The Brazilian sanctuary where Toti, the sad-looking chimpanzee, can be transferred
posted in 26 Mar 2024
Caption: Chimpanzee Cecilia today, at Sorocaba Sanctiuary, seven years after her transfer. Photo: Clara Estrada

By Isabel de Estrada – for La Nacion

One hundred kilometers west of São Paulo, Brazil, in a sanctuary in Sorocaba lives Cecilia, a chimpanzee who was born and lived all her life locked up in the Mendoza Zoo, in Argentina, until in 2017 she was legally granted habeas corpus and regained her freedom as a non-human person.

At first glance, the walls of the Great Apes Sanctuary, which houses 45 chimpanzees, other primates and some birds in this Brazilian city, resemble those of a maximum security prison, surrounded by jungle.

But when you enter the property, huge, curious and dark silhouettes peek out from behind the bars trying to observe what is going on. Each of them has left a hard life story in circuses, zoos, laboratories, entertainment centers or private homes, where their function was to entertain, satisfy human curiosity or serve as objects of experimentation.

Chimpanzees are our closest relatives. They share 98.7% of our chromosomes and, together with gorillas, orangutans and bonobos, belong to the category of great apes, anthropomorphic great apes. Because of our kinship, proximity and their great intelligence, chimpanzees have always been victims of human morbidity.

There are three left in Argentina. Each one lives in a cage in a different zoo, in complete solitude. Only Toti, today in a private zoo in Bubalcó, Río Negro, has a final sentence to, like Cecilia – and Sasha and Kangoo, the chimpanzees from the Buenos Aires Ecopark who were transferred in 2022 to the Monkey World Ape Rescue Center sanctuary in the United Kingdom – be sent to a sanctuary where he can live with others of his kind.

Toti is accompanied by Johnny, at the closed Luján Zoo, and Tomy, at La Plata Zoo. Cecilia lived for years in Mendoza Zoo with her partner, Charlie, and her sister, Xuxa, until they died suddenly. On a concrete floor, in an artificial environment, constantly exposed to the stress of being exhibited to entertain the public, she spent hours lost in thought, without moving and with her back to people: she was also letting herself die. The worst sentence for our closest relative is loneliness.

But a decision, which established jurisprudence in the world because it was the first habeas corpus granted to an animal, allowed her to leave under guard from what is now the Mendoza Ecopark in the direction of Ezeiza. Cecilia landed in São Paulo in her specially prepared large crate and was immediately taken to the sanctuary in Sorocaba. “At first, Cecilia remained engrossed and didn’t interact with anyone,” her carers recall. “Until a chimpanzee called Marcelino won her heart. Today Cecília alternates her days between Marcelino and her brother Miguel, whom she adores, in the best Doña Flor style,” they add, laughing.

The place

The Great Apes Sanctuary has a total area of five hectares and 14 complexes. Many of the chimpanzees move through tunnels within the sanctuary, which connect some of the enclosures to each other. In this way, the space available to each chimpanzee is increased, as is the choice of companions. Many, most of the chimpanzees who live there today, arrived with severe physical and psychological trauma.

“In circuses,” says Pedro Ynterian, founder and owner of the sanctuary, “they were used as slave labor, physically beaten, castrated and had their teeth extracted in a totally archaic way so that they could be subjugated and used in public performances.” Although the traumas last forever, most of them show behavioral changes in a very short time, as they become part of a community of their own species,” he says, as he is greeted with joy by each individual.

Two veterinarians, who live in the city of Sorocaba, a few kilometers away, and 20 carers are part of the stable staff at the site. Some of the chimpanzees, like Billy, who worked for a long time in a circus, accompany LA NACION as it tours the grounds. When the walls no longer allow it, Billy climbs up to a specially designed viewpoint, from where he can see everything that happens on the property and beyond, in the jungle that surrounds the cement walls. From there, he calls out and throws objects at visitors, and jumps up and down while applauding. Others, a little calmer, simply watch suspiciously. “It was one of the best decisions we made,” says Ynterian, referring to the viewpoints. “From there they see everything that happens in the sanctuary. It’s their territory and they don’t want to be disturbed,” he adds.

Merivan Miranda, Pedro’s right-hand man, and veterinarians Camila Gentile and Juliana Kihara explain that a chimpanzee’s basic well-being lies, at the very least, in having freedom of choice over when to eat, where in its enclosure it wants to be, seeing or hearing other chimpanzees and deciding who it wants to be with and where to sleep.

LA NACION also visits the grave of Guga, the chimpanzee responsible for creating the sanctuary. Just over two decades ago, Ynterian, a Cuban national living in Brazil, bought a small chimpanzee from a former breeding center and took it to his home in São Paulo. When  Guga began to grow up, Ynterian realized what it meant to have a chimpanzee. From there, he created a refuge for all those in need. Sorocaba became the largest sanctuary in Latin America. There are two others in Brazil, while in the world there are more and more places that rescue animals.

It turns out that today zoos in general are no longer a business, as fewer people are willing to let an animal suffer for their own entertainment. What really matters nowadays is that the animal is in great condition and so close to freedom that it will never be able to have it again, because it would hardly be able to survive in it.

In a cage at Bubalcó Zoo, Toti, the sad-looking chimpanzee, waits. His sentence is final and we can only hope and pray that he will be transferred to a sanctuary as soon as possible. In the background, the shattered glass shows his repeated attempts to get out.

Original article with photos and videos at