Saturday, May 12, 2012

"My baby chimps needed the love of a chimp mom"

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, I’m glad that Roberta Herman agreed to share more about her life with chimpanzees. Her memories of meeting real chimpanzee mothers provide a thoughtful insight.
I never yearned for a monkey or a chimpanzee when I was young. Not even a monkey doll. I loved nature and especially animals, and was always helping the ones in need. From butterflies and birds, to dogs and cats, I was always bringing something home to nurse to health. If the need was beyond my young capabilities, I would find help.
When older and married, 25 years ago, there was suddenly a chimpanzee who needed to be rescued from an abusive situation. I never intended to become a caretaker or a human mother to a chimpanzee. But I was there and I couldn’t just walk away. So, my husband and I took in Charley.
My husband and I knew it wasn’t good to have one chimp alone in a captive situation. She needed another chimpanzee to relate to. We sought out a breeding compound in Missouri to find a relative, or at least a companion, for Charley. We found out that Charley’s sister was there. Casey was just a few months old, and she was for sale, so we scraped up enough to pay for her and made our way to Missouri. At first, it seemed like a wonderful place… but I soon discovered its dark side.
When we arrived, there were five very young chimps in baby clothes in playpens. Some were drinking milk from baby bottles. The owner took my husband and me into the basement. It was very dark, with dungeon-like cages. 
And I met her. I met “my” Charley’s real mother. She was living with three other females who comprised the breeding group for the big male. These chimpanzees had produced “my” babies. The breeder explained how she was able to coax each mother chimpanzee to put her baby in a little box attached to her cage, just three days after the baby was born. That way, the breeder could retrieve the baby. “Pull it” is how she put it. My Charley and my Casey had been pulled from their mother just 72 hours after they took their first breaths.
The breeder explained how some of the babies were put “on reserve” for a chimp trainer who used the chimpanzees in entertainment. Before they went into training, though, the breeder sent the babies to another woman in Florida, who “nurtured” the chimpanzees as if they were human, even dressing the infant chimps in human baby clothes. It worked out well for her, financially, because she was a professional photographer. She would bring the clothed infants to parties and events, offering to take pictures of the people with this adorable baby chimpanzee. When the baby was old enough to be trained, about 2 or 3 years old, she sent them off to the trainer. It was the same trainer who we witnessed abusing his chimpanzees. We had rescued Charley from that trainer.
I was intrigued with these wonderful baby chimpanzees, and I just wanted to take Casey home to be with her sister. I wondered how the mother chimpanzees were feeling about having their babies pulled, but I convinced myself that we were doing the right thing.
Since then, I have painfully realized how cruel it really is, to deprive a mother chimpanzee of her babies. It is especially cruel to the baby chimpanzee, who needs her mother, grandmother, sisters, and aunts to learn what is important, to live a full life as a chimpanzee. Not as a human baby substitute.
I was not able to have children, but I am not sure what kept me on the path of living with chimpanzees. They weren’t pets or substitute children to me. They were my responsibility to care for, until I could place them somewhere safely. People did refer to them as my kids... So, am I not able to admit they were “my babies,” even to this day? Did my maternal instinct drive my decision to adopt chimps? I did, and still do, love them very much, even though I rarely see them at their new sanctuary home.
I have thought about what true motherly love is and ask myself now if a maternal instinct can become twisted. If an obsession can develop to fill a need or a void and a selfish possessive instinct can take the place of true motherly love. One could love someone to death, with a rationalization that it is justified because of supposed love or sacrifice. This was very evident in the tragedy of Travis, a drugged and disoriented pet chimp who went into a rage and tore off the face and hands of his owner’s friend.
I tried to do my best with Charley and Casey, but their
lives would have been much better with a chimp mom.
We can’t turn back time. But now, as we celebrate Mother’s Day, I implore anyone who is considering buying or adopting a pet chimp or monkey in order to “mother” it, thinking the animal will have a better life in a human household: please reconsider. I tried to do my best to mother the chimps I adopted, but I know their lives would have been much better if they could have stayed with their real mothers, in a habitat that provides sunshine and air and room to play.
If baby chimpanzees can’t live free in their true jungle home, my fervent prayer is that they be placed in a sanctuary, where they have the freedom to be true to their nature, as much as possible. That means they need a chimpanzee mother who is either their natural mother or a surrogate.
Baby chimpanzees need to know the love of a chimp mom.
Roberta Herman
Note from Dawn: After many years of caring for her chimps in her home, Roberta was finally able to place two of them, Casey and Murray, at a sanctuary, Center for Great Apes.


  1. Roberta, Thank you so much for sharing your story, with the good intentions, sacrifices and struggles, and ultimately, arriving at the decision to allow your adopted chimpanzees to experience the most freedom they can, living together at the sanctuary. You and your husband are courageous and, as a board member of the sanctuary, I want to thank you for what you continue to do for Casey and Murray. Lucie

    1. Roberta, You have an important message to share with all of America, and I hope you will expand your reach all the way to the US Congress. Perhaps you could contact Dr. Capaldo at NEAVS to help with the Great Ape and Cost Savings Act for bio-medical chimps. Your story would explain another aspect of capitve chimp life. Hopefully ownership of chimpanzees would be banned forever from the nation because of your story! Your story could close down the chimp mills which rip the babies from their mothers and sell them to unsuspecting people like you. As you know, some privately owned chimps will not be relinquished by their owners even though sanctuary places are awaiting their arrival. Your message is based on personal experience and should be heard on a national level. Your love of your chimps is apparent because you and your husband continue to support them as they live their lives in a beautiful sanctuary. It took great strength of character to place them out of your home, but you and your husband did the right thing as your account above supports. You are a great MOTHER! Keep spreading the word. Karen

  2. Roberta, you are a very rare person. I grew up thinking I wanted a pet monkey in the days where they commonly seen in pet shops. Luckily for the monkeys and me, my parents wouldn't let me have one. I met many primate "owners" and never have I met any who had any understanding or concern for their welfare at the level you do. And most don't feel any responsibility for them after they are forced to give them up. Yes, you made a mistake, but with the intent and desire to the best for them, and realized you couldn't do this by continuing to keep them. The apes and many animals are lucky that you are around fighting for them!