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Animal House
A Barrel of Monkeys Is Fun. And Work.

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.

"They came around at my place and said, 'We need to see your license.' I said, 'A license?' It shook me for a loop and a half," Layton-Robbins recalls. So she set about taking classes, eventually becoming a state and federally licensed master wildlife rehabilitator.

Then, in 1989, an exotic animal dealer came by with a month-old baby monkey named Gizmo who wasn't getting along with his mother. Gizmo had nowhere else to go. So Gizmo moved in. More monkeys followed. (Layton-Robbins's rehabilitation licenses didn't apply to monkeys, so she became a U.S. Department of Agriculture licensed exhibitor. But regulations for holding exotic animals are complex -- whether or not zoning laws allow monkeys on her property has been at the heart of an eight-year legal dispute with neighbors.)

She makes her rounds before dawn, checking on all the animals, giving medicine and special diets for the sick, attention for the lonely. The sun rises a few hours later as she sits down for oatmeal.

"If you're gonna go like a racehorse all day, you gotta start with oats," she explains, as she walks around one afternoon checking on all the monkeys for the third time that day. She is trim and constantly in motion, clad in jeans and a tank top. The activity keeps her in good health, she says; "I get an annual physical from my -- I almost said my vet! -- from my doctor. My triglycerides are up from eating the fruit as I feed the animals."

The energy carries over to her rapid-fire speech, moving from subject to subject as quickly as she moves from animal to animal. Her story might conjure images of animal hoarders -- people with cats in the walls and dogs in the attic -- but Layton-Robbins is more overworked manager than crazy cat lady. Keeping everyone fed, medicated, happy and clean is an enormous amount of work.

In addition to the more than 50 long-term residents, more than 1,500 animals passed through her wildlife rehabilitation program last year. Frisky's costs more than $300,000 a year to run and requires a mass of paperwork to keep its licenses in compliance and maintain its nonprofit status. It depends on a small army of volunteers.

Luckily, her husband, Scott Robbins, loves animals, too -- he started out as a volunteer and continues to donate about half his paycheck from his job as a mechanic for a utilities subcontractor to the operation. The rest comes from donations.

"It's hard not to lose good volunteers. I found a way to keep one of them," Layton-Robbins says with a laugh. "I married him!"

Brittany Dressler, 17, a student at Century High School in Carroll County, who hopes to be a veterinarian, has volunteered at Frisky's for about four years.

"I just love it here," Dressler says. "Miss Colleen is like my grandmother. She's taught me so much. She's given up her entire life to animals."

Volunteer Heather Wandell, 45, completed a master's program at Tai Sophia Institute in Laurel, where her "Project of Excellence" was to create a guided tour for Frisky's so the public could visit the facility.

"You know, I don't really meet people who don't love animals," Layton-Robbins says.

Which isn't that surprising. Certain people might have trouble understanding when the monkeys take over the living room, or when baby raccoons and an infirmary dominate the basement, or when surveillance cameras take over the bedroom.

It's not all cheeky monkeys and fuzzy bunnies at Frisky's, however.

"Animals everywhere have the same problems. Encroaching development. The disgruntled neighbor that moves in after the fact. Undependable support," she says.

When she bought the Woodstock farm 16 years ago, it was surrounded by other farms. Now a subdivision sits across the street and a brand-new McMansion peeks up over her western fence. The legal dispute with her neighbors continues with, both sides agree, no end in sight.

It's not that there have been monkey-related neighborhood incidents, it's just that there might be: "Those animals are cute, but they are still wild animals. They are still a risk," says neighbor Richard Wyckoff. "This is not the kind of thing that should be learn-as-you-go."

Over the years, Layton-Robbins has retreated into the sanctuary herself. Determined to give her animals the lives she feels they deserve, she leaves only about two hours a week for a trip to Sam's Club.

"Sometimes I get down about it all," she says. "But I have more important things to do than pout. I have lives that depend on me."

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