps and 15 orangutans. Some are refugees from the exotic pet trade, a few have come from biomedical research labs and many spent time in showbiz.
Twin chimps Jacob and Jonah starred in Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” remake. Maggie has been on “The Tonight Show” and, with Bella and Ellie, appeared in Career Builder commercials.
Of the orangutans, Geri, whose beauty mark earned her the nickname Geri Crawford, appeared in the Flintstones movie. Bam Bam, a teenage male, cross-dressed as Nurse Precious in the soap opera “Passions,” and Tango was a face of Tang.
In captivity, chimpanzees can live to be 60, orangutans 50. Yet by around six years old, all had reached the ends of their careers, growing too big and too strong-willed to manage.
Bubbles’s story is typical in this respect. Born in a laboratory in Texas in 1983 and raised by humans, he was sent to join the other chimps in his trainer’s compound when he became too much for the pop star.
“He’s had a really tough time,” says Casey Taylor, who turned her back on a law career to become the sanctuary’s communications and development coordinator.
“He didn’t know how to be a chimp. There’s a serious social structure with these animals -- you have to know the chimp rules. He mentally shut down.”
Pets fare no better. The sanctuary’s newest arrival, Clyde, was captured in Africa, meaning he probably witnessed his mother being shot and killed. Another chimp, Toddy, still has bullet fragments in her brain.
Clyde was bought in a Manhattan gift store in 1968 and treated like a child until he grew too large. He then spent 40 years caged in an Ohio garage.
And the apes from research facilities? Mari, who has her own iPad and a special “orangutan with attitude” sign, had her arms bitten off by her mother as an infant.
When Bubbles first arrived, the girl chimps picked on him. He also seemed scared of heights. While the others swung around 40 feet up, he watched anxiously from the ground.
Now, nearing 30 and settling into ape middle age, he is the dominant chimp in a group of seven. He weighs 165 pounds and stands about four foot five, though sits brooding in a corner when we’re introduced.
Only trained handlers are allowed into the apes’ habitats, so my meeting with him is conducted through the mesh. I look at him and he looks past me, gazing off into the distance.
Is he reliving his days moonwalking with Michael? Could he be meditating on some ancestral dream of the African savannahs? Unrecognizable from the baby who toured Japan dressed identically to his owner, his hair has arranged itself into a military brush cut and an overbite gives him a pettish air.
His pampered infancy sometimes reveals itself. If ever he gets the tiniest scratch, he’s wont to spend the rest of the day showing it to staff. Yet he’s also caring, and has become a mentor to the baby of the sanctuary, seven-year-old Bobby- Stryker, who used to ride around on Bubbles’s back.
His best friend here is a chimp named Ripley. Ripley performed in the movie “Ace Ventura” before being sent to a roadside zoo in Nebraska, where he took part in a daring escape that saw three of his sidekicks shot dead.
As I attempt to commune with Bubbles, another of his buddies sidles up protectively and prepares a fat gob of spit that lands just above my knee. At least it was spit. “Jungle rain” is apparently not sanctuary slang for a refreshing shower.
For years, Ragan rescued golden retrievers. Voluntary work at Miami Metro Zoo and in Borneo led her to save the life of a baby orangutan, smuggling him into a children’s hospital to diagnose meningitis. Shortly afterwards, she was given a baby chimpanzee to care for.
She had just sold her Florida temp agency, and when she learnt how difficult it would be to find a long-term, stable home for the apes, she decided to set up her own sanctuary.
Her mission is to provide them with dignity, enriching care, and the companionship of their own species. They go on play dates, have separate rooms in the night house, and enjoy watching “Sesame Street.”
Some are more damaged than others. Put Denyse, who spent 30 years caged on a trailer park in Jacksonville, Florida, near other chimpanzees and she’ll gather bamboo sticks and try to stab them.
“It hurts me that she can’t know what living with her own species is,” says Ragan, a petite woman dressed for safari, her neat bob just a shade away from orangutan orange. She isn’t about to give up trying to find a mate for Denyse.
No challenge is greater than fundraising, though. The cost of care exceeds $20,000 a year for each animal. To take all the sanctuary’s apes to the ends of their natural lives will require $38 million at today’s costs, Ragan calculates.
She still accepts as many additional apes as she can, and had agreed to take Travis, the chimp who was later shot dead by police after he attacked a woman in Connecticut in 2009. His owner couldn’t bring herself to be separated from him, though she called Ragan following the attack.
“She wanted everyone to know that he wasn’t a vicious chimp. Well, of course. It was the system -- it was the breeder’s fault for selling him to her, hers for raising him like a human, the state’s for not having better laws, the community’s for seeing him walk around the streets and thinking nothing of it.”
“Endangered” runs from Dec. 6 through Dec. 9 at Miami Club Rum Distillery.
The sanctuary has a wish list of supplies that runs from durable toys to outdoor fans for the summer swelter, and accepts donations as small as a dollar. Annual membership starts at $50; $250 includes a tour; $10,000 sponsors an ape for a year and includes a night in the on-site guest cottage. Information: http://www.centerforgreatapes.org.
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