By Leah Tiberini
It’s a hot summer morning during August of 2022, the sound of my car engine cuts as I pull the key from the ignition. As I arrive, I am the first one at the meeting spot that was agreed on by myself and several other remarkable animal advocates. Without delay, it wasn’t long before everyone began to show up. We moved quickly, loading up a cart full of fresh produce, and heading in the direction of our destination. Almost like this had been rehearsed — because it had been. This was the fourth or fifth time some of us had visited this particular location; Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Florida. Oddly enough, as we gathered towards the entrance, something was acutely different about this visit. Something we did not predict would happen so quickly when we started working on this project back in May of 2022, a project to bring awareness and help to the animals kept there in mundane and inadequate conditions.
For those who are reading, if you know about Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, you know that it has had a pretty concerning past. All of us being located close to the facility, made the spotty reputation our main reason for focusing our activism efforts on the well-being of the animal residents that live there. This visit was exciting for all of us.
In July of 2016, a group of three people who had many years of experience at the West Coast sanctuary blew the whistle on the board members that, up until this year, presided over the non-profit organization behind Suncoast Primate Sanctuary. In a lengthy court record available to the public on the Pinellas County Clerk of Courts website, a vivid account is given of the non-profit treasurer misappropriating funds, important documents going missing, and even an unjust election. The election, that occurred days after the lawsuit was filed, removed the whistleblowers from the board of directors. The trio fought the legal battle tirelessly, and almost silently, for six long years. Getting back to the animals that they came to love, being at the forefront of their minds the entire time.
Then, one day in June 2022, the court ruled in favor of the whistleblowers and found them to be the “de jure” board, or, the rightful board of directors, all along. Immediately, we knew we had to get in contact with them. As we approached the front entrance to the sanctuary, we were greeted by a smiling face. Ken, the park manager and one of the rightful board members, introduced himself to us all. He then sat us down to tell us about his journey to this point. Genuine love and enthusiasm poured from him as he spoke about the animals at the sanctuary, recalling joyful memories of years prior when he was the small primate coordinator. Even taking a moment to wipe a few stray tears from his eyes, while he expressed complete vulnerability about the condition that the past management had left the sanctuary in.
Later on, he took us on a tour of the facility, to see all of the incredible animals that call Suncoast home. It had been months since some of us had seen the animals, and the overall ambiance had completely changed since the last time we had visited.
The primates and other animals' moods had improved drastically — several individuals jumped with joy, as Ken approached their enclosures, vying for their turn to have his affectionate and caring attention. This was something that I had never seen the animals at Suncoast do for anyone else that came in close proximity to them. It was something truly special to see, like the excitement that pets display when their best friend comes home to play.
Malaina, one of the animal advocates that helped plan this visit and the activism events we held at Suncoast in the past, was thrilled to see how different the ambience of the sanctuary felt. “I can’t begin to convey how elated and emotional we all were on the day we showed up to meet and welcome the rightful board members to Suncoast Primate Sanctuary,” she said. “During our tour of the facility you could feel a new air about the place. The animals seemed content, no more pacing, anxiety and restlessness. Their faces even seemed to light up. The grounds and enclosures even seemed less dismal, and you could see the genuine love and respect the staff had for the animals. There is so much work to be done, and progress doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s moving in the right direction.”
The future of the animals who live at Suncoast Primate Sanctuary is looking up, and the plan that the new management has for the coming years include very crucial improvements for the comfort, and happiness of the animal residents.
“When I’m asked which ape is my favorite, I always say, whoever I’m sitting in front of at that moment!” Lori chimes, a board member for the non-profit and team leader for the great ape caregivers. She came back to the sanctuary with the new management. Being a navy veteran with over 30 years of experience in animal rescue and 20 years of experience as a vet tech, she sees working with animals as a complete honor. To be a Great Ape caregiver at Suncoast, you must have many years of experience volunteering at the sanctuary, first with the small primates, then with the orangutans and chimps. This has ensured that every person taking care of the apes has a deep connection, trust and love for them, and has returned to the sanctuary to ensure that improvements and proper care are taken seriously.
“The biggest changes so far, since we have gotten back, has been proper deep cleaning and disinfecting for each enclosure,” she stated when asked about what they have been working on lately. “Enrichment too, keeping their minds busy with problem solving, keeping their hands busy with toys, it’s all so crucial. The most important thing to me is seeing them happy.”
Currently Lori and many others at the sanctuary are working on many groundbreaking projects for the great apes, and the sanctuary as a whole. In a week or two, she informed me that the sanctuary will be launching one of her projects, where donors sponsor a chimpanzee enclosure. Sponsors can make a donation of a predetermined amount to help pay for new sleeping perches in the chimpanzee’s enclosure, a scooter board for exercise, and a jolly ball toy to play with. In return, the sponsor will receive a professional photograph of the chimp they helped, and a finger painting done by the chimp themself! Lori advises to keep our eyes open during the next couple of years, while the sanctuary makes strides towards updated, and new enclosures for the animals, as well as hopes for, not one, but two Primadomes for the great apes.
Nearly 60% of wild primate species are facing extinction and 75% have declining populations. Meanwhile, primates bred for cruel animal research facilities have had a recent uptick. In 2017, 74,000 reported primates populated research labs across the United States. Places like Suncoast Primate Sanctuary rescue retired research animals, who have no other options, along with primates previously kept as pets, in zoos, or the entertainment industry. With the recent increase in captive primates, the demand for sanctuaries like Suncoast Primate Sanctuary has increased as well.
The sanctuary is in need of volunteers, donations and support, now more than ever, for the animals. Every single one of the residents at the sanctuary is unique in their own individuality, every single one of them has a name, a story, and every single one of them needs us to come together as a community; as Floridians, to give them the lives they have long deserved.
Please help us work together to provide a better place, for animals, in Florida. You can support Suncoast Primate Sanctuary’s efforts to rebuild in many different ways, near or far.
This article is a call to action.
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