Monday, March 9, 2009

The Danger Disconnect

The most disturbing thing about Sandra Harold’s story is not that this seventy year-old woman recently helped kill the pet chimp she claims was “like a son to her” to stop him from attacking her friend. It’s not even that she raised Travis (her chimp) as a human, nor her criminal negligence for risking lives, nor the negligence of the officials who allowed her to slide on permits even after previous incidents. The most disturbing thing is the continued and obvious disconnect people still seem to have when it comes to understanding the dangers of chimps.

Google Travis Chimp and you will find blogs, newspaper stories, links, and discussion forums about a woman who is disfigured, a chimp that is dead, a family facing criminal charges, and the government meetings to discuss permit regulations. Even after recent events in California when a man lost his testicles to another chimp, the majority of the reporters, writers, and comment threads continue to amaze me with one joke after another. I realize people often find tasteless humor in the face of tragedy, but if you add chimps to the mix, it seems they loose all perspective. Suddenly, all tact and common sense go out the window in favor of another one-liner.

When a tiger attacks and kills someone the response is entirely different. Case in point, read about the sling shot incident at the San Francisco Zoo. Enter an area where an escaped tiger is on the loose and most people will mess themselves. After it’s over, if they live, they’ll all be in a rage wondering who to blame. Enter an area with an angry chimp, and most people will laugh and point and make jokes. (For future reference, showing your teeth to an upset primate is a bad idea, since it’s a sign of aggression.)

The worst argument of my zoo career took place with a man during a chimp escape. An angry, scared female chimp that had already attacked one of her keepers was running loose, and this guy wanted to take his five year old kid over for a closer look. I finally dissuaded him by yelling that I might enjoy watching her rip his arms and legs from the sockets and beat him with them, but I wasn’t willing to risk his kid. He seemed shocked when he realized I was serious.

But, don’t just take it from me. Martha Hamilton has cared for over seventy chimps, ages 13 to 52, both mother raised and human raised, former laboratory, space, zoo, and entertainment chimps, from wild caught to captive born. She’s worked with them in both zoo and sanctuary settings, she's even worked with them in Africa. When I asked her about this phenomenon, she pointed out the influence of the media.

We’ve all seen the commercials, the movies, the television shows with the chimps dressed in human clothes, smiling, and shaking their heads for a laugh. Hamilton says, “The main thing people don't realize is that the chimps in the media are all babies or juveniles. Once they begin to reach adolescence, around the ages of five to seven, they become strong and unmanageable.” This is when they usually wind up in zoos, or sanctuaries, or unfortunately, as pets in someone’s home.

When asking what she thought might have triggered Travis's attack, Hamilton says, “Imagine a teenage boy, the age equivalent of Travis, and consider their typical raging hormones and uncontrollable anger. Then, you have to put that into a being that is seven times stronger than a full-grown man.” Hamilton adds, “Chimps raised by humans are confused. They don't understand that they are not human, especially the way Travis lived. They also don't understand the behavior we humans label ‘right and wrong’.” She assures me Travis was acting as a normal chimp would if feeling threatened or confused about his surroundings.

Chimps become easily agitated, particularly in their teenage years. Hamilton says, “Once a chimp loses control of his emotions, it's like a toddler. They are literally out of their minds.” They often fight amongst themselves. When this occurs, they are usually out to disable their victim in an attack, not necessarily to kill. They go for the face, eyes, ears, hands, feet, and genitals leaving the victim helpless to further defend himself. Hamilton adds, “Chimps are ruled by their emotions. Factor in their proven high intelligence, and it’s obvious that they do not make good pet material. They belong in the forest. Period!”

After speaking with Hamilton, my advice is as follows: when faced with a chimp, remember that even a juvenile is at least seven times stronger than you are. Next, think of their large, gleaming teeth and their tendency to lose their cool at the least provocation. Most of all, don’t forget that they are proven to be only slightly less intelligent than humans. Now, perhaps you will understand the potential for a seriously dangerous situation.

So, if you see someone trotting their pet chimp around in public, even if they’ve been doing this for years, perhaps it would be best to keep your distance. I suggest contacting someone at your nearest zoo or the US Departments of Agriculture to report what you have seen. Because the chimp might look funny and act cute, but it’s just as dangerous as the tiger, and the mutilation of innocent people, the unnecessary death of an innocent chimp, are not laughing matters.