Another Chimp Bites the Dust

05/25/2011 01:05 pm ET

The story of Travis, the chimpanzee, reminds me of a zoo where a visitor had climbed in with the polar bears, and got mauled. One bear was shot. A rather unfair ending, in my opinion.
Now there is another sad story surrounding a chimpanzee. Travis, a young adult male kept as a pet in Stamford, Connecticut, attacked a woman on February 16th, 2009, visiting the owner, and ends up shot and killed by the police. Under the circumstances, you can't blame the police, but this doesn't make the case less tragic.

Without going into the details of how well the chimp knew the human visitor, or what the effect may have been of the Xanax in his tea, we should consider that this was a 15-year-old male. This is precisely the age at which males begin to domineer females of their species and challenge more established males. If you have ever seen male chimps work on their status it is obvious that they are real risk-takers, employing their considerable strength to move up and not caring one bit about the injuries they may incur. Travis was a time bomb waiting to be set off.

Adult chimpanzees are totally beyond unarmed human control, and have been known to kill people. At a sanctuary in Sierra Leone, in 2006, a group of chimpanzees turned on a local driver and Western visitors, killing the driver and seriously injuring the others. Fatal attacks on humans have occurred at zoos as well.

Chimpanzees are smaller than us. On all fours, they only reach to our knees, so people often misjudge their force. You can see how muscular they are when they effortlessly scale a branchless tree. It's a feat of strength no human can replicate. The arm pulling strength of the male chimpanzee has been measured at five times that of athletic young men, and since apes fight with four "hands," they are impossible to beat. This is so even if they're prevented from biting as was done by a man I once met, who traveled carnivals with a chimp. Every macho guy was ready to wrestle the ape, thinking it would be a piece of cake. But even hulks the size of a pro-wrestler found it impossible to control the man's partner.

What makes apes so strong? Muscle density may be part of the answer, which would also explain why apes can't swim: they lack buoyancy. The pound-for-pound output power of ape muscles is estimated to be twice that of our own species.

It is well known to those who work with chimps in captivity that if one of them is able to get a hold of a human arm or ankle through the bars, there is no way to free yourself by force. The ape has to voluntarily release. A chimp can move its entire body up hanging by a single finger: don't try this at home!

It's tragic that perhaps the attacked woman will lose her life, or at least her face, not to mention the price that Travis paid for the incident. All as a result of lax laws that let people keep undomesticated animals at home. A chimp is no pet and will never make a good pet however well treated. People are lured into keeping them because they are cute when they are young, but this is naïve and irresponsible.

But there are other reasons not to keep nonhuman primates as pets. Chimps may be particularly dangerous, but even smaller monkeys are not made for a life in a human home. Hundreds of accidents happen every year in which monkeys bite owners or visitors, which is why many of them end up without teeth. Is this a way to treat our fellow primates: emasculated and detoothed?

This is why we need organizations, such as ChimpHaven, which take in animals like this, remove them from human homes, and release them onto large islands where they live a more natural social life. No diapers are needed here. They live in a green setting in which they mingle with fellow apes, doing no harm to humans and humans doing no harm to them.

-- Frans de Waal