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!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Pimp my chimp? $100 an hour, Gini Valbuena

Leonora LaPeter

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

So Pierce, who lives in New York, travelled 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 them 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 email. "Now we work together doing something they love ... ."

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.

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 Disney in Orlando.

Valbuena 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 the chimps love the interaction.

Behind Valbuena's home, on a deck with two large cages, Pierce arrives to play with Kira. Valbuena makes the New Yorker wash her hands with a disinfectant first. Pierce has gifts for the chimps, a xylophone and a pair of maraccas. Kira quickly breaks the xylophone's mallet and hides one of the maraccas in the crook of her leg.

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

"I don't know how you do it," Pierce says. "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. "Mommy's not going anywhere," Valbuena says.


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