Thursday, July 12, 2012

Chimpanzee escapes, rampages, and maulings may hold a message for us

Sometimes I think the apes are trying to tell us something. I imagine they are trying to say: thanks for wanting to humanize us, for keeping us in your restricted sanctuaries, for deciding what our social groups will be in your small zoos, and for feeding and clothing us in your tiny houses and training compounds. But, seriously, no thanks.
Are we getting the message yet?
In late June, two chimpanzees at a South African sanctuary attacked and mauled Andrew Oberle, ripping off fingers, toes, and testicle. (See this clip from ABC's 20/20, where Eugene Cussons explains why and how it happened.)
On July 11, five chimpanzees escaped from their German zoo compound, causing panic. Four returned easily, the zoo spokeswoman explained, while the fifth “took himself off to see the head gorilla.” That is so not funny. And not believable.
And today, two pet chimpanzees, Buddy and CJ, rampaged through a Las Vegas neighborhood. Police shot and killed Buddy, and tranquilized CJ. The tragedy was inevitable... "They will always be wild animals. You can't tame them," the trainer told a local news crew in 2002. The chimps were owned by Chimps R Us, Inc., which was registered with USDA as an exhibitor (not a sanctuary, as sometimes implied).
Gee, I wonder what all these chimpanzees were thinking?
They may have been thinking the same thing that occurred to Marvin in 1974. The 11-year-old chimpanzee took over a newsroom at a Philadelphia television studio where he was appearing on the Mike Douglas Show. Marvin left his trainer and grew violent, during an hour on the loose. He finally broke through suspended ceiling tiles, which led to a reception area, forcing an evacuation. After a veterinarian tranquilized him with a blow dart, police removed Marvin in handcuffs. I don’t know what happened to Marvin, but I'm betting he was sold into bioinvasive research.

In 1974, 11-year-old Marvin is carried out of a Philadelphia TV studio, handcuffed and under heavy sedation.

Why aren’t we paying attention? Why is it so hard to understand that chimpanzees are magnificently proud and intelligent beings, who were born to wander and socialize and love and fight as their social structures prescribe? After years and years of chimpanzee escapes and attacks (let’s not forget Charla Nash), are we finally ready to take a hard and serious look at the social and physical demands we place on chimpanzees EVERYWHERE?
This week, Eugene Cusson, the director at the South African sanctuary where the mauling took place, posted this on his Facebook page: “Hi Everyone, in light of the recent tragic event that took place at Chimp Eden, I think the next topic for discussion on the page should be whether we as conservationists are doing enough to stop chimps from being taken out of the wild in the first place. Before the tragic incident, my topics were aimed at bringing people to the same conclusion about how we change the world. The event that took place at Chimp Eden has convinced me even more that more needs to be done to ensure that chimps and other endangered species never leave the forest in the first place.”
Cusson’s conversation about sanctuaries and forests won’t directly address the needs of pet, entertainment, zoo, and research chimpanzees who were born in captivity, but the thought is a good one. The chimpanzees definitely seem to be urging us to start the discussion.

UPDATE, August 2, 2012: Ah, finally, a piece of good news! CJ, the chimpanzee who didn't get shot during the Vegas escape, is going to an accredited sanctuary. She now has a chance for a happy and normal a life, as much as a captive ape can have.

UPDATE, August 17, 2012:  CJ finally arrives at her new home, Chimps Inc, a sanctuary in Oregon.

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