The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Even Famous Chimps Attack

First I should probably apologize as this entry is very off-topic, but given the current media attention and my personal connection to the topic, I can't help it...

Adam and Nyota (baby Bonobo) being carried by a staff member at the Language Research Center in Atlanta
(now the Great Ape Trust in Iowa

The recent attack on a Connecticut woman in Maryland has directed a lot of attention toward not only Chimpanzees as pets, but also exotic animals in general. The issue interests me particularly because I worked in the field of primatology for several years, as a Chimpanzee caregiver at the Primate Foundation of Arizona and the Language Research Center in Atlanta (currently re-incarnated at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa). I’ve worked with not only common chimpanzees (around 80 individuals) but also bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) and a solitary, armless orangutan.

Chimpanzees are among God’s most amazing creatures. They are most certainly intelligent, thoughtful, and they can be gentle and loving, yet at times selfish and destructive. Chimpanzees are master communicators; not only is meaning conveyed through their vocalizations, but they also communicate through posturing, motioning of their limbs, facial expressions, and things as simple as a bristling of the hair. In fact, my previous work involved Kanzi, a world-renowned bonobo, with the ability to communicate by pointing to symbols on a keyboard that corresponded to individual words.

I’ve observed the aftermath of more than one attack in my professional work. The Primate Foundation had impeccable security and safety standards, but in any human environment, mistakes are inevitable. I recall that one of my co-workers tripped and fell against the cage containing a group of chimpanzees whom she dearly loved. The noise and excitement stirred the chimps into a raucous, and one of them grabbed her arm and bit one of my co-workers fingers clean off. If I remember correctly, I don’t think the finger was ever found.

It was at the Language Research Center however, where the most carnage occurred. While I was in employment, Kanzi escaped from his cage while in the care of Dr. Sue-Savage Rumbaugh. He mauled one of the scientists in another room, without cause, ripping one finger from his socket, and viscously biting the man on his shoulder. I later learned from my supervisor that Kanzi and other bonobos at the center (all publicized by the international media for their intelligence and thoughtful nature) had a long history of escapes, wandering the premises and surrounding community, and severely mauling lab staff.

It’s possible for a chimpanzee caregiver, or pet owner, to understand a great deal about the feelings, desires and intentions of a chimpanzee by learning to observe subtly changes in their behavior, posturing, vocalizations and facial expressions. Doing so is in fact essential for building a relationship with these animals and creating an atmosphere of trust and confidence.

However, it can never be forgotten that these animals are wild. They are easily startled, highly excitable and have explosive tempers. With strength seven times a normal man, it is impossible to stop them when they have a tantrum. They can be a loving companion one moment, and a horrible monster the next. I don’t believe the damage they do is necessarily intentional. When they get excited, it is as though a light goes out in their brain and the energy takes over, causing them to hurt others they dearly love. No matter how much a chimp has been conditioned to live in a human—and no matter how intelligent it may be, it will never make a suitable pet. It will always have an element of unpredictability and pose a danger to others.

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