SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) --The San Francisco Zoo may be losing its three chimpanzees that have entertained visitors for more than four decades. It's a blow to staff who have cared for the chimps for so long, and for fans of the zoo.
In public, zoo officials say sending the chimps away is just one of the options being considered. But in private, zoo employees tell the ABC7 I-Team it's a done deal, and that the chimps are moving because the zoo has not made them a priority.
The San Francisco Zoo has three elderly chimpanzees. "Minnie" and "Maggie" arrived 45 years ago, after being caught in the wild. The only male, "Cobby," had 10 years in entertainment, including a circus, television, and film before coming to the zoo. He is the oldest male chimp in any American zoo, believed to be in his late 50s, which is well past a chimp's normal lifespan.
"Our male has some arthritis, so he is on glucosamine pills," said Kathy Edwards, San Francisco Zoo's Curator of Primates.
John Alcaraz has a special connection to the chimps. He was their keeper for 16 years, from the time they arrived at the zoo. He still has their artwork in his living room. Alcaraz is upset the chimps may now be forced from the only home they've known for decades.
"Change is hard on humans and it's extremely hard on chimps, especially males," Alcaraz explained.
The San Francisco Zoo doesn't have final say over what happens to the chimps. They're part of the nation-wide Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan (SSP), chaired by Steve Ross of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo.
"We make decisions about which chimpanzees should breed and have babies, as well as decisions about moving chimpanzees from one accredited zoo to another," said Ross.
Ross told Noyes it's important for zoos to create chimpanzee groups as they exist in the wild, with at least three adult males and five mature females, and dependent offspring.
"So in the case of a zoo like San Francisco with a relatively small group, what we're looking for is to give them social options," Ross said.
San Francisco has a choice: upgrade its aging exhibit to accommodate more animals, or send the chimps away to another zoo. Danny Latham is San Francisco Zoo's marketing director and spokesman.
NOYES: "Are you considering perhaps expanding so you can take more chimps?"
LATHAM: "Well, I mean, I don't know. Again, that could be an option or could not, I haven't heard that, I haven't heard that."
NOYES: "You've heard the others, you've heard the one about moving to Florida."
LATHAM: "I have."
The I-Team has confirmed an amusement park near West Palm Beach, Florida is one contender for the chimps' new home.
"If it was in the best interest of the chimps, we would be happy to help," said Lion Country Safari's wildlife director Terry Wolfe.
Lion Country Safari has a water park, mini-golf, Ferris wheel, campground, and a drive-thru zoo with 19 chimps.
"I was just approached because we have some extra space, and asked, we have a lot of experience with mixing chimps, that if we were amiable to any additions," Wolfe told the I-Team.
"To try to introduce him to that situation, I think is criminal," Alcaraz said of Cobby. He added that since Cobby has been the only male at the zoo for so long, he foresees problems for this chimp in Florida.
ALCARAZ: "He just didn't get along, he fights too much, he bothers the trains or cars that are going through and they'll put him to sleep."
NOYES: "Oh, that's your concern."
ALCARAZ: "Yes. They'll get rid of him."
Lion Country's wildlife director told Noyes, he would make sure Cobby and the girls have enough time to adjust, before introducing them to the other chimps. But, that's not enough for San Francisco Zoo super fan and blogger Kim Forwood.
"I have great anxiety over it and am moved to tears constantly over the whole situation because I just, I just think it's really wrong," Forwood said.
She's launched the petition drive, "Don't Kick Chimps out!" Forwood points out that Zoo Director Tanya Peterson has spent more than $3 million on a new children's playground and $1 million more for a new sculpture garden that's under construction. But, the chimps have always lived in the same exhibit, without major renovation.
"There's just so much more that could be done for them. And they don't need to move to get that, they just need the zoo to actually step up and put them as a priority," Forwood said.
Instead, the I-Team has learned the zoo is taking steps to move the chimps out, such as borrowing shipping crates from the Oakland Zoo.
"It was, 'Hey, we're looking at moving our chimps, what do you guys have? We don't have, we need more than what we have,' or wondering what we had that might be available to help with that," said Oakland Zoo's Margaret Rousser.
After seeing the condition of the Oakland Zoo's crates, San Francisco Zoo employees tell me they decided to build their own. Construction is now underway. The chimp keepers are beginning to crate-train Cobby, Minnie and Maggie.
"We want them to voluntarily go into the crate so that they are comfortable in there, you know, because it would be a journey," said curator Edwards.
The chair of the SSP tells the I-Team the age of these chimps makes it more important to make a final decision soon.
PHOTO: 2013 Diagram of the New Chimp Exhibit
The chimps have been in the same enclosure since the 1970's. The zoo made a diagram two years ago for a new exhibit that included seven distinct areas for the chimps, sky ways for them to play in, and areas where zoogoers could walk beneath.
But zoo officials tell the I-Team they don't have the money to build it, so the chimps may be gone soon.
Click here to see a large image of the 2013 Diagram of the New Chimp Exhibit
Click here for a link to Forwood's petition against moving the chimps
Forwood's blog where she posts updates about the chimps: savesfzoochimps.blogspot.com
You can email San Francisco Zoo Director Tanya Peterson at: email@example.com
The San Francisco Rec and Park Commission's Joint Zoo Committee meets this Thursday, February 26, 2015 at 5:00 p.m. in the San Francisco Zoo's Lurie Education Center. It is a public meeting. The I-Team will be there and update you on what happens.
Eric McDonnell is the Joint Zoo Committee's president. You can reach him through:
San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission
501 Stanyan Street
San Francisco, CA 94117