South Florida

This chimp’s best friend is 140 pounds of puppy love

Chimp and mastiff become best friends at local zoo

Limbani the chimp and Bruno the mastiff have become best friends at south Miami-Dade's Zoological Wildlife Foundation.
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Limbani the chimp and Bruno the mastiff have become best friends at south Miami-Dade's Zoological Wildlife Foundation.

Limbani swatted his best friend’s head to get attention. When that didn’t work, he pulled the chain around Bruno’s neck and snuggled under Bruno’s giant arm.

Realizing Bruno wasn’t in the mood to play, Limbani found other ways to entertain himself — he jumped from the couch to the table, banged a drum, and chased his other friends around.

He then nudged Bruno, who lifted his big head and gave him a look, as if to say, “OK, you win.”

Limbani is a 1 1/2-year-old chimp, as in chimpanzee. His playmate is Bruno, a 13-month old African Mastiff puppy who weighs 140 pounds.

“A special bond that the chimpanzee has with Bruno is exceptional,” said their owner Mario Tabraue, 63, who with his wife runs a private zoo in southwest Miami-Dade. “It’s beyond what I ever expected. The endearment between them is just incredible.”

Tabraue says humans can learn a lot from their relationship.

“Why can a chimpanzee that has the power to tear somebody apart live with a dog … and they love each other? Yet humans can’t get along.”

The odd couple of sorts has built quite a following through social media — especially Limbani, who has his own Instagram page with 90,000 followers. A video of Limbani playing with a water hose and a green bucket garnered over 70,000 views.

“Inquisitive like any child,” said one commenter.

Limbani (well, Mario) is constantly sharing photos of the chimp’s life. The zoo’s Instagram page has nearly 700,000 followers, who follow the photos and videos of Limbani, plus the white lion cubs, baby otters and other animals that make their home at the 5-acre Zoological Wildlife Foundation near the Everglades.

A video of Limbani playing with Bruno on the Tabraues’ couch at home was picked up on the Facebook page of “Good Morning America” and has been seen more than 16 million times.

“This is how people know we exist,” Tabraue said.

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Maria Tabraue, who owns the Zoological Wildlife Foundation in southwest Miami-Dade along with her husband Mario, holds their 18-month-old chimpanzee, Limbani. Their zoo offers group tours, private tours and up-close animal experiences, including with a baby lion cub and Limbani. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

Tabraue and his wife, Maria, 51, opened their zoo to the public in 2013 after years of trying to build a home for exotic animals. They now have more than 180 animals, including leopards, lions, otters and even a camel, in their animal park. For a fee, sometimes a large one, visitors can get up close with the animals. To meet Limbani, the price tag is $350 for two minutes.

The money, they say, pays for upkeep, which isn’t cheap.

“All the money goes back to care for the animals,” Maria said.

Some of their animals come through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission after they have been rescued or confiscated, Mario said. In the case of Limbani, the Tabraues got him through a breeder in North Florida when the chimp was about 2 weeks old.

The Zoo is one of the permitted and licensed facilities that the commission uses for animals, said a FWC spokesperson.

The Tabraues say their passion for animals is what led them to create the park.

“I wasn’t able to have any pets by my mother,” Mario said. “I made up a story about an elementary school project that I needed a snake. It grew from there.”

He said by his early 20s he bought a cougar, which was legal at the time.

At the same time, Tabraue said he made “bad decisions” and got caught up in trafficking marijuana and cocaine during Miami’s cocaine cowboy days of the ’70s and early ’80s.

In the late 1980s, Tabraue was convicted of racketeering and being involved with disposing the body of a murdered federal informant as part of a drug gang that imported tons of marijuana and cocaine. He served 12 years of a 100-year sentence, getting his sentence reduced in 1999 by cooperating with federal authorities, court records show.

“I fell into it because everyone around me was doing it,” describing Miami’s drug scene back then.

“Animals have been my passion all my life. It was never a front for selling drugs,” he added.

A day after he was released from prison, he met Maria at his brother’s jewelry store. They bonded over their mutual love of animals.

“That is all behind me,” he said. “I don’t have to watch my back because I know I am not doing anything illegal.”

Rebuilding his life wasn’t easy, he said. But he and Maria’s determination to build their zoo kept them going.

On any given day, the hour-long wildlife experience is booked by 20 people, the maximum. The tour includes a walk around the pathways of the park, feeding the animals fruits and vegetables, including feeding the Capuchin monkeys and lemurs — primates with long tails — and a meet-and-greet with other animals.

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Jayden Cerrato looks at his mom, Kayte Wilson, holding a baby alligator during their visit to the Zoological Wildlife Foundation in southwest Miami-Dade. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

On a recent weekday, Daniel Wilson and his wife Kayte and her son Jayden Cerrato took the tour. The Wilsons, from Lake Worth, said they couldn’t get over how close they were to the animals.

“We’ve been to a million and one zoos, but nothing like this,” said Kayte Wilson, who lit up when she held a baby otter.

A family from Turkey said they chose South Florida for their vacation after seeing Instagram posts from friends who had visited the zoo.

“Any person that likes animals should come here,” Muhittin Iscimenler, who came with his wife and two daughters from Turkey. They booked a white lion cub encounter, which gave them five minutes to play with the cuddly feline ($120 for adults, $60 for kids).

“They can’t wait to go to school and tell all of their friends,” said the girls’ mother, Gozde.

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Aylin Iscimenler, 5, from Turkey, holds a baby lion cub while visiting the Zoological Wildlife Foundation in southwest Miami-Dade with her family. The center offers group tours, private tours and up-close animal experiences. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

Maria and Mario are at the zoo daily. They often bring their German shepherd, Igor, and their Yorkie, Vinnette, who accompany Bruno and Limbani. The chimp rides in a car seat.

At home, Limbani rules the house. He has his own crib, loves the couch and sometimes doesn’t realize his own strength — including the time he ripped off a cabinet door. Limbani weighs 21 pounds and has to be watched at all times, Mario said.

The Tabraues said they realize that chimpanzees are known to change their behavior and become aggressive when they reach sexual maturity. They say they plan to keep Limbani at home as long as possible and build him an enclosure when he gets bigger.

Ron Magill, a longtime expert of animal behavior and spokesman for ZooMiami, says you run the risk of having an out-of-control animal by not raising him with other chimps — particularly when puberty strikes.

“A chimpanzee needs to be socialized with other chimpanzees,” Magill said.

The Tabraues, meanwhile, are enjoying watching Limbani grow, and play with Bruno, who will likely get bigger.

“They love each other,” Mario said. “That’s just the bottom line.”

If you go

What: Zoological Wildlife Foundation

When: Tours are given between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., seven days a week, by reservation only

Where: 16225 SW 172 Ave., Miami-Dade

Cost: Wildlife Experience tour is $85 for adults and $45 for children ages 4-17. Children 3 and under are free. Costs vary for different animal encounters.

For information: Call 305-969-3696 or visit www.zoologicalwildlifefoundation.com.

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