Center for Great Apes History

Patti Ragan volunteering to save apes
In Borneo, 1984

The Center for Great Apes has roots in the rainforests of Borneo, where over twenty years ago in 1984, founder Patti Ragan spent several months volunteering at a rehabilitation project for wild orangutans. While there, her duties included tracking wild orangutans to observe behaviors for a long-term study project, and providing foster care for a group of infant orangutans. These orphans were being rehabilitated for return to their forest homes in Borneo. During this intense time of living with orangutans and gaining experience caring for orphaned infants, Patti learned to love and appreciate their quiet, gentle nature.

Five years later, because of her previous experience with orangutans in Borneo, Patti was asked to help care for a four-week old infant orangutan at a small bird park in Miami. Thinking that the infant was going to eventually live with other orangutans at an AZA accredited zoo, she was disheartened when the owner said he was sending him to a trainer for circus work. Due to several circumstances, including a serious illness that affected the infant, he was not sold to the circus, and the owner later agreed to allow Patti the opportunity to find an appropriate captive home for the infant.

Sanctuary for Great Apes
Pongo, 3 years old

She soon learned that most accredited zoos did not want a mixed Bornean/Sumatran orangutan … especially one that was hand-raised. Realizing that there were little or no opportunities for placement in an AZA accredited zoo, and that there would never be a chance for him to live in the wild, Patti set out to find a sanctuary for the orangutan infant. However, in 1990, there were only two primate sanctuaries in the United States, but none that had orangutans or experience caring for them.

Wishing that someone would start a sanctuary in the U.S. for orangutans that could not be cared for at major zoos, or be returned to the wild, Patti decided to establish a nonprofit organization for that purpose.

While still volunteering to care for the now one-year-old infant orangutan at the Miami bird park, Patti was then asked to also give foster care to an infant chimpanzee for a few months. But, at that point she was told the little chimp would be sold for work at the Universal Studios tourist attraction in Orlando when he turned 18 months old. Suddenly the idea of an orangutan sanctuary became an orangutan and chimpanzee sanctuary, and she could not let the infant chimp be sold into entertainment.

Pongo, today

After formally establishing the nonprofit organization in 1993, it took four more years to find the perfect location for a sanctuary site – one that was both affordable and would meet the needs of the apes. She found that place in Wauchula, a small rural community in southern central Florida. Starting with 15 acres of a beautiful and tropical wooded habitat surrounded by orange groves, the sanctuary has now grown to over 100 acres and provides a home for more than 40 great apes.

Those first two infants Patti cared for became the first great ape residents living at the sanctuary. Pongo, the infant orangutan, is now a magnificent adult male 18 years old and 240 pounds. And, Grub, the infant chimpanzee, is the dominant and powerful leader of his group of chimpanzees at the Center.