Monday, July 2, 2012

Chimpanzee attacks are no surprise

Chimpanzee attacks have been in the news lately. You don’t need a research project to understand this. We know – I mean we really. truly. know. – that chimpanzees can attack. Even when I was a little kid, I knew that dad faced danger when he trained the Detroit Zoo chimpanzees, although I took it for granted. Last year, a woman whose father was also a Detroit Zoo chimp trainer wrote to me. “Do you remember your father with bite marks on his hands (from the chimps), I sure do. I would have bit them too!” (Her dad was also an alcoholic like my dad, and he also trained the chimps with a “heavy hand,” as she put it.)
Danny II was born in the wild around 1964 or so. He performed for the Detroit Zoo from 1968 to 1976, when he became too aggressive for the chimp shows and was sold to an animal dealer that supplied chimpanzees to research labs.
Chimpanzee violence was and is no big secret. That’s why, from 1945 to 1985, the Detroit Zoo had to get rid of their show chimpanzees when they grew into adolescence. Those chimps had personalities, they had strength, and they could get mad.

Pioneer chimpanzee researcher Robert Yerkes, in his 1948 book Chimpanzees: A Laboratory Colony, writes of the time he was attacked and bitten by four chimpanzees in his lab. He was only able to stop them by whipping them with a chain.
The potential for violence is always there. Chimpanzees are complex individuals, who can get angry or defensive or depressed. As Yerkes pointed out, even in those early days of research, researchers could recognize expressions of “shyness, timidity, fear, terror; or suspicion, distrust, resentment, antagonism, anger, rage; or interest, curiosity, excitement, elation, contentment, pleasure; of confidence, friendliness, familiarity, sympathy, affection; of disappointment, discouragement, lonesomeness, melancholy, depression.”
(BTW, if Yerkes knew all this 65 years ago, why are we all so amazed with the daily drivel of research reports showing that (wow!) chimpanzees have human-like emotions? Aren’t there more important subjects to research? Like, for instance, how we are going to take care of all those lab chimps that have PTSD and other problems, once they are retired from research? I’m just saying…)
Today, even experienced caregivers in sanctuaries don’t mess around with adult chimpanzees. According to Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, “There are very strict rules about contact between caregivers and the chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are very strong and potentially dangerous. Many people who work with chimpanzees at other facilities have had fingers bitten off and worse.”
“Even the caregivers never go into the same space as the chimpanzees,” they explain on their website.
Despite the toughest, smartest rules, attacks happen. So we can be horrified, but not shocked, when we learned last week that “chimps attack, severely injure American man at Jane Goodall sanctuary in South Africa.” (Chimp Eden announced that it was temporarily closed, as they figure out why the chimpanzees were able to grab the young man and pull him into the chimpanzee area.) (UPDATE: Chimpanzees cleared after mauling American
We can be horrified, but not shocked, when we learned last week that “Los Angeles Zoo chimpanzee kills baby chimp” in front of zoo visitors.

So, knowing this, knowing that chimpanzees do not remain adorable little babies forever, and they are not little sock puppets that we can control, why do people persist in keeping them in their homes? Why do they continue to put their families, their communities, and the chimpanzees themselves at risk? Maybe even more to the point, why do we let them do this?
The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently approved the Captive Primate Safety Act, S. 1324, which prohibits interstate commerce in monkeys, apes, and other nonhuman primates for the exotic pet trade. The bill, introduced by U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., David Vitter, R-La., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., now moves to the full Senate for consideration. Of course, we know that Congress is completely incapable of passing legislation unless they face a massive uprising of angry voters.
And we know that chimpanzee exploiters are like the NRA in their ferocity. Borrowing from Charlton Heston’s famous declaration of gun ownership, I can imagine the private ape owners clenching the chains attached to their beloved chimps’ neck and proclaiming, “I'll give you my chimp when you take it from my cold, dead hands!”
That is assuming they have any hands left, after their pet chimpanzees reach the breaking point and maul them.

For an insightful discussion of the differences between captive and wild chimpanzee aggression, see Lori Gruen's blog Ethics & Animals, Chimp Attacks, a Birthday, and a Passing.


  1. Hello, I grew up just about 1 mile east of the Detroit Zoo and spent a great deal of time there as a kid. The Chimp show was always the best part of a day at the Zoo. I am sure I probably saw your father several times.The chimps were amazing! I also remember a Polar bear cub who was separated from the adult Polar bears for it`s own safety. It was in a barred cage with a small pool just off the walkway. This little bear would wait until a large group had gathered in front of his area. And then he or she would slap the water and give them all a good soaking. Then it would sit patiently waiting for the next crowd to form :) I will come back and read more about these wonderful creatures when I get a chance. Thanks so much for posting this. It is interesting to get a look at the chimps lives from the other side.
    Cheers, Hugh

  2. Chimps are not pets! They were born free and there is a reason for that

  3. Worrying about chimps with PTSD.....are u kidding me?!?! How about worrying about all the Vets who have come home with PTSD,and are NOT getting proper,if any treatment for it?! When we revert to caring about Apes more than people,we take a step back in our own evolution. A chimp in the wild,will care for his own kind,well before any human....We need to do the same! Thinking of a Chimps PTSD,before a Humans PTSD,is just plain insanity. You ppl need to beg for money for these Apes,because most people who donate money,know that caring for their fellow man comes first. Call me what you will,but my instinct is to help humans first. When we dont,we are the lesser of all Primates.

    1. As a Vietnam-Era vet, and as an aunt who has a nephew now serving his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, I care very much about vets with PTSD. That doesn't preclude me, however, from caring about chimps also. You may have noticed that this is a blog about chimpanzees, so I'm surprised that you are surprised to see us addressing chimp issues.

  4. That first commenter seems to only be paying attention to the supposed " good old days" of performing chimps on this blog. I was once amused by performing chimps, before I knew they were stolen from their mothers.Then when I saw a chimp get punched in the face at the circus I could no longer enjoy these performances. I am a professional clown, and I am now opposed to using animals in circuses and other entertainment.Read this blog and you'll know why, they suffer horribly! My years in the circus showed me the world of wild animal trainers is a world that attracts, and depends on violent people to keep it going and will make every effort to intimidate and silence other performers and employees to keep them from reporting abuse and the miserable living conditions the animals endure. I look forward to the day when there are no chimps and animals used in entertainment, and I hope it happens soon.This blog is a great resource and I hope more people will use it to protect the apes from human suffering.