PAINTER OF THE APES

James Fox and the Great Apes of Wauchula

By Meg Daradanova

The walls of Jim Fox’s Estero home are covered with art: he lives among the images he creates. The photorealistic paintings are a product of his love for illustration. His passion, however, is only as big as his subjects, and in the case of one series of portraits, the love for these subjects spills over into his life.

Jim and his wife, Linda, have found their cause in the Center for Great Apes, a 100-acre orangutan and chimpanzee sanctuary in Wauchula, Fla. The center is a retirement facility for apes in the entertainment business, zoos or roadside attractions, apes kept as pets, and ones used in testing. Some of its residents started their trip to Wauchula many years ago from Africa or Asia. Most of them, however, were bred in the United States. All of them need a permanent home and a chance at a life closer to what nature intended.

Primatologist Frans de Waal wrote, “It’s impossible to look an ape in the eye and not see oneself.” Similarly, Fox talks about the overwhelming emotion of drawing these apes.

“When I draw them, I always start with the eyes,” he says. “Their eyes are everything; the connection is amazing.”

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Sales of Fox’s Great Ape artwork benefit the center as a portion of the purchase price is donated in the buyer’s name. Fox’s genuine affection for the apes shines through his art. Louie the teenage orangutan is focused, curious and deliberate with his coconut; Chris and Pongo look serious in their council talks, and Grub, an artist himself, exudes thoughtfulness.

The personality of the apes is what drew Patti Ragan, the center’s founder, into the commitment of a lifetime. She started out as a teacher, then a business owner. In 1984, she volunteered at an orangutan rehabilitation center in Borneo. Six years later, Ragan was asked to care for an infant orangutan, whose hybrid Borneo-Sumatran ancestry made him unacceptable to accredited zoos. She enjoyed the job, until she realized that the baby’s owner was actively breeding apes for the entertainment business.

“This was the turning point for me,” says Ragan. She decided to establish a sanctuary for orangutans and chimpanzees. In 1997, she bought 15 acres of land in Wauchula seeking to create a suitable environment for apes.

Today, this center is the only sanctuary in the U.S. which accepts orangutans. The area of the facility has increased to 120 acres and is home to 21 orangutans and 31 chimpanzees. It employs 15 caregivers and provides education and experience to more than 50 volunteers.

Apes used in entertainment and scientific research environments have long been bred to feed infants back into the businesses. After being declared endangered, the breeding of great apes, as well as their import, has become mostly illegal. With life spans of more than 50 years in captivity, longterm arrangements are necessary to ensure proper care for the animals that exit these businesses.

The Center for Great Apes has 15 large, domed, outdoor habitats, as well as night houses for its citizens. The apes need a stimulating environment, so there are a lot places to climb, run, play, nest and groom. They also receive a variety of enrichment items and activities. Bamboo branches filled with peanut butter, for example, give them a chance to invent a tool to extract the treat, just like wild chimpanzees would do with termites, says Ragan. Other puzzles and toys are also of interest: Allie the orangutan loves sorting giant Lego pieces. Some of the apes work with iPads; others like to paint or listen to music. And almost all of them love playing with water: cleaning, jumping in puddles, sudsing up and playing in sprinklers.

Occasionally, the center receives apes with physical limitations, so special habitats were constructed for handicapped and geriatric apes. They are used by Knuckles, a chimp with cerebral palsy, and apes like Clyde, who had spent the previous 25 years of his life in a small cage in a garage. Upon his arrival, he could not climb and had no chimp skills. Most of the apes’ stories are heartbreaking, but worthy examples of overcoming trauma with grace. Eventually, all apes at the center find long-term companionships. Clyde found his best friend, Toddy, through trial and error, but after connecting, they became inseparable.

The simple humanity of these relationships, and of the apes as individuals, shines in Fox’s drawings and oils. Ragan is convinced that his talent gives these apes a new life. A drawing of Grub, a beloved chimpanzee who died of cancer, holds a special place in her heart.

“Grub’s intelligence comes through his paintings like no other,” says Ragan.

Fox says he considers himself lucky to have been chosen by Ragan as “painter of the apes.” “I’m not a designer painter; I’m more of a storyteller-illustrator,” he says.

And the stories abound. Jesse, a female chimp, likes to flirt with Jim. “And Boma!” laughs his wife, Linda, referencing another spirited chimp. “She’s a real instigator.” They marvel at the sneakiness of chimps who fill their mouths with water and surprise visitors with showers and at the gentleness of a large male orangutan carrying a baby.

Jim has some new ape art in the works and looks forward to their next visit to the center, which is currently in the middle of another major expansion.

“We’ve accepted six orangutans and five chimps in the last year and a half,” says Ragan. With ape use in research and entertainment winding down, more apes are slated to arrive this year. “Eventually, our goal is to work ourselves out of our need to be here.” But that is not likely to happen soon.

The Center for Great Apes recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and will be hosting an open house for members on March 30. It also has one visitor day each month. For more information, to read ape stories, and to discover ways to help, visit www.centerforgreatapes.org. To view Great Ape artwork by James Fox, along with his other artwork, visit his website at www.jamesfoxart.com.