PALM HARBOR — There’s a unique experience waiting for guests just inside the walls of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, and Debbie Cobb is working to improve it.
“I love it because once you enter the gates you know there’s something different here than anywhere else you go,” Cobb, the facility’s outreach director, said. “It’s not a zoo; it’s not like your normal sanctuary; this place is something different. The differences are the people and the animals in it.”
But beyond providing a publicly viewable safe haven for more than 70 animals, ranging from monkeys and great apes to macaw parrots and alligators, the planned changes at the sanctuary on Alt. 19 are of the utmost importance.
“The biggest thing is that we want to educate, educate, educate, so that this becomes one of the state-of-the-art teaching facilities in the state of Florida,” Cobb said while standing near the southern end of the 12.5-acre park and adjacent to the newly erected home of seven, young Java macaque monkeys.
As she spoke she motioned toward the four donated modular classrooms waiting to be set up and put to use. Reaching out to more of the younger generation is paramount to not only the sanctuary’s future, but that of endangered primates around the world, she explained.
“We want to educate kids about the whole lives of the animals here and provide factual information on critically endangered species in the wild,” Cobb said, noting that the sanctuary hosted over 2,000 children in June alone. It has existing ties with high school and college students from the Tarpon Springs High Veterinary Science Program, the Palm Harbor University Medical Magnet program, St. Petersburg College, University of South and the Florida Bright Futures Program.
What’s also beneficial is that there are often symbiotic relationships created once guests are exposed to the facility and its residents, Cobb said, with some coming back as volunteers. “It’s the community giving to the sanctuary and the sanctuary giving back to the community.”
The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, founded by Cobb’s grandparents, Bob and Mae Noell, originally was known as Noell’s Ark. It begans as a winter home for circus primates.
It fell on hard times in the late 1990s and lost its permit to operate as a zoo from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state and came under attack by the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The sanctuary subsequently re-acquired those license after improvements were made.
Today, the entire facility is privately funded and volunteer-operated, with 75 individuals on the roster. That number includes 17 doctors, three dentists and two ear, nose and throat specialists from Mease Countryside Morton Plant, highlighting the different walks of people providing their time.
Once the sanctuary gets its modular units set up, the next — and largest — task is securing a hopeful expansion that would more than double the park’s size.
There’s 21 acres of land available to the east of the sanctuary, bisected by the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail. The goal is to find the funding mechanism to purchase it to create a 32-acre zoological park, Cobb said.
“The biggest thing the sanctuary needs for that, in my opinion, is a benefactor or someone who believes in it and has the passion that we do,” she said.
“We don’t care if they want to put their name on it, we just want it secured for the sanctuary and for generations to come and make a state-of-the-art facility for Pinellas County.”
Until that groundbreaking moment comes, Cobb and other volunteers are letting the community know what’s going on behind the sanctuary’s walls.
“This is a community outreach facility,” Cobb said. “We have no zoos in Pasco and no zoos in Pinellas, so we’re going to raise the bar this year making sure that people know we’re here and what we’ve got.”
The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary can be contacted by calling (727) 943-5897, by going to www.SuncoastPrimate.org or finding it on Facebook for the latest updates on new residents and upcoming events.