Practical Issues > Animals for Entertainment > Zoos


Since it has been widely reported on television, many have heard the about the chimp attack in California. It was a tragic incident for the humans and chimpanzees involved, and pointed to a wider tragedy -- chimpanzees in captivity.

We learn that: "St. James and LaDonna Davis were at the Animal Haven Ranch in Caliente to celebrate the birthday of Moe, a 39-year-old chimpanzee who was taken from their suburban Los Angeles home in 1999 after biting off part of a woman's finger....The couple had brought Moe a cake and were standing outside his cage when Buddy and Ollie, two of four chimpanzees in the adjoining cage, attacked St. James Davis.... Officials have not determined how the chimps got out of their enclosure....St. James Davis had severe facial injuries and would require extensive surgery in an attempt to reattach his nose.... His testicles and a foot also were severed...."

(Another article on the issue has mentioned that surgeons are also attempting to attach one of his eyes -- apparently most of his face was bitten off.)

"Buddy, a 16-year-old male chimp, initiated the attack and after he was shot, Ollie, a 13-year-old male, grabbed the gravely injured man and dragged him down the road, authorities said."

All who saw the attack report that Davis would have been killed if the attacking chimps had not been shot.

We learn this of The Davises: "The Davises had waged an unsuccessful legal fight to bring Moe back to their West Covina home and visited him regularly at the sanctuary where he had been living since October. They brought the chimp from Africa decades ago after a poacher killed his mother."

I know nothing of Moe's specific case but will point out that the mothers of almost all baby chimps or gorillas brought home from Africa were shot by poachers, and those who buy them are almost always directly supporting that horrifying industry. A live gorilla or chimp will not willingly give up her baby so that it can be sold to tourists or exported to the United States for use in the human entertainment industry. She is shot dead, as her baby clings to her. Her body may be sold for bushmeat, her hands might make souvenirs, and her live baby brings big money, not for his paltry meat, but for his appeal to humans.

The story has been widely covered. I specifically checked out Anderson Cooper's coverage on CNN, remembering his unusual attention to the post Tsunami animal suffering, and thinking he might pay more than the usual attention to this issue. He did not disappoint us. On Thursday, March 3, Anderson Cooper interviewed Animal Planet's Jeff Corwin, who has won a Genesis Award for his beautiful coverage of the bushmeat crisis in Africa and is the author of "Living on the Edge: Amazing Relationships in the Natural World."

Here is a transcript of the interview:

COOPER: So, are chimps aggressive?
CORWIN: You know, it's a simple question, and the answer is far more complex. Like human beings, chimps exhibit all sorts of diverse behavior, everything from compassion, to gentleness, to sexuality, to violence. You find violence in human society and you can find violence in chimps.

COOPER: And there -- I mean, they're very strong, though.
CORWIN: Powerful, powerful primates. It's often said that an adult chimpanzee weighing in at 150 pounds is three to seven times stronger than a human being.

COOPER: Three to seven times stronger?
CORWIN: Yes. Absolutely powerful.

COOPER: What causes them to attack? I mean, why -- I hadn't heard of this kind of thing. Obviously, we don't know the details of this animal sanctuary.
CORWIN: Well, you know, the thing about chimpanzees is, we sort of look at them through our rose colored cultural glasses -- the cute little chimp in the "Tarzan" movie. Those are very young chimps. Chimps grow up, they become very powerful. They are very complex in their behavior. They have a whole range of emotions, including violence and anger. And they -- chimps, in chimp society -- while you may see a display of compassion, at the same time, you can see chimp murder. We just got back from Uganda, and we actually looked at footage of chimps that had murdered another chimp.

COOPER: When you say murder, why would they do that?
CORWIN: Because the chimp that was murdered had violated the rules by leaving his area of sanctuary, and entered his competitors domain. And the other chimps ganged up on him and they strangled him, broke all his bones and emasculated him. But what you have to remember, Anderson, is that it's so easy to vilify the chimps in this situation. The truth is, it goes far beyond this. We need to ask ourselves, why are the chimps in captivity? Is there a legitimate reason to be having chimps? Is it for the entertainment industry with the cute chimp? Then it becomes an adult. Why do we do this? A smart, sentient, complex life form -- a primate, genetically very close to ourselves. What's the future for this animal that may live 30, 40 years?

COOPER: According to one report, one of the chimps, we don't know if it was one of the chimps that was involved in this, but at this sanctuary, had been in someone's home for 30 years. They had picked it up in Africa, allegedly from poachers that killed the parents. They raised it, and then at 30 years into it, the chimp bit off somebody's finger, and they gave it away. And so, it's sort of stuck in this animal sanctuary.

CORWIN: And that's not surprising at all. These chimps, as primates, use intelligence for survival, right? And they use their physical strength for survival, but it's a byproduct of all this. They have no stimulation. They become bored. They become frustrated. And they physically exercise their frustration in violence, as with human beings in some situations. So, again, it goes back to this whole thing -- and it's not just chimps. You can apply it to many wild animals in captivity. Last year, in Texas, eight human beings were critically injured by tigers and lions.

And we're quick to vilify tigers and lions. Yet, they're not native to that part of the world. Chimpanzees are used in the entertainment industry, and then they become throw-away casualties of their sexuality, and their adulthood. And then they become prisoners in their captivity, and they have no alternative to diffuse their anger. And unfortunately, human beings, in this case at a sanctuary, who may be doing very good things, people trying to help, got in the way and were injured.

COOPER: It's fascinating. Jeff Corwin, thanks very much.
CORWIN: Thank you.

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