The Little Rock Zoo

.The Little Rock Zoo needs to step up and care for the animals better! Please read the several artciles here with deaths, sickness and a bald chimp!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pay to Play with Chimpanzees, Gini Valbuena

Published October 13, 2006

[Times photos: Douglas R. Clifford]
Cheri Pierce of New York plays with 7-month-old Noah in Clearwater on Sunday. Pierce purchased a one-hour encounter from his owner, Gini Valbuena.

Cheri Pierce of North Greenbush, N.Y., prepares to meet 7-month-old Noah, held by Gini Valbuena, at Valbuena's Clearwater home Sunday.

Noah is happy to give Pierce a smooch. "Oh, I love you," Pierce told the chimp.

CLEARWATER - On Cheri Pierce's list of things to do before she dies: hold a chimpanzee.

So Pierce, who lives in New York, traveled to a home in Clearwater last week for her very own private chimp encounter.

Noah, a 7-month-old chimp, pulled her blond hair, swatted her cheek and kissed her on the mouth. Gini Valbuena, Noah's owner, hovered in the background.

Valbuena has owned and raised dozens of chimps and monkeys over the past four decades. She currently has three chimps at home. For 20 years, Valbuena cared for her menagerie with the money she made from running a photo studio out of her home.

But in August, she had gallbladder surgery and racked up $50,000 in medical bills - all without insurance.

Suddenly, she needs the chimps as much as they need her.

"I fully supported them for many years," Valbuena wrote in an e-mail. "Now we work together doing something they love. ... We've hit a bump in the road due to circumstances we could not foretell, but we'll steer around it together."

* * *

Her first monkey - a capuchin, the kind used by organ grinders - was a gift from her parents when she was 12 years old.

Valbuena can't explain why, but she connected with the monkey.

More followed: gibbons, chimpanzees, orangutans. She owned some of them, but also raised many for other people. She also has had several big cats, including a lion. Valbuena also married, had four children and divorced. To this day, her daughter picks up her kids' toys with her feet - like a chimp.

Back then, there were no laws against owning chimps or lions as pets. Today, by law, you can own them only if it involves a commercial use.

Valbuena took photos of regular folks but she also photographed the chimps in dresses and suits and sent them to greeting card companies.

A few years ago, her photo studio went under and she began offering chimp encounters for $100 an hour. She also takes her chimps to Naples for a few months each year for corporate events at a private preserve.

One of her chimps, 5-year-old Kenya, is over 40 pounds and is not allowed to participate in the encounters. Usually when her chimps reach sexual maturity, between ages 7 and 9, Valbuena sends them to an 82-acre farm she won't name somewhere in Florida.

She continues to raise them from afar.

In Florida, you can swim with dolphins, manatees and stingrays, pay to have a tiger cub climb your leg and touch a legless lizard named Jimmy Dean.

About 55 people and companies in Florida are licensed to exhibit chimps, which cost anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000. They include Busch Gardens in Tampa and Walt Disney World in Orlando.

Valbuena, who doesn't want to give her age but is in her 50s, is one of them. She's locked in a continuous battle with animal rights activists, who disapprove of private ownership of wild animals or using them for amusement.

Valbuena says chimps love the interaction and she loves them like children. She does not sell her older chimps to research centers, and figures anything that keeps the species going is a good thing.

In August, after her gallbladder was removed, Valbuena began advertising her chimp encounters more. "It is very enriching for the chimps as they become bored easily and we are always looking for ways to entertain them," she says.

But then she wonders. Her parents raised dozens of foster children.

"Sometimes I think about Mom and Dad raising all those foster babies all those years. All that time and attention, and I know there are all these children out there, and sometimes I feel guilty about giving it all to an animal, but these are just like my children. They are my family."

Valbuena sits on a stool as 3-year-old Kira, dressed in a Bugs Bunny diaper, clings to her. Dr. Darryl Heard, a University of Florida professor and zoological medicine specialist, gives Kira anesthesia.

"It's okay. Kisses. I know. Sorry," Valbuena coos, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

The chimps are her life. They eat five or six times a day and need round-the-clock care, like human infants. And now Kira needs a tooth extraction, at a cost of $500.

Valbuena knows of at least three chimps and four monkeys who have died under anesthesia.

Is she doing the right thing?

About 45 minutes later, the doctor calmly tells Valbuena the tooth came out, but there is something wrong with Kira's breathing.

Valbuena's chin quivers.

"There's so much happiness and joy in them and when one is the sick, it's the worst," she cries.

Kira, however, is fine. Valbuena cradles the groggy chimp. "Hi, darling, Mommy's so glad you're better."

Before heading back to Clearwater, Valbuena sits in her Dodge Caravan in the parking lot and slides Kira into a toddler-size pink one-piece with white eyelet trim along the back.

"Put your jammies on, darling," Valbuena says. "Mommy's so sorry you had to go through that."

All is well.

Behind Valbuena's home on a deck with two large cages, Pierce arrives to play with Kira. Valbuena makes the New York woman wash her hands with a disinfectant first.

Heard, the UF animal doctor, says chimps and people can give diseases to each other. Valbuena, however, says her animals have all their shots and have been checked for diseases. She's more worried about people giving the animals diseases.

Pierce has gifts for the chimps, a xylophone and a pair of maracas. Kira quickly breaks the xylophone's mallet in two and hides one of the maracas in the crook of her leg.

Then she leaps into Pierce's arms and gives her a big hug.

"Oh, I love you," says Pierce, her blue eyes fixed on the chimp's craggy face. "Want to come home with me?"

Kira and Pierce kiss, then Kira does a somersault.

"I don't know how you do it," Pierce tells Valbuena. "I'd play with them all day."

The chimp smiles, revealing a gap in her front teeth. Then she looks around for Valbuena, who's standing off to the side, monitoring the encounter.

"Mommy's not going anywhere," Valbuena says."



  1. Anonymous12:54 PM

    It really makes me sick. I hope you are happy Valbuena. The chimps belong in the wild, not with you. You are a cruel person and I can hardly wait until you get what is surely coming to you. You are an awful, horrible, animal abuser and you make me ill. How dare you steal these animals from their mothers. You know what happens to get these chimps and then you discard them when you can't handle them. You make me sick.

  2. Judie Harrison11:03 AM

    Dear Anon;
    Thank you so much for your comment. I feel exactly the same way! It almost sounds as though I wrote that comment.

    It's so nice to see that others feel the same way about her as I do. She is an awful person!

    I have meet her personally, unfortunelty and that was a few years back and 3 chimps ago.
    My heart goes out to each and every chimp that she has. Poor little babies, not able to be raised by their mommies. Sad and Sick!!

    I actually meet Kira (the chimp in this article). She was so sad, her bottom lip drooped, her activity was limited and the extremely small cage she slept in I wouldn't put a tiny dog in.

    After Kira there was Noah, now Eli. Kira is with those awful circus people, Rosiares and so is Tanzee and Kenya. Noah is now with Steve Martin in CA being worked in the entertainment business. Eli will be gone by next year and she'll steal another baby.

    Some times I wonder why people like her are allowed to go on.