Gorillas in Her Midst: A Vaudeville Heir Juggles a Great Ape Inheritance

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The grainy film, black and white photos and old placards prompt one thought: Many people today would not find Bob and Anna Mae Noell’s traveling show -- with “the world’s only athletic ape” -- the least bit entertaining.

But in the 1940s, it was a laff riot.

Its main attraction was a 90-pound chimp named Snookie who fought the toughest guy in every burg around.

“Grandpa would talk to the police and find out who was the biggest, baddest bully in the town. Then they would spread the word that this guy was going to box and wrestle with a chimpanzee,” says Debbie Cobb, the Noells’ granddaughter, on the Fox Business Network series Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby.

Years later, Cobb inherited dozens of great apes from her grandmother, and transformed the family’s 12-acre compound in Palm Harbor, Fla. into the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary. But it wasn’t easy.

Colby recounts the wild saga in the latest episode of her program, which premieres Monday, March 13 at 9:30 p.m. ET.

Bob and Anna Mae met as teenagers in 1931 when their families’ vaudeville troupes crossed paths in Pamplin, Va. and combined forces for a one-week engagement. Soon the teens were secretly engaged. They eloped, planning to start their own act.

Snookie joined the newlyweds when Bob went out to buy a car. Instead he was sold the chimp —and the wrestling bit.

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Snookie always came out on top.

“People didn’t know what a chimpanzee was!,” says Cobb. “A 95-pound chimp can pull 850 in one arm and when they’re mad, 1,250.”

Through the years the Noells added orangutans and gorillas, which would ride on back of Bob’s motorcycle to the 7-11 for Slurpees, to their menagerie of bicycle-riding chimps. In the 1960s, the Noells took their show off the road – parking it in Palm Harbor and calling it Noell’s Ark Chimp Farm.

“Everybody would come and see grandpa play with a gorilla, cause that was very abnormal to see a 650-pound gorilla playing with a 250-pound man,” Cobb recalls.

After the tourists left, the apes were just family.

“Some of them didn’t actually go into cages at all. They literally lived in the houses and the trailers with people,” recalls neighbor Bob Stanton.

By the 1970s, the Noells widened their focus from roadside attraction to primate rescue as well.

One sick baby gorilla that Anna Mae took in was later cast as a 400-pound suitcase-abusing star in award-winning American Tourister ads.

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But times change, complicating this Strange Inheritance tale. Animal rights activist blacklisted the Noells. Development brought new, unhappy neighbors closer to the sounds – and smells – of the apes. Regulators closed the chimp farm to the public. Bob passed away, leaving Anna Mae to run the place on her own.

In 2000, Anna Mae died, leaving Cobb, her mother and uncle in control of the chimp farm. Cobb says the three fought over the future of their strange inheritance.

Cobb prevailed, raised donations and re-opened the facility as the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary. But she says her triumph effectively ended her relationship with her family.

“This has been the hardest journey I’ve ever been in, in my life. But I did the right thing for the right reason.”