Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

April 19, 2007

WILSON: Residents weary of monkey business

By Bill Wolcott/wolcottb@gnnewspaper.com

WILSON — The prospect of some monkey business is not funny for Fitch Road residents living near a proposed primate sanctuary.

Monkeys are not only mischievous but dangerous, dirty and noisy, according to the residents who gathered at the home of Pat and Anne Daul on Sunday. Although the Primate Sanctuary project has not been cleared by the Wilson Planning Board, the neighbors are concerned that “Charlie the Karate Chimp” and friends might make their home on the 30-acre site.

The neighbors have read alarming Internet stories where monkeys have broken away from primate sanctuaries around the world.

“They’ve gotten out of government-regulated sanctuaries,” said Wendy Brown. “With all the special locks and doo-hickeys and bells and whistles, there’s no way to guarantee they can’t get out. There’s too many instances where they have.”

Christie and Carmen Presti of Niagara Falls are the president and vice president of The Primate Sanctuary Inc. Craig Scarupa of Lockport is the treasurer. To date, the sanctuary has had mostly positive publicity, but the neighbors are concerned there could be 50 monkeys living in their backyards.

“People fear what they don’t know,” Carmen Presti said. “I have nothing to hide. We run a good facility. Animals are taken care of and it’s safe for everyone.”

Even if enclosed, the primates make noise, smell, draw rodents and could cause 12-Mile Creek pollution, the neighbors charge.

“I won’t be spreading (the excrement),” Presti said. “I put it out with the garbage. Niagara Falls has been picking it up for me for 20 years.”

Currently, the Prestis’ house 24 monkeys, two chimpanzees and large birds in a former small convenience store in Niagara Falls. The animals need space and fresh air as well as shelter.

“There’s not anyone around here who wants this to happen,” said Pat Daul. “He (Presti) has not gotten any approval, past building his house ... This is more of a commercial endeavor.”

The land is posted agricultural, not commercial.

“We have permits just for the house,” Presti said. “We do need permits for building and have to see what laws they have.”

Presti said he does have proper licenses for exotic animals and that his building is inspected twice a year.

“This guy is trying to get all kinds of government grants,” Brian Campbell said of Presti. “Our tax dollars will be used for something like this! It’s ridiculous. Our tax dollars can’t even keep Mount View open for elderly people. This guy’s got the nerve to say he’s trying to get a million dollars in funding for a bunch of sick, abused monkeys that aren’t even indigenous to North America.”

Carmen Presti is the head trainer/handler of Charlie the Karate Chimp, which he acquired in 1987. Carmen, a graduate of Niagara Falls High School, has a third-degree black belt in Tan Soo Do and first-degree black belt. Charlie has been featured on the cable station Animal Planet and programs including Current Affairs, Inside Edition, Regis and Kathy Lee, Midnight Hour, PM Magazine and international shows.

Charlie the Karate Chimp is pictured with Jay Leno, Billy Joel, Whoopie Gold and Chuck Norris on the Web site.

“I think the chances are pretty good because this guy has movie stars and people thinking this is such a great novelty,” Campbell worried.

Even the Charlie the Chimp Web site warns, “Apes and monkeys do not make good pets.”

There’s no argument about that, but Presti explained: “In a home environment a primate will try to establish a hierarchy and will side with the Alpha, the highest ranking...

“Out in a sanctuary, if one get loose it will climb first tree they see or come to my house. At home it will establish his hierarchy ... There are more injuries and death by deer than primates,” Presti said.

Monkeys show neurotic behavior after reaching puberty. People get scratched and bitten. National Geographic wrote:

“As babies, these big-eyed furry creatures may seem harmless. But once they reach sexual maturity, experts warn, monkeys can become aggressive. And some primates harbor deadly diseases, like herpes B, that they can pass on to human primates via bites and scratches.”

The neighbors don’t want monkeys as their neighbors.

“He (Presti) wants it to be tax exempt, educational, but I think that’s a veiled attempt to live tax free,” Campbell said.

The neighbors chortled at the size of the “caretaker house.” It’s under construction on Wilson-Youngstown Road. “It’s a mansion,” Pat Daul said.

Presti declined to reveal the cost of the house, but said it was about 2,800 square feet.

Anne Daul noted that 12-Mile Creek runs through the sanctuary property and worries about the animal waste and the noise. “It’s a million dollar Jurassic Park,” she said. “My kids are actually nervous about it.”

Still, from Tarzan’s Cheetah, which celebrated its 75th birthday, to the Karate-trained Charlie make a primate sanctuary look like a fun idea. The objecting neighbors acknowledge that.

“We have talked to people,” Anne Daul said. “They say we heard about the monkey sanctuary. People don’t think it’s such a big deal until you start explaining to them how dangerous it’s going to be. ... These animals have issues.”

Presti said, “The people who are complaining are people who moved in after we bought the property.”

He claimed that he is not having neighbor problems in Niagara Falls. “There’s never been a complaint,” he said. “Everyone would vouch for me.”

Presti collects money in a donation jar at the Power Authority Wildlife Festival show. People are giving him money. Do they know what they’re giving money to, the neighbors ask.

“He speaks like he already has it,” Brown said. “He does not have the permits or zoning to do this in the Town of Wilson.”

Presti would not reveal how much money he’s raised? “We’re well on our way,” he said. “It will cost a half-million just to get the building up ... “We’re looking for grant big money that focuses on animals, education and startup projects.”

As a non-profit, will sanctuary pay taxes? “I’m not sure how we’re doing that yet,” Presti said.

The Presti’s prospectus says that the monkeys will travel freely during the day and be locked up at night. There will be security, double doors and a 6-foot fence. There will be a moat and surveillance cameras and motion detectors.

Presti is not sure when he’ll return to the planning board. His next step is “keep pounding pavement, raising money, writing grants.”

Contact reporter Bill Wolcott at 439-9222, Ext. 6246.