by Eric Barton | March 11, 2024

The Miracle Bringing Radiant Light to the Center for Great Apes

Employees at a Central Florida sanctuary for great apes never expected what they found one morning in the hands of an orangutan.

Cahaya, which means “radiant light” in Malay, was born at the Center for Great Apes in 2020. Photography by Josh Letchworth.

Patti Ragan misplaces her radio a lot. Usually, it’s wherever she left her phone. 

It’s not that she’s a forgetful person exactly. It’s that her head swims in the swirling pool of the big picture. As founder, director and chief fundraiser for a great ape sanctuary, Ragan has 68 rescued chimpanzees and orangutans in her care at a facility in Central Florida.

But that morning in her office four years ago, Ragan had her radio right next to her. It revealed the voice of one of the keepers who cares for the apes like a doting parent. “Can you come right now?” the radio blared. The tone said urgency. Maybe not an emergency, not yet, but important.

Then the woman yelled again, “I mean right now!”

Ragan ran from her office, jumped in a golf cart and sped toward one of the enclosures that held three orangutans. You think the worst in those situations. Maybe a fight. Maybe fatal. It happens among apes, as it does with humans. Inexplicable violence. One of the rescued orangutans in Ragan’s care, Mari, is a testament to that. For reasons nobody understands, her young mother bit both of Mari’s arms off when she was just a baby.

When Ragan got to the enclosure, she found her employees huddled together. Things looked solemn. Ragan maintains a memorial garden on the outskirts of the property for the apes who have died there, mostly of old age or cancer or heart disease, the same things that come for us. She wondered if she’d be making a new cross for the garden. 

An intern wheeled around as Ragan walked up. He was smiling. Why is he smiling? He mouthed words she couldn’t believe. Impossible. There’s no way. “She had a baby.”

Since the beginning, Ragan has used birth control to make sure her apes don’t reproduce. That’s the point of the place, to help end the captivity of great apes, to give the rescues a pleasant place under shady oak trees to live out their days.

But sometimes birth control doesn’t work. Sometimes there’s a miracle.     

Harry, an orangutan resident at the Center for Great Apes. Photography by Josh Letchworth.

The Winding Path to Wauchula

To reach the Center for Great Apes, I made a three-hour drive northwest from Miami, through sugar fields that sent up smoke signals as workers burned spent cane. Then it was orange groves, with netting hanging over saplings like ghosts floating through the rows. There were cattle ranches with herds spread out on fields of scrub and then a dirt road that ends at a chain-link fence. No sign, no indication of what lives under the trees.

Ragan got lost in this forest the first time she went to visit in the late 1990s. Unlike the farmland and phosphate mines nearby, it’s a patch of Florida as the Seminoles knew it, with oak trees and cabbage palms and a stream through the center. With the dense canopy and gray sky that morning making it impossible to tell north from south, it’s easy to see how anybody could lose their bearings without the pathways that cut through it now. When I met Ragan on one of the crushed-shell pathways, she told me, “I marvel at the beauty of this sanctuary.”

Ragan stands nearly 5-foot tall, the kind of person people say is a bundle of energy. Always moving, always narrating. As she drove me around in the golf cart, she recited family trees of the apes like she was tracing back her own people. Stopping at enclosures, she spoke with her apes in a motherly tone, with a level of understanding that’s hard to believe—Ragan translating their sounds or body language, and the apes comprehending complex sentences. I watched her predict the aggressive posture of an ape new to the center just before he warned us away by spitting water. Minutes later, at the enclosure that holds Noelle, a kind-faced chimpanzee, Ragan told her to move to the center of her enclosure for a photo. And she did. Like she understood every word.

Patti Ragan, president and founder of the Center for Great Apes. Photography by Josh Letchworth.

This wasn’t anything Ragan had planned to do. Ragan grew up in the Shenandoah area of Miami, raised by a single mom bound to a wheelchair after a bout with polio. Her mom took correspondence courses to become a bookkeeper and eventually bought a candy store where all the kids would go after school. It had a soda fountain and cotton candy machine. After graduating from Florida State University, Ragan took a job teaching on a Miccosukee reservation. She’d tromp in the swamps with the students to photograph birds and orchids, and it was then that she learned to appreciate the order and chaos of nature. “I think it shaped my life,” she says, “even doing what I’m doing now.”

She traveled through her 20s, living in Boston, Seattle, Honolulu and San Francisco. She volunteered on a killer whale project in Puget Sound and then in ’84 headed to Borneo to track wild orangutans for a research project. She lived in a primitive rainforest shelter and collected feces to better understand the ape’s diet. “I wanted to live there forever, I loved it so much,” she recalls.

Ragan’s mother bought a staffing business in Miami and needed her daughter’s help, so Ragan returned home. Then her mom got sick, and medical bills compounded. Her mom passed away in 1987, and Ragan sold the company in 1990 with plans to return to Borneo.

Then came Pongo. 

Pongo was an orangutan born at a Miami tourist attraction (Ragan asked me not to name it for fear that other places might shy away from letting her rescue their apes). Pongo’s mother would not nurse him, so somebody needed to bottle-feed the infant. Knowing Ragan had studied orangutans in Borneo, the owner asked her for help. Ragan agreed to bring Pongo home at night. “I just thought I’d take care of this baby, and he would go on to a good zoo,” she says.

Ragan eventually took on the responsibility of caring for all the apes at the tourist attraction—two orangutans and three chimpanzees. But their captivity nagged at her, the fact that these creatures that Ragan was more and more starting to see as her family would be kept in cages so they could be gawked at all day. Slowly, over three years, she convinced the owner that the apes needed to go to a sanctuary.

Illustration by Jules Ozaeta.

Using the money she had made selling the business, Ragan set up a nonprofit and began looking for land. Miami was too expensive, so Ragan started looking west and north—farther north every time, until finally, she found substantial acreage near Wauchula, the self-proclaimed cucumber capital of the world, with just shy of 5,000 residents and an hour’s drive east from Bradenton.

The Center for Great Apes was founded in 1993 and moved to its current location in 1997. It’s accredited now by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which involves an inspection every three years and a promise that there will be no breeding and no public viewings of the animals. Valerie Taylor, executive director of GFAS, told me by email that the center in Wauchula is “an exemplary organization offering such great care to animals in need.” Jane Goodall serves as an honorary director, having visited the center twice now.

From the beginning, Ragan had a plan: rescue chimps and orangutans from a life of
captivity while working to end the practice of keeping apes as exotic pets or entertainers. Hopefully, there would be no need for the center someday because there would no longer be any more apes in captivity to be rescued. A plan of self-obsolescence.

After Ragan opened the sanctuary, she’d hear of another ape in captivity that needed a home. She’d raise money, build a chain or interconnected enclosures and night houses, then homes for her and some of the employees to live in. By 2005, she had 30 apes. Today, there’s more than double that.

Sunshine, Cahaya’s mother, had given birth three times in captivity before coming to the facility. Photography by Josh Letchworth.

In building the sanctuary, Ragan devised something novel, a series of elevated chutes that connect the enclosures. Nearly two miles of elevated trails snake through the property now, allowing the orangutans and chimpanzees to run through the woods. There are 23 outdoor enclosures, some as big as four stories tall and 100 feet across. To ensure there’s not, say, a phosphate mine cranking away next door, the center purchased nearby plots of land and now owns 150 acres. Construction over the years has exceeded $17 million, and today it costs over $25,000 a year for each ape’s care. Ragan gets no help from government sources, mostly collecting operating expenses from people who have seen the occasional news report about the center. A $75 donation enrolls you in a membership program that includes special events like a recent unveiling of a collaboration with Miami-based Tripping Animals Brewing. They commemorated the 30th anniversary of the center by creating three custom beers featuring one-of-a-kind labels. There’s an adopt-an-ape program that, for $25 a month or a one-time fee of $300, gets you perks like a private tour of the center for four people.

It’s still a captivity. I never lose sight of that.
— Patti Ragan

It would be hard to imagine a better setup for the apes. Inside the enclosures are trees and thick fire hoses and ropes for climbing and swinging. Chimpanzees that weigh about 100 pounds move quickly through the space, while the orangutans, sometimes hitting 300 pounds, often saunter more slowly, their long hair hanging down like frilly coats. They eat fresh fruit and vegetables, supplemented by a primate chow, and they get regular medical care from a vet. They move them between enclosures regularly, the change of place cutting the monotony. Caregivers have what they call enrichment activities—there are even TVs in the night houses, with the movie “Frozen” being a favorite. If she could, Ragan would release them all. These are apes raised by humans, and none of them would make it in the wild. “It’s still a captivity,” she says. “I never lose sight of that.”

Mostly, the apes came with backstories of jobs they’d done or worse. But that morning when she rushed from her office, she had something new: her first baby born at the center.

Cahaya’s fur is brighter than the other orangutans, many of whom came to the center after working jobs in the entertainment industry. Photography by Josh Letchworth.

“That’s Your Baby”

After the intern mouthed those words to her that morning, “She had a baby,” Ragan cautiously approached the enclosure. The three apes had all gathered in the passageway between the outdoor enclosure and their bunkhouse. It’s caged, so the blood from the birth had stained the ground. 

Ragan, still not understanding what had happened, saw the blood and felt awful. In shock. 

The keeper who had screamed for help over the radio was there. Mandy Chorman used to spend hours staring at the chimps at the zoo when she was a girl in North Carolina. People would laugh back then when she said she’d work with primates when she grew up. However, after college, she moved to Wauchula to work with Ragan. That was eight years ago. 

Chorman was putting together breakfast for the apes when she spotted the blood. Chorman approached the apes. She could see something in one of their hands. Like a package. A little bundle of orange fur.

By the time Ragan approached, Chorman had moved beyond the first question—what happened? —and on to something more important: Is the baby alive?

Chorman knew one of the main problems they’d have that morning was one of trust. The mother, Sunshine, had given birth three times in captivity before coming to the center. All of her babies had been taken away soon after birth. Orangutans, they say, have the mental capacity of a 5-year-old human, and she’d likely assume her keepers would take this one too.

Sunshine had worked doing live stage shows at a Los Angeles theme park. Most of Ragan’s apes worked on movie and TV show sets. In recent years, production companies have agreed to stop using apes in productions, relying on CGI instead. Some of the rescued apes here are famous: there’s Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s former chimp; and Popi, the orangutan who appeared alongside Clint Eastwood in “Any Which Way You Can.” Perhaps the most famous resident is Sandra, an orangutan deemed to have “non-human personhood” status by a Buenos Aires court. The 2015 ruling meant Sandra had to be sent to a sanctuary instead of the zoo that had housed her alone for years until she arrived at the center in 2019.

Illustration by Jules Ozaeta.

As Hollywood ended the practice of using apes in productions, so largely did the circus industry, with Ringling Bros. stopping the inclusion of live animals in their shows altogether. In Florida, it’s generally illegal to own an ape as a pet, and a difficult-to-acquire license is required. In recent years, Congress has failed to pass a federal ban on owning apes as pets.

Also living under the Wauchula oak trees are rescues from invasive animal testing labs. Some arrived here after being tortured in cages barely bigger than they are. Linus, rescued in 2006, had never left a basement and was barely able to walk with pounds of feces matted in his hair. Seeing rain for the first time at his new home, he stood there and let it soak him.

New arrivals still come to the center. The newest is Larry, born in Missouri and then sent to a Hollywood trainer who couldn’t find work as the industry shifted away from using live animals. Larry spent a decade at an Arkansas zoo, most recently by himself—a social animal like us, alone. He arrived last November. The day I was there, Larry was in a smaller enclosure with no other chimps as he got acclimated. He was restless and unruly, spitting mouthfuls of water at us. I kept thinking of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, how humans struggle when the basic things we desire from life aren’t fulfilled. At 25 years old, Larry may have finally found love and belonging, safety and security, water and shelter. Ragan explained that once he’s gotten used to the place, any day now, they’ll move him in with a group of chimps that will become his family, and they’ll teach him how to behave around humans, how we’re not his enemy.  

The staff and the apes living at the center share a special bond. Photography by Josh Letchworth.

So, you could see why Chorman thought Sunshine wouldn’t trust her with her baby. As Chorman stood just beyond the enclosure a few days later, Sunshine cradled the baby. Then she held it forward, for Chorman to see. Was the ape offering it to her because she knew the humans would take it? Or proudly showing it off? 

“That’s your baby,” Chorman told her. “You get to keep her.”

For the 40 people who work at the center and another 50 volunteers, this was a miracle. A fuzzy orange baby that wasn’t supposed to be. It was February 2020, and in the lockdown that followed, with all that stress and pain that came with the pandemic, they had something exciting to turn to. The staff all submitted names. They picked Cahaya, which means “radiant light” in Malay.

Cahaya turned 4 years old this February. She’s being raised by Sunshine, her father, Archie, and her aunt, Keagan. Cahaya’s hair has remained brighter than the others, the orange glow of the sun right before it sets, and it sticks straight up on the crown of her head. She’s got big eyes, dark pupils filling them, which reminded me of a Beanie Baby. Her thin lips curl upward, a perpetual smile. On the morning I visited, Chorman and Ragan fed Cahaya Craisins through the bars of the enclosure. Cahaya is gangly, all arms and legs that pull her across the bars of the enclosure like a dexterous kid on a jungle gym. 

There’s a moment that Ragan and Chorman like to reflect on when Cahaya was born. With Chorman worried by the blood and Ragan rushing there in the golf cart, the chimpanzees nearby screamed out, jumping up and down, clapping, eyes wide. These are species that don’t live together in the wild, chimps from Africa and orangutans from Asia. And yet they celebrated the baby together.

A young Cahaya with her mother Sunshine (left) and aunt Keagan (right). Photography courtesy of The Center for Great Apes.

There is one complication though to having a newborn. Cahaya could live into her 50s, and her arrival could extend the need for the sanctuary by a decade.

By then, the graveyard on the edge of the property will have expanded with new crosses for apes that lived out their days here. And maybe, someday a half-century from now, there will be just one ape left under the oak trees.