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!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Story of Bubbles, Michael Jackson's Chimpanzee

Michael Jackson's pet chimp Bubbles retires in Florida

Posted on Sat, Jul. 11, 2009 in the Miami Herald

The phone calls clamored in from Miami, Europe and Australia to the line of a tiny office near Perez's Produce and Pig Farm.
Is it true? they asked the receptionist. Do you have really have Bubbles, Michael Jackson's old chimpanzee, there in. . . how do you pronounce the name of that town?

Yes it's true. Bubbles -- Jackson's beloved chimp, the primate skeptics used as telltale sign of the pop star's eccentricity, the darling face in the video -- had long left Neverland. And he's retired in an ape sanctuary in the middle of Florida.

To understand the long reach of a single sequined glove, a parable exists about 200 miles northwest of Miami off of U.S. 27 at the Center of Great Apes. Bubbles has lived here alongside 41 other aging chimpanzees and orangutans for four years, with virtually no one squealing about it. That was until two weeks ago, when his infamous owner confounded the world and suddenly died of cardiac arrest.

A place that averages three media requests a year soon received dozens in days. For the first time, they needed a publicist. The media kept badgering with similar, strange questions: Does Bubbles still moonwalk? Does he know the King of Pop is dead? And, most important, can we go see him?

Founder and director Patti Ragan told the vast majority of them no, fearing a tranquil locale -- not open to the public, it is a sanctuary after all -- would be transformed to some media zoo that conflicted its actual purpose.

Here, Bubbles the Chimp got the life his owner coveted for himself: a chance to live outside the public eye.

He is 26 years old now, around four feet tall, a pudgy 165 pounds. The chimp who dined with Liz Taylor and sat in the very studio while the Bad album was being recorded now spends his days in a 35-foot-high, 35 feet wide, 90-foot-long enclosure with his new, hairier family: Sam, Oopsie, Boma, Jessie, Kodua and the baby, Bobby Stryker.

Some days, he likes to climb to the top of his futuristic cage and sit alone. Up high, he stares into the distance.

''He's a very dignified chimp,'' Ragan said at the center's office. ``Everyone knows him as the pink-eared, pink-faced chimp in the red suit. But the world has missed his adolescence and adulthood. He's not the same.''


The tiny office is barely a dot on the lush, 120-acre property, where treetops overshadow treetops. The apes all live in large geodesic domes that connect to 4,000 feet of elevated tunnels, allowing them to peer into the kitchen where a cook prepares food, mosey into the veterinarian's center when they seek treatment, or gossip over a creek that runs through the property.

Ragan jumped into a slow-moving cart. Tracing along a path she rides several times a day, she's serenaded by the whoop of the woodpecker and the howl of the orangutan.

''Hi, Sweetheart,'' she calls to him in a high-pitched voice. ``How's my boy?''

Bubbles stands on his knuckles and turns his neck to see her. His pouts his upturned lips. The broad face is the same as always. His hair is unkempt, with a touch of gray. Taking a few ginger steps, he gently nods his head toward Ragan.

His new family can relate to him. Save for baby Bobby, they, too, are also former child stars. One was in the most recent version of Planet of the Apes. Another was in a popular Career Builder commercial. Ragan dubs them ``The Hollywood Chimps.''

When they argue, it's bitter. They squeal, poke, yell at one another, take sides. In seconds, they hug and make up.

While the others blow kisses, stomp and puff their chests, Bubbles stares and nods.

He is the sensitive one. He rarely starts a fight. If one occurs, he defers to Sam, a 40-year-old and oldest male of the group, to help quell the differences.

No one's ever seen Bubbles moonwalk -- they don't know if he still can. The chimpanzees love watching DVDs -- but Bubbles is never shown the ''Dangerous'' tour in Bucharest or the Leave Me Alone video, where he is seen riding an amusement park model plane with Jackson. The Chimps are more Jane Goodall buffs.

''Bubbles was obviously a well-loved chimp,'' Ragan said. ``It is obvious that Michael Jackson took good care of him . . . But it's hard to say whether he inherited anything from Michael.''

Except for one thing: If someone raises a camera, he'll turn and walk away.


Like most chimps, Bubbles' rendezvous with fame was short. After they pass the age of 7, they grow too strong and too independent to be cajoled into performing tricks for treats.

They suffer the fall of a young celebrity whose gimmick goes stale. They become sideshow acts in unaccredited zoos or tools for breeders. And as the public becomes fascinated with newer, younger chimps, older ones can be left to endure invasive tests in the name of scientific query.

Apes at this sanctuary aren't used for research. The females are given Depo-Provera and the males receive vasectomies to prevent breeding. There are no indignities like species-bending outfits, cameras or pies in the face. There are just stuffed peppers with peanuts and cinnamon and socialization into a new group of primates just like them.

It's not always easy or consistent. Sometimes those animals will meld well, playing and laughing and giggling with others and then -- Ragan can see it -- they have this existential moment when they wonder, just how did life get to this?

Staff has never seen Bubbles in that crisis. He was about 3 years old when he left a cancer research lab and was given to the King of Pop. He had some small roles in commercials and television shows, but was mostly known as socialite -- traveling with the star to Japan and hobnobbing with Quincy Jones, Brooke Shields, Liza Minnelli and others.

When Jackson's children came along, he gave Bubbles -- by then, a teenager -- to Hollywood trainer Bob Dunn. In 2004, Dunn stopped training apes and donated the Hollywood Chimps to the west-central Florida sanctuary, one of 10 in North America.

Ragan, a Miami native, founded the nonprofit in 1993 after acting as foster parent to an orangutan who had a sick mom. Through the work, she became concerned about how showbiz apes live out the next 30 years of their lives. She searched throughout Florida for the perfect spot for the sanctuary before deciding on rural Wauchula.

The citrus groves, cow pastures and sweet air of the countryside give way to a tiny downtown, where country music is played through city-owned speakers on Main Street. This week, signs planted on green spaces advertised foreclosure relief and an upcoming concealed weapons class. The businesses are just starting to put up lettering indicating ``Se Habla EspaƱol.''

The last time anyone could remember anyone on national television invoking the name of this 4,000-person city was in 1981, when two families discovered that a nearby hospital had mistakenly swapped their babies. Last week, the city found themselves being talked about on Anderson Cooper, The Today Show and The Colbert Report, courtesy of a resident most will never see.

''I didn't even remember he was even here until I saw him on TV,'' said Amye Mitchell, a 34-year-old, sixth-generation Wauchula resident and local waitress. ``I thought how this is great publicity for us. It put some attention on a small-town . . . Most people don't even know where Wauchula's at. Or how to spell it.''

When he arrived, Bubbles was undoubtedly the chimp with the highest profile. The center downplayed it. Until two weeks, Bubbles' biography only said that he was once in a music video.

In 2006, Richard Shepard, the local emergency management director, was taking a tour around the center when Ragan introduced them.

``Is that the Bubbles?''

''Yes,'' she said.

''It's sort of a well-kept secret here,'' Shepard recalled. ``I bet six in 10 people in Wauchula don't know he's here.''

The day 31 million people stopped their daily routines to watch Michael Jackson's memorial service on television, Bubbles -- who is an ape, not a monkey -- sat atop his balcony.

Bobby Stryker, the baby 5-year-old chimp with a white tuft on his back, climbed to sit with him. Then, he poked him. Bubbles tickled back, turning him around in a large red plastic bowl made of discarded parts of an old McDonald's Playland.

Ragan hasn't attempted to let Bubbles know that Michael Jackson, who had not seen the chimp in at least six years, has died.

''How do you expect me to explain it?'' Ragan said. 'I'm not sure if he would recognize the words `Michael Jackson.' I'm sure it was a big part of his life when he was little because he got experiences most chimps don't get to have. But this was only a fifth of his life.''

Bubbles Speaks

By: Ben Montgomery
uly 7, 2009

Ben Montgomery is a reporter for the
St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. He can be reached at

In a Daily Beast exclusive, Ben Montgomery meets Michael Jackson’s beloved chimpanzee, Bubbles, who is now retired and living the good life in Florida with other celebrity apes. Among the revelations: Bubbles didn't commit suicide, he wasn't cryogenically frozen, and he has not been told of Michael’s death.

Bubbles the chimp won't be at Michael Jackson's funeral Tuesday.

He won't emerge from the Staples Center wings wearing tiny overalls or moonwalk through the hot lights or cheese chimp-like for the cameras.

In fact, Bubbles doesn't even know Michael Jackson is dead.

No one has told him, and there is good reason.

Bubbles lives 2,600 miles from Los Angeles, on a Florida ape preserve surrounded by swamplands and cattle fields and orange groves. He is 26 now and he makes his home most of the time in a giant enclosure surrounded by native ferns, banana trees, water oaks, hibiscus, and Florida maples. He has access to more than 4,000 feet of elevated tunnels connecting geodesic domes and large enclosures. He paints and watches television and gives piggy-back rides to smaller chimps, and when a woman comes each Sunday to play soft music on a recorder, he seems to enjoy it. He digs peanut butter out of bamboo shoots and sucks on frozen hemp milk and munches on mangoes and sweet potatoes and grapes.

He is a chimpanzee again, and if you don't mind, his caretakers would like to keep it that way.

"Michael has a special realtionship with Bubbles." - Animal trainer Bob Dunn, People, 1987

Bubbles met the world in March 1986, when a 14-year-old heart-transplant recipient named Donna Ashlock emerged from Michael Jackson's estate with a souvenir.

Ashlock is on the right, beside her hero, awestruck. Michael's in the middle, the early Michael, the pretty Michael, the pre-allegations Michael. He has a soft smile and his left arm is stretched around the little girl's shoulder. In his right arm sits a fully dressed chimp, clinging to Jackson like a big hairy baby. This photo is important because here stood the World's Biggest Star, sweet and innocent, mostly unaltered, still... normal. And here he was holding a chimp, like a giant question mark.

The story spread that Bubbles had been rescued from a lab and sold to a trainer who gifted the animal to Jackson. At first we thought: Well, we would own a baby chimp, too, if we could afford to indulge our desires. But before long, Bubbles was accompanying Michael to a pre-tour presser, drinking green tea with Japanese dignitaries, moonwalking for the media. In Japan, it was widely reported, Jackson had his hairy friend's hotel walls re-papered because Bubbles didn't like the smell of smoke. He went with Michael on a world tour and spent down time at Jackson's house (In his house? we wondered. Where did the chimp sleep?).

And in every public appearance, as Michael's eccentricities began to overshadow his musical accomplishments, we humanized Bubbles a little more.

Every time Michael spoke fondly of his chimp, we wondered what they were really up to.

"That's not so bizarre. It could be cocaine. Besides, I like the chimp, Bubbles. He's a funny little guy." —Quincy Jones, 1987

In 1989 came reports of Bubbles' untimely death: run over by a Jeep on Jackson's estate. (Not true.) A year later, the press speculated that Bubbles died when a fire tore through Jackson's Santa Barbara menagerie. ("Michael Jackson's pet chimp, Bubbles, is not dead," USA Today reported. "We repeat: Michael Jackson's pet chimp, Bubbles, is not dead.") The following year The Globe had Bubbles becoming a daddy and the papers reported he would be ring-bearer at Elizabeth Taylor's eighth wedding. (Sounds true, but no.)

He soon became another check on the Wacko Jacko Inventory: kiddie sleepovers, Elephant Man bones, hyperbaric chamber, surgical mask. Bubbles.

Then came the ugly news: Jackson's former brother-in-law James DeBarge claimed he caught the singer inappropriately touching Bubbles during a diaper change. The charges went public around the time of Jackson's child-molestation trial, and it was easy to assume the worst.

"Whenever Bubbles sees himself in a magazine, he'll pick it up and kiss it" - Bob Dunn, People, 1987

Patti Ragan guides her golf cart toward Bubbles' enclosure. The other chimps are climbing and swinging and collecting leaves while 165-pound Bubbles approaches the edge, sits on his haunches and drapes a hot dog-size finger through the mesh.

He's magnificent, stoic, a little white hair bordering his face. The broad-shouldered chimp seems at ease and curious, and as Ragan creeps along the edge of the enclosure, he stands and follows the cart, his marble-size eyes locked on his visitors.

"Morning Bubbie," Ragan sings. "Are you following us?"

Though the center is closed to the public, Bubbles likes people, Ragan says, and is fond of his caregivers. Bubbles has lived here since 2005, when he was quietly transferred from California. That was the same year Jackson was tried on sexual-abuse charges, but by then Bubbles had been living with trainer Bob Dunn for several years.

Until now, his life here has been uneventful, save the rare snake that makes it into the preserve. The phone has been ringing like crazy at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Fla. All the reporters ask the same thing: Does Bubbles know?

Ragan wants to be friendly. She wants to appease the public's curiosity, but not at the risk of upsetting the animals or jeopardizing their dignity or exploiting Bubbles' celebrity for profit, even if the annual operating budget of this preserve is $900,000 and we're in the worst recession since the Great Depression.

To understand that, you must know that Ragan gave up her Miami business and her Mercedes and her weekly manicures to care for chimps, to live here, and once in a while, after the staff of 15 has gone home, Ragan slips out to the enclosures and sits with the animals. Just her and the mosquitoes and 28 chimps and 14 orangutans. Entertainment outcasts and roadside-zoo refugees and circus trash.

There are other bold-faced apes: Bam Bam, who played an orangutan nurse in the Passions soap; Kodua, who copied her rear in that CareerBuilder ad; Jonah, from the Planet of the Apes remake; Mowgli, from the Dennis Miller Show; and many more who helped folks make big money until they grew too big to work. Though it has been rumored that Jackson planned to visit Bubbles here, it's rare that celebrities are curious about what becomes of the ape actors when they exit the business.

"You wonder if they ever think, "I wonder what ever happened to those old stars?" Ragan says.

"My chimp Bubbles is a constant delight." - Michael Jackson, in Moonwalk, 1988

Though many reporters have called, Ragan has agreed to let three into the preserve. She does not want TV trucks lining the dirt road that leads to the unmarked compound. She even turned away a pushy New York Post reporter who showed up at the gate and demanded to see Bubbles.

If you think that's silly, consider this: CNN's Anderson Cooper was invited into the preserve last week and his crew filmed Bubbles in his enclosure. Up popped, with a CNN screen-shot of Bubbles with the message: MICHAEL JACKSON'S CHIMPANZEE IS IN MONKEY JAIL, Y'ALL! WE NEED TO GET HIM OUT!! Ragan has walked a fine line since Jackson's death. She has become Bubbles' publicist, knocking down rumors that he committed suicide or is cryogenically frozen. She appreciates the spike in the center's Web traffic that has resulted in a few donations, but she must protect her big boy from the prying and exploitative world outside. That's why it feels so odd asking the question: Does Bubbles know?

Ragan obliges.

Chimps can understand English, she explains. Some even sign. When Ragan approaches a young female, Noel, and asks her what she had for breakfast, the chimp signs “banana” and “apple” and then suggests she wants some berries.

And they do mourn their dead comrades.

"But the concept of saying to him, 'He's gone. He's dead.' They just don't know that word. So there's no point in saying that to him," she says. "We join the world in being sad and mourning the death of Michael Jackson. We

all enjoyed his music... What we can do is give Bubbles the best long-term future we can"

Good Health. Space. Enrichment. Protection.

She sometimes shows the apes videos from their pasts. Sammy the orangutan has watched himself in Dunston Checks In, and he seemed to be interested.

Ragan has not shown Bubbles the clips of himself moonwalking or wearing tiny tailored clothes or making goofy lips at the cameras.

She thinks she will, someday, but won't tell a soul.

To donate to Bubbles or any of the other apes, visit the Center for Great Apes online at


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