Niagara Gazette

November 6, 2013

DELUCA: Prestis mourn loss of Charlie the Chimp, carry on with animal sanctuary work

Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Charlie died in his sleep on Monday and the Presti family is heartbroken. 

The 28-year-old chimpanzee suffered from an enlarged heart, and died halfway through his life expectancy. It's a common ailment for captive primates.

For those who don't know of the Prestis, Carmen and his wife Christie are founders of the Primate Sanctuary in Niagara Falls. They've been in the news often over the past eight years as they fought to get approval to build a new primate sanctuary on their property in Wilson. The approval finally came in July. But, the project they hope to break ground on this spring will never benefit the one creature they wanted most to be there. Charlie.

I spoke with Carmen Presti on Wednesday about the loss of his friend, a primate he taught to communicate in sign language and who enjoyed watching Animal Planet and Nikolodian, eating tacos and occasional treats from Dairy Queen.

When Charlie was uncomfortable in his last days, he would call out to Carmen several times in the middle of the night and Presti would go down to see what he needed. If it was a drink, Charlie would touch his throat, or if he wanted food, he would touch his belly. Carmen lost 15 pounds tending to Charlie over the past few weeks. But the communication made things so much easier, especially when Charlie needed X-rays or blood tests.   

"Charlie and I could talk to each other just like I'm talking to you," Carmen said to me. "He understood everything we told him."

Presti recalled the first day he met Charlie when he and his wife were dating, more than 20 years ago. Christie, who already owned one monkey, asked Carmen to travel with her to Ohio, to meet a chimp she had heard about.

"When we got got there, the man opened the door and this little ball of fur came running at me and dove right on my chest," Carmen said. "I just fell in love with him."

Charlie was for sale, but the price was sky high — $25,000, which the young couple certainly did not have. Carmen was 25 and Christie was only 22. "Who has $25,000 at that time in their life?" he asked me.  

I was surprised when Carmen told me that it was Nancy Garra, a woman I wrote about recently in this space, who believed in the Prestis and helped them get the money to buy Charlie. Nancy, a Niagara Falls banker who died of cancer this past year, was beloved by many in this community and theirs is a perfect example of lives she touched with her kindness and support.

The Prestis shared their dream with Nancy — about how they hoped to use Charlie to start a business teaching people about primates — and she thought the idea was sound enough to fund. So, Charlie came home to Niagara Falls.

Pretty quickly, the chimp found some success in the entertainment business. Among some TV and movies appearances, he was featured in a 2009 “National Geographic” television special highlighting the life of Carmen and his primates, and emphasizing the devotion it takes to care for adult chimpanzees. 

None of it's been easy. The Prestis have no children. Their lives are wrapped up in the primates they care for — including about 30 monkeys, mostly rescues — but their devotion to their animals is clear, especially to those in their circle. 

"They went over and above what I would expect anyone to do for an animal," said Dr. Jerome Ulatowski, a local pediatrician who began caring for Charlie when experts advised that the chimp get childhood vaccines to protect him when he was among children. The doc says he took some lumps for tending to a chimp, but "as a caring person, I don't think I would exclude any living being from the opportunity to enjoy a healthy life."  

Beyond that Ulatowski, like the Prestis, didn't really think of Charlie as an animal. "He was as close to a human as you can get on the food chain." Charlie's death, he said, "honestly, was like losing one of my long-time patients."

Charlie's humans aren't the only ones grieving. For the past 21 years, Charlie has shared living space with his adopted brother, Kiko, a rescued chimp who is near totally deaf due to suspected abuse. The chimps concern for each other is clear in a photo Carmen loves, which shows Kiko wiping Charlie's nose.

"Our biggest concern now is Kiko," Carmen said, his voice breaking. He said chimps learn everything they know from those around them and Kiko has no experience with death. They left Charlie's body with him for six hours so Kiko could groom Charlie and lay next to him. But since they removed Charlie's body, Kiko has been endlessly looking for him and seems to respond hopefully with every noise from a car arriving or a door opening.

The Prestis aren't doing much better. 

"I hate saying its like losing a child," said Carmen. "I have two very good friends who lost their kids and I don't want to insult anyone, but when you think of spending 12 to 16 hours a day with someone for the past 26 years, you become very attached."

He recalled how, after the loss of a friend who died of pancreatic cancer, he'd started crying near Charlie. "He gave me a hug and was licking the tears off my face. He seemed to understand."

That kind of friendship is unforgettable and irreplaceable, but the Presti's dream of a primate sanctuary will likely be what keeps them moving forward. 

"We're all just heartbroken. But our main thing is to get this new facility built for Kiko and the other primates," Carmen said. Kiko's going to need it big time."