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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Aww, he's so cute

There's been a fair amount of local publicity about the chimp in Stamford which the police shot dead after it savaged a friend of its owner. The owner, Sandra Herold, had evidently lost both her husband and only child a few years back, and had filled the void in her life with the chimp. She treated him with great indulgence, feeding him filet mignon and lobster tails and champagne. She even took baths with him and let him sleep in her bed.

What Herold hadn't taken into account when she first adopted the three week old chimp was how strong chimpanzees become, and how dangerous they can be. Most experts seem to agree that an adult chimp is roughly five times as strong as an adult male human. A chimpanzee can fall 40 feet and break its fall by grabbing onto a tree limb with one hand. In 1924 a dynamometer was set up at the Bronx Zoo which measured pull force on a spring. A 135-pound female chimp was able to exert 1260 pounds of pressure on it with just one arm. (A grown man, by contrast, can exert approximately 210 pounds of pressure.)

An adult orangutan is supposed to be approximately seven times as strong as an adult male human, and a 300 pound gorilla has the strength of ten or eleven full grown men.

I read recently that a large log once fell into an orangutan enclosure, and four men together were unable to budge it. One of the orangutans later picked up the log and threw it out of the enclosure -- with one arm.

My brother was once told by a zookeeper at the Honolulu Zoo that when a chimpanzee escaped from its cage at the zoo, the zookeepers all fled for their lives, and only returned once they were armed with tranquilizer guns. In Africa, people give both chimps and baboons a very wide berth.

Nonetheless, it's easy to understand why people want to adopt the animals. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives. We share 98.7% of our DNA with them; they are in fact more closely related to us than they are to gorillas. And they do have a certain semi-human cuteness to them, especially when young. (Neonate features are standard across mammalian species: large eyes for their size, high-pitched voices, and a certain innocent helplessness to which we respond accordingly.) Jane Goodall must have felt this tug when she decided to devote her young womanhood to studying bonobos in the wild.

Michael Jackson once famously adopted a baby chimp, which he named Bubbles. As it grew older and its cuteness disappeared he lost interest in it and let others take care of it. (This is not entirely dissimilar to his attitude towards male humans.) But the original attraction is easy to understand; there's something about a baby chimp which makes you want to cuddle it.

When my son and I drove across the country in the summer of 2007 we stopped at a tiger sanctuary outside Oklahoma City. Before we left we chatted with the woman in the entrance building and she brought out a baby tiger for us to pet. It was about a month old, exactly the size of a full grown house cat, but it had neonate features as well as the unmistakable markings of a tiger. It rubbed up against our legs, mewling, then wandered over to a group of tiger dolls arranged on the floor, all approximately its size, and started to play with them. It was incredibly cute.

The woman then pointed out, "Within a year and a half it will be large enough to take down a water buffalo by itself."

That was definitely food for thought. But the experience did give me a little sympathy for the unforesightful types who adopt a cute little baby tiger and then a couple years later don't know what to do with their 500 pound pet. Their quandary is particularly acute since tigers can never be completely domesticated -- any more than chimps.

Whenever we see chimps in advertisements, or on TV, or in circuses, we're looking at juvenile chimps. Experienced animal handlers know that once chimpanzees get to a certain age, they become unmanageable, as well as inhumanly strong. In all those old movies, whenever Tarzan went somewhere holding Cheetah's hand, the role of Cheetah would invariably be played by a very young chimp. Had Johnny Weissmuller had ever tried to lead an adult chimp by the hand, he would have been torn limb form limb.

The woman mauled by the chimp two days ago, Charla Nash, is still in critical condition. She has reportedly lost both of her eyes, her nose, and her jaw. (Think of the strength it requires to just pull someone's jaw off.) The police officers who arrived on the scene couldn't tell if she was male or female.

In Uganda, chimps have been known to raid the illegal brewing operations within the national parks. Once drunk, they become very aggressive towards humans, and have killed several small children. Their favorite method of killing is to first bite off the limbs, then disembowel them, just as they do to red colobus monkeys, their favorite prey. (Chimps are basically mean drunks who feel their beer muscles very quickly; the problem for humans is, the muscles of a chimpanzee are all too real.)

In 1999, former NASCAR driver St. James Davis had to give up his pet chimp, Moe, after Moe bit off part of a woman's finger. (Davis's response: "Animals bite, people bite, Mike Tyson bites. So what?") In 2005, Davis and his wife went to visit the animal shelter where Moe lived in order to celebrate Moe's 39th birthday. During the visit, two chimps from the cage next door somehow broke into Moe's enclosure and attacked Davis. By the time the chimps were shot by the son of the shelter owner, they had bitten off Davis's nose and most of his fingers. They also tore off his testicles and his left foot. (No word on whether Davis reconsidered his previous cavalier attitude.)

These are all things to keep in mind the next time you see a cute little mammal, especially one destined to grow up either carnivore or omnivore.


Anonymous said...

This was truly a no win situation. The chimp is dead, his owner is distraught and Ms. Nash, if she survives, will have to endure multiple surgeries and life-long disfigurement. I had no idea that full-grown chimps are as strong as you describe, but certainly the authorities allowing them to be sold as pets should have known. As you pointed out, wild animals can never be fully domesticated. I believe the responsibility for this tragedy sits largely with lawmakers who allowed Travis to be sold to Ms. Herold in the first place.

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Thank you for your comment. Actually, the laws have been amended so as not to allow for chimps as pets in CT, but this particular one got grandfathered in since Ms. Herold already owned him at the time the law was passed.

Anonymous said...

St. James Davis was really attached to his chimp. He and his wife had an unusual story, a different kind of "family," treating the chimp like a child (until it was removed from their home). All wild animals should stay in their natural habitat.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Agreed. And especially chimps.