It must be human nature to want to put things, including humans and other animals, into discrete categories. We think of people as “kind” or “mean”, without allowing for all the gray area in between. That’s what confuses people about Travis, the chimpanzee who was killed recently after attacking a woman in Connecticut. How could an animal that lived for over a decade in a woman’s home suddenly become so spectacularly violent? It doesn’t sit well with people, so we try to explain it away. It must have been the victim’s haircut. She was holding a doll. Travis was simply defending his territory. He was protecting the woman who owned him.
I think its great that most people don’t blame Travis, and I think some of these things may very well have played a part in the attack. But if we really want to protect chimpanzees and the public, and ensure that incidents like this don’t happen again, we need to have a more nuanced understanding of chimpanzee behavior. The truth is that they just don’t fit into our neat little categories.
Chimpanzees can be incredibly violent, and not always for reasons we would consider noble. Chimpanzee communities have complex and ever-changing dominance hierarchies. Dominance is achieved through a number of means, the most obvious of which is violence. Here at the sanctuary, it is common for Burrito to charge through the enclosures for no apparent reason, hitting the girls as he goes. Why does he do this? Mostly to keep them on their toes, and to remind them who’s boss (or who thinks he’s boss). Whether he is conscious of this strategy or simply fulfilling an instinctual urge, I don’t know. Probably both. But its not what we would normally call “nice”. Recently, the girls had enough of this behavior, and they pinned him down and bit him all over his body. It was a brutal lesson for Burrito, but once again, its just part of chimpanzee life. Many conflicts are resolved through violence, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.
Pick up any book about wild chimpanzee communities, and you’ll read about young males violently overthrowing an old alpha male that wasn’t physically up to the fight anymore. Or about groups of males that patrol borders and kill individuals from neighboring communities that get a little too close. While many primatologists try to avoid loaded words like “murder”, that’s what it is.
If you’ve followed our blog, you’ve seen how gentle and peaceful chimpanzees can be. Every day, we interact with the chimpanzees in many ways – playing chase, exchanging grunts, grooming one another, allowing them to kiss the backs our hands, etc. But if you’ve looked closely, you’ve probably noticed that we are extremely careful in these situations. We never penetrate the caging with our fingers (if the chimps want to be groomed, they have to put their body up against the caging), and we keep our bodies far enough away from the caging that we can’t be grabbed or pulled in (if they want to groom us, they have to stick their lips or fingers all the way out). Why would we be afraid of our friends?
Frankly, in the chimp world, friends sometimes bite each other’s fingers off. No matter how close or friendly our relationships are with the chimps in our care, there’s no guarantee that they won’t hurt us. In fact, given enough unsafe interactions, you can guarantee that someone will get hurt. And that’s not fair to the chimps. Just look at what happened to Travis.
There are many lessons to be learned from Travis’ death, but the most important is that we simply shouldn’t put chimpanzees into situations where they can hurt someone. It is our responsibility to prevent these things from happening, not theirs.
I love the chimps I care for, and all of the chimps I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. I consider them friends as much as I do my human companions. But if we truly love them, we need to treat them with the respect they deserve, and that includes respect for their complex nature. Chimpanzees are fascinating, and I don’t blame people for being attracted by their similarity to us. But they are not meant for our world, any more than we are meant for theirs.