Last December, Terry the chimpanzee celebrated his 34th birthday. He got some apples and other treats, and a few visitors wandered by, but it wasn’t much of a party. When his next birthday rolls around, however, Terry will have lots to cheer about. He’ll be free.
Yesterday, along with four Barbary apes, Terry boarded a truck from the Primate Rescue Center in Kentucky. After his travel companions get out in Kentucky, Terry will continue on to Florida, where he’ll be arriving at chimpanzee heaven – Save the Chimps, a spectacular sanctuary where chimpanzees live in groups on islands that give them a life that’s as close to the forests of Africa as is possible.
The end of the Las Vegas Zoo came about when the small staff of people who were caring for the animals decided to quit. They said that to go on struggling to do what they could for their charges was simply prolonging their misery.
It wasn’t just that zoo owner Pat Dingle neglected the animals; he actively made things worse for them. When the staff tried to give them more shade under the blistering Las Vegas summer sun, Dingle wouldn’t let them. When they brought in toys and treats, Dingle would take them away. He was just plain bloody-minded.
Caregiver Jeannie Akins said that for two of the seven years she worked at the zoo, she was the only person looking after all 182 animals.
Once the staff quit and the U.S. Department of Agriculture officials gave Dingle an ultimatum to shut down the zoo, things moved quickly. A petting zoo took the ostriches. The nearby Lion Habitat Ranch picked up the lion. The cougar was picked up in an unmarked truck, headed for an unknown destination. The San Diego Zoo said it was interested in saving any animals on the endangered species list. At worst, the new digs will be at least a small improvement. For Terry and a few of the others, it will be huge.
Terry has spent his whole life in the entertainment world of Las Vegas. As an infant, he was acquired by Lucien Meyer to be part of a comedy act. Along with his companion, Simon, Terry was taught to ice skate and become part of the Ice Capades.
For several years the two chimpanzees lived in Meyer’s garage. But at least Meyer realized that this was a terrible life for them, so he offered to donate the money for the Las Vegas Zoo to build an enclosure for the pair.
Within a few weeks of moving to the zoo, however, Simon died. Terry has been by himself at the zoo ever since. At least Meyer visited him regularly – once a week if he could. (That’s him in the photo above with Terry.)
“Everyone says it’s horrible, but they didn’t do anything to help.”Life in solitary in a cage under a blazing sun with nowhere to go and nothing to do is as hellish for a chimpanzee as it would be for you or me. Life at Save the Chimps will be the absolute opposite. Once Terry has settled in a bit and been through his health checks, he’ll probably move in with another chimpanzee who’s just arriving at the sanctuary from Texas. Then he’ll meet more of the residents and become part of a social group on one of the specially created islands where they can all be free to roam, play, snooze and live their lives as close as possible to what nature intended for them.
Back in Vegas, the zoo will be closed permanently. But questions remain. How and why was this horror show allowed to keep going all this time? Why didn’t the San Diego Zoo, which was a sponsor of this zoo and brought animals there, step in? (Two years ago, they said they knew the zoo needed help, and that’s what they were trying to do. What they actually did was send more animals there.)
And why didn’t the city step in? Why didn’t any of the luxury resorts and hotel – many of whom are making small fortunes from the animals they have on display?
“Everyone says it’s horrible,” Bridget Hudgens, a regular volunteer at the zoo, told KTNV-TV. “But they didn’t do anything to help.”
And as for Pat Dingle, he had nothing to say. When local media called him for a comment or an explanation, he simply told them not to call back and then hung up.