NIAGARA FALLS – Everybody had a story Sunday evening about Charlie the Chimp.
Ann Presti recalled the first time her son, Carmen, brought the then 11-month-old chimpanzee into her house in 1985 and the little primate wanted her to hug him.
“I didn’t want it,” she said.
But before long, he was sitting on her lap, stroking her face.
“He wanted to be rocked. I used to sing to him,” she recalled.
Or the time Charlie wandered into his “monkey’s aunt” Cathy Scarupa’s apartment during a football party, and he sat down, grabbed a drink and took a slug.
Charlie, who was trained in karate and appeared in television shows and a Nicholas Cage movie, and was a one-time “candidate for mayor,” died of heart failure Nov. 4.
His owners, caregivers and best friends Carmen and Christie Presti were at his side in the Primate Sanctuary in Niagara Falls. His fellow chimpanzee, Kiko, who is deaf as the result of an abusive previous owner, stayed with his body for six hours after he died of heart failure.
For the Prestis, who bought Charlie 28 years ago, the loss is tremendous. He grew up in their home, and Carmen Presti spent 12 to 14 hours in the sanctuary with Charlie, Kiko and 30 monkeys.
The couple started their sanctuary for abused primates in 1990 in a former Niagara Falls grocery store with four monkeys and one chimp. They are not open to the public, but do take animals to local schools and events for educational purposes.
Charlie captured not only their hearts, but touched many more with his antics. More than 200 people showed up Sunday evening to show their support for the Prestis at the Town of Niagara Community Recreation Center.
Carmen Presti talked of how Charlie dealt with his declining health, with X-rays, blood work and an oxygen mask with his usual good nature. Presti taught Charlie sign language, and told him he was sick.
“He knew he was sick. I told him he had to listen to Dad,” Presti said.
Charlie laid still for his X-Ray and echocardiogram, and would stick his arm out for blood to be taken, he said. He would use sign language to say when he needed his oxygen mask, Presti said.
“He was my life,” he said.
Many Niagara County Community College students interned with Presti as part of animal management. One of them said playing with Charlie could get them through the rest of the day.
“That moment pops into your head, and you smile,” he said.
Charlie had favorite food (pasta and meatballs), movies and shows, and loved boots, and he used to eat at the table with the Prestis.
“You’ve got to give them credit. It’s their whole life. It’s strange for people who don’t have contact with chimps like that,” said one of their friends, Peter Firestone, adding, “He understood a lot of what was going on.”
Carmen Presti said they were not planning to have any public observance, but he received more than 2,000 emails of condolence, many asking about it. So the couple rented the community center Sunday evening.
Charlie’s favorite pair of large rubber boots was there, as well as magazine articles about him and a wreath made of bananas.
Some of Charlie’s ashes will be scattered in Africa, Presti said, and the rest will go with Carmen and Christie when they die.