There are apes in Jessamine County. Monkeys, too. More than 50, all residents of the Primate Rescue Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the lives of chimpanzees, pigtail macaques, capuchins, spider monkeys and an olive baboon, just to name a few.
If you were to visit, you might meet Jake, a Japanese snow macaque, who eyes a two-legged stranger with keen curiosity. (“Perhaps she’s brought a treat,” he seems to be thinking.) Meanwhile, Bob, a Vervet monkey—a species normally found in eastern Africa—aims to impress as he soars through the air chasing his companions around their spacious enclosure, his gleeful calls punctuating the peaceful silence.
But at the PRC, the animals are not on exhibit, and they’re not here for entertainment. These primates were abandoned, many victims of abuse or rescued from appalling situations. Here, they get a second chance at the closest thing to a natural life outside of the savannas, rainforests and lowlands where they belong.
The center has been tucked away on about 30 acres in Nicholasville since the late 1980s, when its co-founder, Clay Miller, bought his then-fiancée, April Truitt, an unusual present: a long-tailed macaque named Gizmo. “I was really not happy about it,” says Truitt, who now serves as the PRC’s executive director. “We had birds and chickens and all kinds of animals at the time. Clay always had an interest, but that interest was never as strong for me.”
But Gizmo ended up being more than a pet. He became a calling. “At first, my goal was to figure out what he needed,” says Truitt. “What was going to keep him happy, safe and alive? So I went to the Library of Congress and came out with this giant list of everything I could find on primates. But then we realized there was a bigger picture.” That canvas included the grim reality of the exotic pet trade, animal auctions, unaccredited roadside zoos and surplus monkeys from research labs, all of which accounted for hundreds of neglected or discarded primates annually.
The couple had, until then, made their living locksmithing. Miller’s family had owned the largest safe-lock manufacturer in the world, Sargent and Greenleaf, which now has headquarters in Nicholasville. New York-born Truitt ran a company called The Lady Locksmith. Through her research, Truitt came to understand primates are social and benefit from interaction with their own kind. But while looking for a companion for Gizmo, she soon was connected with many owners whose monkeys had grown too strong and too dangerous to keep. So the PRC began taking in castoffs and rescuing animals, including Petey the spider monkey, who was found living in a 2-by-2-foot cage in the home of an elderly woman in Ohio and was suffering from infection. “I empathized with the owners,” says Truitt. “They’re animal lovers, and they believed they were doing a monkey a favor by rescuing him. And there’s nothing cuter than a baby monkey. But [when they get older] they are just 45 pounds of pure meanness that has no interest in being handled by humans.”
For about 10 years, the couple kept their refuge small and private. But in 1996 things got, as Miller likes to put it, “as serious as a heart attack.” The PRC received a call from New York University’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), which was preparing to close, and the staff was desperate to relocate nearly 200 chimpanzees. The PRC had no experience with chimps and at first declined. But when it was discovered the chimps were slated to move to a New Mexico-based lab known for poor treatment of animals, the staff rallied, consulted experts, and built emergency housing, and the PRC soon acquired Cory, Pozna, Martina, Ike, Jenny, Noelle and Rodney—chimps ranging in age from 14 months to five years.
Two years later, the center rescued four elderly chimps: Hazel, Zulu, Victoria and Donald—each more than 20 years old—who had survived decades in squalid conditions in a private home in Georgia. It took two years, but the PRC was able to unite the two colonies, and now, all 11 chimpanzees live more like a natural troop, in a state-of-the-art outdoor enclosure that is attached to a temperature-controlled sleeping area.
“When we got the LEMSIP chimpanzees, we knew then that we would have animals that would outlive us,” says Truitt, who notes that the life spans of primates in captivity can be double or triple that of those in the wild. It’s not unusual for chimpanzees to live into their 60s. In 1998, the PRC became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and began laying the groundwork to become a long-term, sustainable organization.
Truitt estimates it currently takes approximately $1,000 a day to maintain the center. The money covers the cost of about 300 pounds of fresh produce and pasta daily (which is picked up from three Kroger locations six times a week); a five-person support staff headed by sanctuary manager Eileen Dunnington and assisted by a host of dedicated volunteers; regular veterinary care from the Animal Hospital of Nicholasville; and general maintenance. To preserve a stress-free environment, the center is not open to the public, though one day a year the PRC welcomes friends and supporters to see, firsthand, what their donations have accomplished.
As part of their forward thinking, the founders have been slowly buying up land around the original sanctuary space to assure the animals remain insulated from urban sprawl. “We realized that, one day, it’s not going to matter that we were here first,” says Truitt. “It’s happened to a lot of my colleagues. When they first founded their facilities they were way out there and now—guess what?—they’re not, and their neighbors don’t really like them.”
The PRC is one of about a dozen primate sanctuaries in the United States. (Truitt is co-founder of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.) Each is at capacity, Truitt says, but the problem of unwanted monkeys and apes in search of permanent homes is ongoing. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention banned the importation of primates into this country for use as pets, it is legal to import them for scientific research or to sanctioned zoos. Truitt notes that today monkeys and apes offered for sale are animals from roadside zoos and cast-offs from biomedical research.
There are currently no federal laws regulating private ownership, and 26 states (Kentucky is one) restrict individuals from having primates as pets. To date, no one is certain exactly how many may be living in private homes in the United States.
The first step in combating the exotic-animal trade, says Truitt, is public education. “The first thing I would do is to get rid of that word ‘exotic.’ It just sounds so wonderful, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s a barbaric trade.”
Second, she notes, owning a primate “simply needs to become not cool.” She points to pop cultural images that paint monkeys and apes as cuddly as friendly. (Can anyone imagine Marcel, the cute capuchin on TV’s Friends, as capable of a vicious attack?) “If it weren’t cool,” she says, “nobody would do it.”
For more information about the Primate Rescue Center, or to make a donation, visit primaterescue.org or call (859) 858-4866.