For sale: Art by Michael Jackson's monkey

  • Article by: HEPHZIBAH ANDERSON
  • Updated: December 9, 2012 - 4:42 PM

Paintings will raise funds for Florida's Center for Great Apes, where the singer's pet has lived for years.

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Michael Jackson with his pet chimp, Bubbles, in their glory years.

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Among the boldface names you won't be expecting to find exhibiting at Art Basel Miami Beach is Bubbles, Michael Jackson's erstwhile chimpanzee companion.

His paintings -- two moody abstracts each priced at $1,500 -- feature in "Endangered," a fundraiser in aid of the Center for Great Apes, the sanctuary where he's lived for eight years.

Bubbles isn't the only celebrity at the center, about 200 miles north of Miami. Founded by Patti Ragan in 1993, the sanctuary shelters 29 chimps and 15 orangutans. Some are refugees from the exotic pet trade, a few have come from biomedical research labs and many spent time in showbiz.

Twin chimps Jacob and Jonah starred in Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" remake. Maggie has been on "The Tonight Show" and, with Bella and Ellie, appeared in Career Builder commercials.

Of the orangutans, Geri, whose beauty mark earned her the nickname Geri Crawford, appeared in the Flintstones movie. Bam Bam, a teenage male, cross-dressed as Nurse Precious in the soap opera "Passions," and Tango was a face of Tang.

In captivity, chimpanzees can live to be 60, orangutans 50. Yet by around six years old, all had reached the ends of their careers, growing too big and too strong-willed to manage.

Bubbles' story is typical in this respect. Born in a laboratory in Texas in 1983 and raised by humans, he was sent to join the other chimps in his trainer's compound when he became too much for Jackson to handle.

"He's had a really tough time," says Casey Taylor, who turned her back on a law career to become the sanctuary's communications and development coordinator.

"He didn't know how to be a chimp. There's a serious social structure with these animals -- you have to know the chimp rules. He mentally shut down."

When Bubbles first arrived, the girl chimps picked on him. He also seemed scared of heights. While the others swung around 40 feet up, he watched anxiously from the ground.

Now, nearing 30 and settling into ape middle age, he is the dominant chimp in a group of seven. He weighs 165 pounds and stands about 4-foot-5, though he sometimes sits brooding in a corner.

Only trained handlers are allowed into the apes' habitats, still it's easy to see Bubbles through the mesh of his cage. He appears to be gazing off into the distance.

Is he reliving his days moonwalking with Michael? Could he be meditating on some ancestral dream of the African savannahs?

Unrecognizable from the baby who toured Japan dressed identically to his owner, his hair has arranged itself into a military brush cut and an overbite gives him a pettish air.

His best friend here is a chimp named Ripley, who performed in the movie "Ace Ventura" before being sent to a roadside zoo in Nebraska, where he took part in a daring escape that saw three of his sidekicks shot dead.

Ragan's mission is to provide the chimps with dignity and companionship of their own species.

The animals' care exceeds $20,000 a year apiece, necessitating the fundraiser.

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