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The Controversial Florida Retirement Homes for Famous Animals

Michael Jackson's pet chimpanzee Bubbles has landed in a glorious sanctuary, but activists worry about the fate of other animals in the entertainment biz.

by Mitchell Sunderland
Jun 25 2017, 2:44pm

Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto

Retirement homes and theme parks line Florida's coasts, and Orlando's Gatorland serves as both. The retirees, of course, aren't your grandparents—they're the alligators from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. As Okeechobee party kingpin Mike Busey previously told Broadly, "These alligators have their own IMDB!"

Famous animals have resided in Florida at least since the 1980s, when producer Frank Marshall shipped a crew to shoot these gators, making them reptile celebrities in the process. Now, owners are retiring their famous (or in some cases infamous) animals in Florida—but whether or not it's a good idea is up for debate.

The most notable example is Michael Jackson's pet chimpanzee Bubbles, who lives in the Center for Great Apes in the small town of Wauchula. The center bans the public from viewing Bubbles and did not reply to multiple requests for comment, but a 2010 Animal Planet special shows Bubbles in an enclosure behind a large fence, where he can climb on trees and wooden logs with his best friend, the chimp Ripley, who audiences know for his iconic performances in Ace Ventura Pet Detective and Seinfeld.

Bubbles' life as a retired animal is quite a departure from his Hollywood stint, when he wore matching red leather jackets with the King of Pop, who even allowed the chimp to raid his fridge for Häagen-Dazs ice cream in the middle of the night. "He'd take showers. He had his own nanny," La Toya Jackson, who lived with Michael in the early- to mid-1980s, recalled on the TV special. But by the late 1990s, Bubbles had turned violent. Michael feared he'd bite his children and moved Bubbles to warm, sunny Florida.

Read more: Florida Girls Are Pissed That Hipsters Stole LaCroix from Them

"Bubbles was fortunate enough to end up there," points out Delcianna Winders, PETA's Vice President and General Counsel of Captive Animal Law Enforcement. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries accredits the Center for Great Apes, but Winders accuses many owners of sending their performing animals to Florida-based animal "sanctuaries" that breed for the zoo industry. As the home to wildlife-themed amusement parks like Sea World, Winders notes that "Florida has fairly loose regulations, and a history of circuses."

After Feld Entertainment bowed to activist pressure and removed elephants from the circus in 2015, they sent the animals to the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC) in Polk City, Florida. Feld did not reply to Broadly's request for comment, but their website describes the CEC's purpose as tending to "the comfort and well-being of the Asian elephants: plenty of food, water, shade, places to sleep and areas where the animals could be groomed regularly. The safety of all animals and humans working 24 hours a day at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation was paramount."

PETA rejects the description. "It's absolutely not a sanctuary," Winders says. "The Ringling elephants are being handled at a compound."

Still, the elephants are lucky to end up in Florida. Since the circus shut down last month, activists have struggled to find a home for Ringling's tigers. "It's not going to be easy, because all legitimate sanctuaries are full of tigers right now," Ed Stewart, president of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, explained to the Washington Post.

Windesr estimates "thousands" of animals continue to work in theaters and movie sets across the world, but she remains optimistic. "There's definitely a trend towards phasing out animals in entertainment," she says. If the animals do retire, there's a good possibility they'll join Bubbles, gators, and elephants in the Sunshine State. "I do suspect the climate has something to do with [the number of performing animals in Florida]," Winders admits. "It's a much better place for a chimpanzee to be in Florida than northern Michigan."

Update: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Delcianna Winders's name.