WILSON – Whether or not Tarzan could talk to his chimps remains the stuff of fiction, but if anyone could top him it would be Carmen Presti.
Presti, 52, is a real-life friend to all types of primates who has made it his life’s work over nearly 30 years to rescue as many as he can. He met with the Buffalo News in his immaculately decorated home on Youngstown-Wilson Road in the Town of Wilson. The home, decorated in creams and crystal, sports kitschy, chimp-related decorations, but is as far away from the jungle as you can be.
The Niagara Falls resident splits his time between his other home on Livingston Avenue in Niagara Falls, where he has operated the Primate Sanctuary for 26 years, and the Wilson home, which he shares with his wife, Christie. The couple bought the 30-acre country property in 2001 with plans to build both a house and a larger sanctuary for his primates. He said he has never stayed overnight in the Wilson home but resides in Niagara Falls to care for the monkeys.
The couple fought for their dream of the Wilson sanctuary for seven years, facing concerns from both the town officials and residents. However, they were granted a permit last year and plan to break ground in a few months.
Several fundraisers are planned, including a Buffalo Bisons game on Aug. 21 – Zombie Night. And, if they sell 500 tickets, they will receive the proceeds from the 50/50 draw. Sara, their capuchin monkey who likes to throw mushrooms at people, will throw out the first pitch.
Presti and his wife, who have been together for more than 30 years and married for 17, actually have their two chimpanzees, the late Charlie and Kiko, in their wedding pictures. Presti said they drew the line at actually having the two participate in the ceremony.
“People are surprised when they meet my wife and me. They can’t believe we work with primates. They sort of think of farmers,” said Presti.
The first thing Presti does is to introduce us to one of his new arrivals, Pauly, a tiny finger monkey who was purchased by someone as a novelty. Infant finger monkeys weigh but 2 ounces and can wrap around your finger.
“He’s absolutely adorable. Everybody wants one, but they are illegal to own in New York State,” said Presti.
He said the little primate was rushed to the vet after he suffered a compound fracture and lost his right leg – and nearly his life.
“Monkeys are so intelligent. They have neurotic behaviors and he started self-mutilating his left knee,” said Presti. “When they are self-mutilating, there is only a 30 percent chance we can stop this.”
The monkey was eventually turned over to Presti, who daily employed bandages and physical therapy to save the monkey’s remaining leg over a two-month period.
Like Pauly, all of the primates in his care are named and have unique personalties and, in some cases, problems. Kiko, 29, a deaf chimpanzee, is believed to have lost his hearing after a beating from a trainer on a movie set. Presti has had him for 23 years and deals regularly with Meniere’s disease, a condition the chimp suffers as the result of his deafness. Presti said barometer changes trigger the disease and he checks weather reports daily so he can give Kiko his medicine in advance. Otherwise, Kiko suffers vertigo and is physically ill.
But it all began with Charlie, says Presti.
Did you always want to work with monkeys?
I always liked animals, but I have a math and science degree from NCCC. I grew up in Niagara Falls, born and raised. I was looking for jobs at the New York Power Authority. But I met Charlie and fell in love with him and started the Monkey Business.
How did you get started?
When I met my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, she had a monkey (before it was illegal in the state) and she will tell you herself it was for all the wrong reasons. She had one as a pet. She asked me to go look at a chimpanzee that was for sale in Ohio. We were just two young kids. We just wanted to take a look at him and take pictures. We went there and fell in love with him and we came home with Charlie.
What did you want to do?
We wanted to have a business. We called it Monkey Business. It was an educational, entertainment program we would do with the chimp.
Charlie did movies, didn’t he?
He was in the movie “Ghost Rider” He had about eight scripts written for him, Charlie the Chimp, because he was the only karate chimp in the world. He also did TV appearances and there was a signature film deal in the works, but the studio broke up.
How did the karate happen?
When he was an infant, I used to bring him to the karate studio. My brother owns Presti School of Karate. When I was working out, he would mimic what I was doing. I thought, I teach kids, let me see if I can teach him. And he just loved it. He loved to punch and kick things and not get yelled at for it. He really had fun doing it.
When did Charlie die?
Nov. 4, 2013. He had an enlarged heart. It’s very common in chimpanzees in captivity.
It must have been like losing a family member.
More than what you know. Charlie was my life. He was my best friend. He would protect me if I needed to be protected. It was amazing how he was. He loved people.
There’s been a lot of bad press about chimpanzees being dangerous when they get older.
We retired Charlie at the age of 8 or 9, around 1994. He was never a problem, but in order for us to work with him he had to be in a controlled environment, which you can’t have with kids running around. We decided to retire him and he went out on a great note. He was loved and had a great attitude. It made everyone think they should have a chimpanzee, but we never ever promoted that. I can’t tell you how many people we stopped from getting primates.
How long have you had Kiko?
He’s 29 years old and we got him when he was 6 years old.
There was a lawsuit. An animal rights group tried to take him away.
What they argued was habeas corpus – you can’t own a chimpanzee, just like you can’t own a person. But they wanted to take him to another sanctuary down in Florida where they get ownership of the chimp. It was just ludicrous. It was a publicity ploy. Locally it was thrown out of court and it went to the New York State appellate court and was thrown out. They appealed the appellate court and it was thrown out again. I also got a lot of crap and put up surveillance cameras at my place in Niagara Falls because online, on one of the blogs, they said Kiko was kept chained in a cement cage, which is false. His cage is 30-feet-by-30-feet and 15 feet tall. It is well above (U.S. Department of Agriculture) standards.
Last month we had a report of a candy found at your Niagara Falls sanctuary with poison in it. Do you think it could have been related to a blog?
It’s hard to say. The USDA inspector and (state Department of Environmental Conservation) think it may have been an animal rights group. But I don’t know. I also take monkeys away from people. So it could be someone trying to get even with me, but it is not me that takes them away; it’s the state. Most people understand, and I keep in touch with them and send them pictures, but some people hold a grudge.
How did you find the candy?
I found the Reese’s peanut butter cup when I was installing cameras. We never had any problems in Niagara Falls, but within the last couple years, we had someone steal something out of the mailbox. We had our truck broken into. I found the Reese’s peanut butter cup when I was running conduit. I ended up asking Christie and she said she didn’t give it to them. I asked the kids next door and they said no. We never had any complaints from neighbors. When I found the peanut butter cup I actually saved it and all this stuff went through my head at night so I actually looked for a place to test it. … I never thought it would come back positive.
How did you go from owning just Charlie to operating a sanctuary?
My wife always wanted to operate a primate rescue center, but as we started making presentations around the country, we started realizing there were a lot of monkeys that needed homes, and we started taking them in and one thing led to another. Once we got 15, we decided to turn nonprofit and opened the primate sanctuary. We have 36 now.
What will you be doing in Wilson?
In Niagara Falls we were limited. Here we have 30 acres. We want indoor-outdoor habitats for everyone. Honestly, this is where the primates should be, more so than the city. It’s more of a natural surrounding. Even our climate they will get used to, as long as they have a place to get warm. Capuchin monkeys will stay outside almost all winter.
Some people say – I don’t want a zoo next to me.
The sanctuary is a rescue center for saving primates. A zoo is for people to come and see animals. We will have open houses, but we will not be buying and breeding animals. These are all rescues. Also, my neighbors are not that close to me and the neighbor that is closest to me is 100 percent for us.
They can’t wait until we get out here. People fear what they don’t know. If you talk to my neighbors in Niagara Falls (who are much closer) it’s not a problem at all.
Once in awhile you hear a chimp, but it is not like a barking dog. The animals are confined. They are not running loose.
To donate, find out more about the Primate Sanctuary or buy tickets to the Aug. 21 Bisons game benefit, go to ThePrimateSanctuary.com.
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