Latin America’s Largest Primate Sanctuary
Far away from their days in the circus, some 50 chimpanzees live together in Sorocaba, a city in the interior of São Paulo state. A primate settlement was founded here 20 years ago and today, thanks to the efforts of owner Pedro Ynterian and donations from the public, the location is now the largest primate sanctuary in Latin America. It is a refuge for big primates recovering from traumas they’ve experienced in zoos and circuses.
Some primates here, like the 20-year-old chimpanzee Dolores, still have not fully recovered from their earlier emotional scars. Dolores still acts “completely crazy,” according to Pedro. She jumps compulsively, claps her hands, and screams incessantly. These are the effects of her years in the circus.
In 2000, Pedro decided to team up with the Great Ape Project (GAP), an international movement that fights for the life and liberty of chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos. Just as in zoos and circuses, the animals in this “sacred temple” live in captivity but under conditions that are very different – they suffer no stress from the public, the installations give them far more space, and food is unlimited.
Chimpanzees are the main feature of this sanctuary spanning 500,000 square meters, and there are also other species, including birds, lions, and bears rescued by Brazilian authorities from circuses, zoos, and animal trafficking rings.
“I don’t usually accept any more animals. In the case of monkeys and birds, I’d rather set them free. With chimpanzees it’s different because they have nowhere to go. They’re from Africa and the Africans won’t take them back,” said Pedro, who is 77, and trained as a microbiologist.
Pedro’s Brazilian refuge will likely be the new home for Cecilia, a chimpanzee from a zoo in Argentina, which was closed to the public last year after a series of animal deaths. Following a legal uproar, a provincial court issued a writ of habeas corpus and authorized the chimpanzee’s transfer, which should occur in the coming months. “For Cecilia, this will be totally different. If she’s healthy enough to survive the relocation process, she’ll have a very happy life,” Pedro said.
Primates in the refuge have all kinds of food available, but just like people – with whom they have 99.4 percent of their DNA in common – they have their favorites: chicken pies, soft drinks, and yogurt with carrots, oranges, and honey.
Pedro arrives at the sanctuary at 3:00 am every day to prepare the chimpanzees’ meals – because they’re all part of his family, he feels, especially Guga, 16, a tame, playful male that grew up in the refuge. Other chimps are more nervous, like Alex and Bob, whose teeth were extracted in the circus before laws banned the use of animals as entertainment.
The GAP organization also sponsors other primate sanctuaries in Brazil, including two more in São Paulo state and one in Paraná. Czech Republic couple Milan and Anita Starostik owned a large industrial site in Paraná and after they sold their company, the couple started to dedicate their time to the great primates. Nowadays the sanctuary houses 18 chimpanzees, the majority rescued from Garcia circus. The enclosures have heating systems and plenty of toys – the trampoline is the favorite of the chimps, who are referred to as “guests” at the sanctuary.
For more information about the work of GAP, see their website which is available in English, Portuguese, or Spanish. http://www.projetogap.org.br/
[Research for this article comes from the Latin American Herald Tribune and the GAP website.]