Animals in Captivity – Two Chimpanzees Attack

March 13, 2005

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I’ve been to zoos many times and always enjoyed them but my memories are most influenced not by casual visions of great creatures from the wild but by two more somber observations.  The first was about thirty years ago at the Sacramento Zoo where I watched a big cat – not like a lion or tiger but larger than a mountain lion.  He was breathing heavily and salivating as he walked back and forth in his much too small cage.  He never stopped, clawing to one side then the other, panting and drooling as he headed nowhere in a box straight to hell.  I thought my god that’s all he can do.  That’s all he’ll ever have: a cramped cage surrounded by people having fun watching a solitary prisoner go crazy.

Let’s be clear.  That big cat was created with as much right to be free as you or I.  He was born to run, and in his natural environment would’ve done so much faster than any human ever will.  We only run when we want, but we don’t really have to.  Running for survival is for mentally limited creatures, it is assumed.  We bright but feeble people have therefore determined it’s altogether proper and entertaining to put our physical superiors in cages.  Not many of us have ever seriously questioned our right to do so.

I certainly wasn’t thinking about ethnical issues several years ago when I went with a group to a sanctuary in the parched mountains about seventy miles north of Los Angeles.  Sanctuaries, as the designation implies, are safe places for animals to live as much as possible like they would if they were free.  The people who work there often do so because they love the animals.  In this way they differ from many who work in zoos.  But regardless of sentiment, the people are wardens, the animals are prisoners, and the prisoners are in cages.

Our group at the sanctuary was most fascinated by the chimpanzees.  They were distinctly alive, unlike the bears and big cats there who could’ve been dead, sleeping in huge furry mounds that seemed not to move.  The chimpanzees, with arms much longer than their legs, were swinging through their large cages and looking at us and clapping hands so powerfully the explosions echoed throughout the region.  And they were barking.  That’s the term some use.  Others call it hooting and hollering.  The chimps were hooting and barking loud enough to be heard a mile away.  It takes extraordinarily strong animals to swing with ease – try it on a jungle gym sometime – and clap like cannon fire and bark as if through amplifiers at a rock concert.

“I bet those guys are pretty tough,” I said to an employee.

“Oh yeah, about five times stronger than humans,” he said.

“How much do they weigh?”

“No more than one-fifty.”

“What would happen if they got out?”

“We can control them.  We understand them.”

“But what can they do as fighters?”
“They’d be unbelievable, punching, gouging, biting.  They’d be all over any man.”

No sane man wants a confrontation with a chimpanzee.  St. James Davis definitely did not.  Almost forty years ago in Tanzania he rescued a pocket-sized chimp from poachers who’d killed his mother.  He and his wife LaDonna called the little guy Moe and for thirty years raised him as a “son,” albeit a son who resided in a cage in their yard in West Covina east of Los Angeles.  Moe was taught to dress himself and brush his teeth and make sandwiches, and also brought in some money with television and other public appearances.  Moe and the Davises were local celebrities, but several years ago their profile changed when Moe severely bit the hand of a police officer trying to capture him after he got out of his cage.  A year later Moe bit off the tip of a woman’s finger.  City authorities took the Davises to court.  They countersued city employees who’d come onto their property.  The Davises won the trespassing case but lost the right to keep Moe at home.  He was decreed a menace and forced to move to one sanctuary then another in Havilah thirty miles east of Bakersfield.

It’s more than three hundred miles round trip from West Covina to the dry canyon where Moe lived in his new cage, but distance did not deter the Davises.  They loved to visit, and on March third made a special trip: it was Moe’s thirty-ninth birthday, and they brought a cake.  Standing outside his cage, they were showing it to Moe, who doubtless has had many such treats.  Watching this interaction from another cage were four chimpanzees – two adult males and two elderly females.  Day to day we aren’t certain what other people are thinking so we can’t be sure how Buddy and Ollie, the two males, felt.  Instead, we have to examine what is known about chimps.

According to the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, chimpanzees are our closest relatives, sharing almost nine-nine percent of human DNA.  They are also quite intelligent and can learn American sign language then, without our help, teach the signs to the next generation.  And their creativity with sign language sometimes soars into the poetic: they have referred to watermelons as “drink fruit” and radishes as “cry hot food” and turkeys as “bird meat.”  Those who live free in the wild know how to strip leaves from twigs and push them into holes where termites climb on and are extracted for consumption.  Chimps also dig holes with sticks to ease access to ants.  And, like us, they are formidable pharmacists.  Deep in rain forests they have been discovered using “formerly unknown plant species that have pharmaceutical uses ranging from antibiotics to antiviral agents.”  In addition to sharing some of our intellectual pursuits, chimpanzees are very territorial.  Invade their space, watch out.  Imagine a stranger surprising you in your living room.  Chimps are also capable of intense jealously.  And they have good memories, seldom forgetting a slight, real or imagined.

St. James and LaDonna Davis were celebrating with Moe when Buddy and Ollie attacked.  Authorities still have not determined, or at least have not acknowledged, how the chimps got out but to St. James it doesn’t matter.  The chimps had rushed up behind his wife and bit off her thumb.  Then, with unsurpassed bravery and sacrifice, he pushed his wife aside and faced the chimps and tried to reason with them.  After all, they were bright creatures he’d known for forty years.  Why are you doing this?  We’re your friends.  We love you.  Buddy knocked the man down and began chewing on his face.  Ollie gnawed on a foot.  LaDonna tried but couldn’t deter the powerful creatures.  The lady who runs the sanctuary called for her son-in-law who put his crying baby in a bedroom and ran out with a .45 revolver.  He opened fire.  The shots had no effect.  He reloaded with stronger ammunition and killed Buddy.  Ollie began dragging the maimed but still conscious victim down the road.  The young man fired again and St. James Davis was released but almost dead.  The 911 operator urged the people to apply towels to stop the bleeding and if they ran out of towels to use their shirts.  Use whatever you have.

The scene was horrible beyond imagination.  The chimpanzees had ripped out one of Davis’s eyes, torn off his nose, chewed off much of his cheeks and lips, bitten off all of his fingers on both hands, shredded his genitals, taken a chunk out of his buttocks, and mangled a foot.  As I write this he is still unconscious and in critical condition, and one sadly wonders what kind of life he will have if he survives.  His wife says he has to be strong because she can’t imagine living without him.

Many families face nightmares.  They’re usually caused by disease or accidents.  This was a crime.  The male chimpanzees have already received their just punishment.  But it is a punishment they could no more have understood than the reasons for their imprisonment.  They couldn’t have understood it any better than numerous chimps know why as babies they’re taken from their mothers, thrust into the entertainment business, and often trained by being punched and kicked in the face.  They couldn’t possibly know the mathematical details of their demise but may somehow sense the trend: there used to be five million chimpanzees yet now they number only about a hundred thousand. Like tigers and bears and elephants and giraffes and rhinos and the rest, they don’t know what the hell they’re doing in the strange and artificial world imposed on them.

Now is an appropriate time to ask ourselves if we have long been committing crimes against other animals.  Like all creatures, we have the right to capture and kill what we feel we have to eat.  But do we have the right to put animals in cages for nothing more than our entertainment?   I say the suffering of animals in confinement is far greater than our enjoyment from their exhibition.  Clean out the zoos.  Return the animals to the wild.  If they were born into captivity, let them try to make a home for themselves in their natural environment.  If you want to see wild animals, watch TV or go on a safari.

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George Thomas Clark

George Thomas Clark is the author of Hitler Here, a biographical novel published in India and the Czech Republic as well as the United States. His commentaries for are read in more than 50 countries a month.

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