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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Maui Ape Preserve plan faltering

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

More than a decade after the Gorilla Foundation announced it was moving to Maui, an ape preserve has yet to materialize and the project remains $3 million short of its fund-raising goal.

Koko, the intended star resident of the Maui Ape Preserve, interacts well with a pet cat as well as the humans studying her.

Associated Press library photo

Now the California nonprofit is facing new setbacks: the wavering commitment of longtime benefactor Maui Land & Pineapple Co. and a couple of lawsuits by former workers that could damage its image and finances.

"We were moving along, but there have been so many distractions lately," said Mary Cameron Sanford, a member of the Gorilla Foundation board and former ML&P chairwoman. "I'm just as anxious as anyone else to get them over here."

In 1994, Maui Pine granted the Woodside, Calif.-based Gorilla Foundation a long-term lease on 70 acres of former pineapple land near Mahinahina. The foundation's plan was to bring Koko the gorilla and her friends to a climate better suited to their African roots and to establish a preserve for other endangered gorillas.

Koko is the star of an ongoing experiment in ape-human communication. The Gorilla Foundation claims that the animal has an American Sign Language vocabulary of more than 1,000 words.

'An awkward fit'

ML&P's chief executive, David Cole, has informed Gorilla Foundation head Francine "Penny" Patterson that the proposed ape sanctuary is "at best an awkward fit" with the company's plans.

In a letter sent to Patterson last year, Cole said the company decided to focus its efforts on Native Hawaiian values, including "our love and care for our host land and culture."

"Our big question: How does providing a home for African mountain gorillas on Maui reinforce our malama 'aina and ho'ohanohano values?" he wrote.

Cole, the Hawai'i-raised executive who was hired to run the company in 2003, said protecting endangered species is important to ML&P, "but our endemic species are where we will concentrate our investments." Cole, who sits on The Nature Conservancy's board of trustees, added that he would be unable to endorse the program to the University of Hawai'i, which was considering a research tie-in at the time.

Art center uproar

Since taking over ML&P, Cole has been re-examining the company's vision and its holdings. He recently came under fire for deciding to sell the home of the nonprofit Hui No'eau art center to a Mainland couple. The resulting uproar in the community caused the buyers to back off.

Whether the Gorilla Foundation would ignite the same passions is doubtful, because it lacks the art center's historical and cultural ties to Maui.

Cole was traveling on the Mainland and could not be reached for comment, but ML&P Vice President Warren Suzuki said that while the preserve doesn't fit into the company's vision, the lease will be honored.

In another setback that could affect fund raising, three former Gorilla Foundation employees filed two lawsuits last month claiming they were pressured to expose their breasts to indulge Koko's curiosity about nipples.

Allegations, denials

Nancy Alperin and Kendra Keller, both of San Francisco, claim they were subjected to sexual discrimination and then wrongfully terminated after reporting health and safety violations at Koko's Woodside compound.

The two women, seeking damages totaling more than $1 million, also claim the nonprofit failed to pay for overtime and provide rest breaks.

The women never undressed, but another woman, Iris Rivera, 39, claimed she revealed her breasts to Koko seven or eight times last summer. Rivera, an administrative assistant at the foundation, quit last month.

In a statement posted on the Web site for the Gorilla Foundation, the group denies the allegations and says it will prove that the firings were "entirely lawful" and unrelated to any matters raised in the lawsuit. Rivera's lawsuit is dismissed as a "copycat" suit.

Lorraine Slater, the foundation's development director, said yesterday that the foundation continues to look forward to its move to Maui. Slater said neither the litigation nor ML&P's waning support are obstacles or distractions to fund raising.

"We don't view it that way," she said. "It's business as usual here."

Slater said the Gorilla Foundation has raised only $2 million toward its $5 million Maui Ape Preserve goal.

Sanford said she's disappointed with Cole's lack of support and the legal problems, but the lease is still good and she's hopeful a move can still be accomplished. Hundreds of thousands of dollars already have been spent on the site, she said, including construction of foundations and a water reservoir.

"It's frustrating," said former state Sen. Avery Chumbley of Maui, another Gorilla Foundation board member. "I would have hoped they would have been here a long time before now."

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.