Attacks remind us of chimps' wild side

Recent maulings and deaths surprise some who think of primates as harmless


Chimpanzees are supposed to be the "good" apes, cute and funny, the hairy little people depicted in thousands of films and TV shows. But recent news out of western Africa shows they can be brutally fierce.

A chimp attacked and killed a Sierra Leone man who was driving Americans to a wildlife refuge last month. Another man lost part of his hand in the attack.

Some news reports said a group of up to 20 chimps that had broken out of their enclosures gang-attacked the men, while other stories have pinned responsibility on one animal, possibly a chimp named Bruno, the undisputed alpha male of the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. The powerful ape reportedly punched out a window of the taxicab the men were in and assaulted the driver, Issu Kanu, before attacking the passengers.

"This thing was on a rampage, and it acted like it wanted to kill every one of us," Gary Brown, one of the Americans in the cab, told an Austin, Texas, TV station recently. "And it had hatred in its eyes."

Hardly the behavior we would expect from Tarzan's little pal Cheetah, or Zira and Cornelius, the benevolent chimp scientists from Planet of the Apes. But such attacks are not unprecedented.

BBC Wildlife magazine reported in 2004 that chimp attacks on people in Uganda had increased, with 15 children either mauled or killed in the past seven years. Since the 1960s, only six such attacks had been recorded in that region of Africa, according to the report.

Last year, a man narrowly escaped death when two male chimps attacked him at a California sanctuary. The victim, St. James Davis, and his wife had gone to visit Moe, the chimp they had taught to wear clothes, take showers, use the toilet and watch television, the Los Angeles Times reported. Moe had been banished to the sanctuary after he bit a woman.

The Davises had arrived with a cake to celebrate Moe's birthday when two other male chimps who had escaped from their cages attacked. St. James Davis lost all the fingers from both hands, an eye and parts of his nose, cheeks, lips and buttocks. His genitals also were mutilated, according to news reports. A relative of the sanctuary owners fatally shot the animals before they could kill Davis.

"I had no idea a chimpanzee was capable of doing that to a human," Kern County Fire Capt. Curt Merrell said at the time.

They certainly have the strength. An adult male chimpanzee may be only 4 feet tall and weigh 110 pounds, but he is at least five times as strong as a man.

That chimps can be homicidal should not be surprising. Biologically, they are the closest animals to humans, sharing more than 98 percent of DNA with our far more deadly species.

Still, attacks on humans remain rare, and the cause of the Sierra Leone incident is unknown. It's possible, chimp expert Anne Pusey said in a recent interview, that Bruno and his mates were displaying territorial aggression. Male chimps patrol their territory in bands and will sometimes kill males from neighboring groups. Typically, a few animals will hold a lone victim down while the others beat and tear at it.

"This attack seems quite a lot like what they sometimes do to each other," said Pusey, professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota.

Pusey also is head of the Jane Goodall Institute's Center for Primate Studies, named for a woman known for her pioneering work with chimps in Tanzania. Goodall's Web site, janegoodall. org, sounds warnings about the loss of habitat that has diminished the number of wild chimps.

A major cause of the human-chimp confrontations in Uganda, according to the BBC Wildlife magazine article, is the increasing proximity of farms to the chimps' forest habitat. Also, people in Africa kill chimps for meat, and the hunters will sometimes take in the orphaned babies to keep or sell. The young chimps are cute and cuddly, but beyond about 5 years old, most cannot be easily controlled. Abused and abandoned, the chimps sometimes end up in sanctuaries like the one in Sierra Leone, but their negative experiences with their original captors is another possible motivation for the Tacugama attack, Pusey said.

"We humanize them, but we're referring to wild animals here," the sanctuary's director, Bala Amarasekaran, told Reuters. "Some chimps are highly territorial and can attack and kill. They may have seen these people as intruders."

People are ultimately responsible for a situation in which the apes are being squeezed from their natural homes, Pusey said.

"They're meant to be out in the forest," she said. "We shouldn't be taking them away from there."

Jesse Leavenworth writes for the Hartford Courant.

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