Animal House

Colleen Layton-Robbins with Gizmo, a rhesus monkey she rescued in 1989.
Colleen Layton-Robbins with Gizmo, a rhesus monkey she rescued in 1989. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Joshua Zumbrun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007

The group assembled in Colleen Layton-Robbins's living room has problems: Zoey, 13, who came to live with Layton-Robbins after a divorce in the family, has severe Crohn's disease and can barely maintain her weight. Cocoa, 11, is thrashing all over the place like somebody got into the Red Bull. Babbling incoherently and throwing food around the room is 15-year-old Oogie, who, not surprisingly, was sent away for trashing her family's home.

They make "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" look as subdued as the Ambien clinical trials. But it's okay. They're monkeys.

You start one day when you're 18 taking care of baby rabbits who lost their mother; you wake up 37 years later and you live with 24 monkeys. And with even more birds, some ferrets, some sugar gliders (similar to opossums), some coatimundis (think fancy raccoons), a dozen or so rabbits.

Some people fervently care about the animal world: eat no meat, shun leather jackets, flee from fur, sport the PETA buttons. Then there are people who, literally, care for that animal world. One of them is Layton-Robbins, whose home also serves as Frisky's Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary.

Frisky's sits on a 3.75-acre plot in Woodstock, in north Howard County, that Layton-Robbins purchased in 1991. The heart of the operation is a modest blue ranch house with a tall privacy fence surrounding the back yard. Inside, it smells faintly zoo-ish, but not unpleasant, more like animal fur rather than animal you-know-what. What once was a living room is furnished only with monkey and bird cages, from walk-in-closet size to Tweety-Bird small. The basement has been converted into an infirmary and is also the home for the delicate baby critters.

When the home's original bedroom was taken over with paperwork, storage and the surveillance cameras that monitor the facility around the clock, Layton-Robbins and her husband built an extension to the house with new living quarters for humans.

Most of the monkeys live behind the house in zoolike enclosures, cages within a large cage, and a small tunnel to one of the sanctuary's outbuildings. At the end of the tree-dotted back yard, and just beyond a row of rabbit cages, is an aviary, where recovering birds can test their convalescing wings before it's a matter of life and death.

Monkeys are generally illegal to keep as pets, but that doesn't stop people from trying. Easy to see why: Baby monkeys are a lot like baby humans, they fuss and play and have big eyes and cute little noses. But then, just as babies start talking, monkeys start getting stronger. Furniture is destroyed. Someone gets bitten. The authorities come and confiscate your monkey.

Armani, a capuchin monkey in Montgomery County, has recently been in the news after authorities took the illegal pet from its owner. Frisky's is one of the places where confiscated pets like Armani end up. Particularly if the monkey is sick or otherwise unsuitable for the zoo.

As a child, Layton-Robbins says, she liked to disappear into the woods, and climbing trees was her greatest solace. "To me, everything that's not man-made is amazing," she says. "I've never got past that awe effect and figuring out a way to keep that alive."

One day in 1970, when Layton-Robbins was a teenager in Gettysburg, Pa., acquaintances brought her some orphaned rabbits they'd found by the train tracks, thinking, she recalls, that since she was of Native American descent, she'd know how to care for them. She figured it out. Two survived. Soon it became a shoebox of chipmunks here, a dresser drawer of baby squirrels there. A bird with a damaged wing. Nursing them, keeping them warm and, once they grew big enough to survive, releasing them into the wild. The operation kept growing, following her as she moved in 1976 to a rented farm in Elkridge and then into the farm in Woodstock.

In 1988, 18 years after she first took in the rabbits, some men from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources showed up.

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