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FINDING FUNDS ISN'T EASY AS MONKEYS CAN'T YET ESCAPE THEIR URBAN CONFINES

The classified ad could read: Twenty-three inner-city monkeys desperately seek home in country.

Animal lover Carmen Presti had four homeless and abused monkeys and one chimpanzee when he opened his inner-city refuge in 1990. The sanctuary has burgeoned to 21 monkeys and two chimps, and the pressure is on Presti to speed up his plan to build a larger refuge in northern Niagara County.

"The Niagara Falls sanctuary is reaching a critical mass," said Dr. Michael Borowiec, a Niagara Falls veterinarian who has treated some of the monkeys. "The animals need more space and fresh air. It's quickly becoming a quality-of-life issue."

Presti runs the primate sanctuary with his wife, Christie, who had a rare macaque monkey as a pet when she was growing up in Niagara Falls. They said they have to turn away homeless monkeys because they don't have the room.

Three years ago, the Prestis paid $35,000 for 30 acres of farmland on Youngstown-Wilson Road, about 10 miles east of Youngstown in Wilson.

The Prestis had hoped to begin building the country refuge in the spring of 2003. The tough part, they said nearly three years ago, would be raising the $250,000 to develop the refuge.

Today, because of huge increases in the cost of the steel and lumber needed for the construction, the couple must raise $400,000.

Meanwhile, the monkeys and chimps make do in an abandoned grocery store at 2764 Livingston Ave.

Presti has hired a professional grants writer to apply for state and federal funding under educational programs. The Prestis' main primate, former television star Charlie the karate chimp, helps raise money through guest appearances. The couple also receives appearance fees for attending wildlife festivals, where the monkeys and apes are used for educational purposes. The primate sanctuary makes itself available for outreach programs in schools, Scout camps and private parties.

But the fund raising is not happening fast enough for the Prestis.

"We desperately need the Wilson facility," Carmen Presti said. "The outdoor-indoor refuge would open up a whole new world for unwanted moneys and apes."

Many of the animals in the inner-city sanctuary have never experienced the outdoors.

The proposed refuge in Wilson has 20-foot trees and is traversed by Twelve Mile Creek.

The two apes, Charlie, 17, and Kiko, 18, and a few of the monkeys have been driven out to the site for a preview.

"When I tell them we're going to the creek, they understand," Presti said. "As soon as they get in the truck, they start laughing and hugging each other."

The monkeys, on 20-foot tethers, play in the trees and loll in the water. "They love the creek and the huge weeping willow that hangs across the water," Presti said.

The proposed refuge would consist of three connected buildings totaling 12,000 square feet. The front 10 acres would remain grassland and be used as a fenced-in outdoor habitat.

The Prestis plan a big open house to launch the country refuge.

"When we open this up, I want everyone to see the chimps' excitement about being in their new habitat," Carmen Presti said.

Many of the monkeys in the inner-city sanctuary were abused and homeless before the Prestis rescued them. Kiko had been so badly beaten about the ears by his former owner that he is almost deaf. A ring-tailed lemur, about the size of a house cat, but with a 3-foot-long tail, is on the endangered species list. One of the monkeys had been fed cocaine and was a drug addict. The animals range in size from Charlie, the 200-pound ape, to an 8-ounce tufted-eared marmoset.

"The Prestis are tireless in their dedication," Borowiec said. "It's really a miracle they found each other."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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