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.
Margaret and Karen says
Thank you for this beautiful and informative post, J.B. It needs to be read widely so more people can beging to understand about chimpanzees.
Shelly Knapp says
As always, very well said, J.B. I guess we know which part of “wild animal” some people aren’t grasping. Good heavens, we’ve all been told this a zillion times – the behavior of wild animals cannot be 100% predicted – ever – period. Especially when they’re removed from their natural environment for Pete’s sake. Add on top of that all the wierd and/or awful things that have been done to them. This should be more expected than shocking given the circumstances (and it’s certainly not the first time it’s happened).
I do wish that there had been more in the media about the source of all of this – chimpanzee’s being taken from the wild and/or born in captivity for entertainment. The result is just the opposite – tragedy for both humans and chimps.
I’m embarassed to admit that it hasn’t been that long ago that I learned about what happens with chimps in the entertainment industry (through CSNW)- and I’m a lifetime animal lover…..so if I didn’t know, there are millions of others who still don’t. For all of you reading the blog, please bring this topic up now, while there is public interest in Travis’ story, to help educate others – we can all see how important it is.
Amy M. says
JB — Thank you for this wonderful, wonderful post. It’s so easy to project on the animals in our care and lose sight of who they really are. Even though I don’t follow pop culture, I saw that the Kardashian family just got a 2-year-old chimp. I hope they will come to their senses — or someone around them will BRING them to their senses — and find the chimp a more appropriate home before another tragedy occurs.
Shelly Knapp says
Sorry for a second post here ~ regardless of whether the incident could’ve been predicted or prevented, I do still feel enormous sympathy for what Charla Nash and her loved ones are enduring. Travis’ caregiver, I know, feels that she truly loved Travis and that this was “just a freak accident” and still doesn’t seem to understand the larger context here. Which is precisely why mass education on this issue is so important.
Jeani Goodrich says
Thank you JB for this post and helping us use the right words when talking with others. A lot of people have brought up the Travis incident to me since they know of my relationship with CSNW. I have said some of what you said but now I can really talk about it with a better handle on it. This is definitely a good time to educate people so we can change people’s thinking and help the wildlife.
Very well put JB!!! There is some good news that has come from this tragedy. Just today, the Captive Primate Safety Act, has passed in the House by a vote of 323-95. Fortunately a few of our congressman tried to hold up the voting but were not successful. Now we need the same attention to the bill as it goes to the Senate.
Of course this bill will not prevent the sale or breeding of chimpanzees within each state that hasn’t passed laws already but it’s a good start and we can only hope and pray that the state legislators have taken actions to prevent another tragedy. I have already written to my state legislators urging them take action. For the sake of human safety and the safety of the primates.
The story of today’s voting can be seen on the US Humane Society Presidents blog.
yeah, there’s a major urgent problem with people (not necessarily our blog community here) who do not know or understand this or who maybe simply do not care .. all kinds of wild exotic animals, like the chimpanzee are forced into all kinds of situations where they do not belong and some even raising them as humans, ie like Travis ..
you can never take away, suppress nor diminish the primal instincts and urges of these wild animals, no matter how well you take care of them .. if those people really truly cared about them, they would leave them alone in the first place and help protect them ..but that’s part of the problem..
thanks for this reminder and thought-provoking post J.B. and thanks again for all that CSNW is doing to help all our magnificent chimp friends (and thanks also to all the other reputable sanctuaries that are helping and trying to make a difference)
Wanda Perry says
I feel sad for Travis, he was a large Chimpanzee, and never should of lived among humans. Just looking at him, I could see how powerful he was. I feel pity for the women that raised him, yet I think it was selfish to deprive Travis of living among his own kind.
The article was beautifully written………
Thank you for great blog entry, JB. I just posted it to my facebook page, so hopefully people that wouldn’t otherwise come across it will be able to read it.
Theresa – thanks for the info on the captive primate safety Act. Every little move helps keep momentum on this important issue. As horrible as the events were with Travis, at least it put a focus on something a lot of people just don’t think about. Sadly, it is too often the case that there needs to be some sort of tragedy for people to be moved to address the problem.
Candace (Tyler, TX) says
Now I understand why you give “knuckle” rubs. When I watched the 02-11-09 video of Jamie, I’m guessing Sarah was handing out the crayons, would slowly give the crayon to Jamie. Then on the third passing of a crayon Jamie quickly poked her fingers through the mesh as if to grab Sarah’s hand. I’ll admit I jumped when that happened, it startled me. Also, when the skirmish broke out during the KCTS news story, I’m glad they kept it in the story. I believe its good to see that they can get angry every now and then, that they’re not completely docile.
I agree with you Jill, too bad that it does take a tragedy to bring focus to a problem.
I was watching the news and I caught “leash” law and I thought it’s funny you have to walk your dog on a leash, but you can have a 12 year old chimpanzee as a pet or any exotic animal. After Hurricane Ike there was a tiger loose on Galveston Island that escaped from his enclosure at an exotic pets center, but please have your dog on a leash.
I hope the Captive Primate Safety Act passes, if it doesn’t we’ll keep working on it until it does.
J.B. you’re blog was very poignant, you, Diana and Sarah are all great writers you say it just right. Thank you.
Michelle Coburn says
Very beautifully said, JB. I hope the text of your post can be shared in as many other forums other than ours as possible. If it is possible and permissible, I would encourage people, with permission, to share this text in as many places as possible with as many people as possible to get the consciousness raised that these are wild animals and will always be wild animals, not little humans in diapers!
I too have had to try and find words to explain this unfortunate incident, and even tho it is such a tragic loss, we must use this incident, while it is fresh in people’s minds to bring attention to the passage of the Captive Primate Safety Act. Additionally, we must continue to pass the word along to innocent potential buyers the true nature of chimpanzees and other wild animals not being suitable as pets or interacting with humans in ways other than JB has outlined. Unfortunately in our society, unless something happens like this, people’s attention is so fleeting and arbitrary, they will forget when the next big media blitz comes along and takes their minds and attention to something else.
Thank you JB, Diana and Sara for your insight, experience and compassion. We are very fortunate to have you caring for the CE7.
Shelly C says
I posted something on the forum, it is two baby chimpanzees, Mikey and Louie, the woman that bought them for 45K each as babies bought them from the same breeder where Travis and his mother came from, she has now signed the two babies over to the Little Rock Arkansas Zoo, I attached the video of Mikey and Louis heading outside for the first time in their life without a harness, they are being chimpanzees and it is great to see. Also I watched a segment regarding Travis, they said Travis loved his Elmo doll, the one she held in front of her face and when she squeezed him it sqeeked, Travis thought she was hurting his Elmo doll and attacked to protect the doll also he said when Elmo got into the police car he was not going in there to tattacj the officers, he wanted to go for a car ride, he loved going for car rides. Poor Travis, I feel so bad for him and the way he had to suffer because of human IGNORANCE, I also sent a message to the boy that shot Travis’s mother what 8 years ago, I read the story , a couple of them, the witnesses stated that the teenagers ahd already made it to safety inside the house, and one of the teenagers friends had said he heard the kid saying he was going shoot one of those damn apes one day, he came back out of the house, Suzy ( Travis;s mother) was already hit with a tranqilizer dart and was sitting by the bushes just smelling the leaves and that kid came out and shot Suzy, I senty him a very long message, he wants the governor to take it off his record, I told him he is an animal killer and it needs to stay on his record, he is a liar and shot Suzy just to shoot her. They are trying to link Suzy and Travis saying they were both killed because they attacked….BULL…they were doing what chimpanzees do PERIOD! Anyway just wanted to put my feeling out there, there are too many chimps in cages in this country that need to go to SANCTUARY or to a Zoo…the world need to wake up and stop blaming the animals for all the tragic deaths, humans are the ones that make the mistakes that set it off! Thank you! Shelly
Rest in Peace Sweet Travis and Suzy
Sara Lissabet says
This is the kind of education we need to make sure people get. I’ve heard, through educational programs, some horrible things chimps do in the wild. It can be a brutal culture – or a loving one as evidenced by the sanctuary.
It’s important to continue to educate “the masses” so that it becomes widely accepted that chimps should not be treated like little humans and that they be given the respect that any wild animal would be given. Even though there are chimps who learn to communicate through sign language, adopt kittens, and exhibit other human behaviors. This is what makes them so fascinating, but we must make sure that we learn from them – and they learn from us – in natural and protected environments, not in any lab or human home.
I think we shoud be really careful about equating zoos and sanctuaries. The bottom line for zoos is pleasing their human pattrons. While many zoos have taken big strides towards more compassionate displays the animals are there for us to see not to live their own lives. If certain behaviors are considered untoward they maybe harshly discouraged (like throwing feces) instead of looking for ways to change their environment to mitigate the behavior. Chimps are often kept surrounded by water filled moats which confine them, since they can’t swim, they do sometimes drown. Also some zoos have breeding colonies to maintain sources of captive chimps? Right? Is this really ethical?
Yet, I wonder whether actually being able to see endangered animals raises awareness in a way nothing else can? I haven’t worked this out yet for myself. I just think we should consider sanctuaries as the “gold standard” for the remaining captive chimps and put our efforts towards that end.
Margaret and Karen says
I agree with you, Cindy. While SOME zoos are improving in terms of the quality of life for their animals their wellbeing is not their first concern. Zoos and sanctuaries are not the same thing. Thanks from raising this important point.
Shelly Knapp says
Keep writing, everybody ~ I’m learning from reading your posts which means others are as well. Thanks so much, to every single one of you, for your caring!
Shelly C says
“I think we shoud be really careful about equating zoos and sanctuaries”~~~~~WHAT I MEANT BY THE ZOO COMMENT TO SET THIS STRAIGHT CINDY is I would much rather see captive chimpanzees in a zoo or a sanctuary RATHER then see they in a cage, in someones house or garage or backyard!
Thank you for your comment Cindy. I agree that people need to understand the difference between zoos and sanctuatuaries, regardless of what side of the issue you come down on. I for one, would love to see the “zoo” disappear from our world, but I know that is likely not to happen.
Shelly C – I understood what you meant and I’m sure others did as well. As much as I dislike zoos, and despise the breeding practices, at least the animals are kept separate from the humans and are fed a proper diet and are treated like the wild animals that they are, in terms or being concerned with their enrichment. I can’t ever think of a time where a wild animal, any wild animal, is better of being someone’s pet.
Zoos often won’t take pet-raised chimps since they exhibit “human” type behavior and zoos want “wild” behavior. Zoos are captivity and behaviors exhibited there while not necessarily “human” behavior may be behaviors of boredom and captivity. Zoos vary a great deal, some provide enrichment but some believe in trying to mimic “the wild” and won’t do that.
I too understand what Shelly meant, I think it’s really important to lookcritically at the complexity of a dicey situation since obvious solutions might not work as well as one might think.
In Seattle about 6 or 7 years ago an adaorable elephant was born at the local Seattle zoo. About a year or so ago she died of a herpes type virus, most likely a result of captivity. It was really sad. The Seattle zoo is considered progressive and yet the too can’t avoid the complications of captivity.
There are few simple answers to these complex situations and I believe it’s very important to realize that when pondering what to do in dicey situations.
one of my favorite quotes:
“The wild, cruel beast is not behind the bars of the cage. He is in front of it.” ~ Axel Munthe
of course this does NOT apply nor a reference to the dedicated outstanding loving folks and volunteers at CSNW, Fauna or any other REPUTABLE sanctuaries of chimpanzees who are literally bending over backwards everyday, on many levels & of expertise, assuring at great lengths their comfort, peace & protection, trying to help them recover and restore their dignity & magnificence..
please remember that there are differences regarding sanctuaries also, some are reputable and some are not .. true sanctuaries do not breed their residents .. Sarah wrote a great piece on the CSNW Forum regarding this, please read if have not done so already..
for those who do not already know this, Chimp Party aka the Missouri Chimpanzee Sanctuary (where Travis and Suzy were from) is not a true reputable sanctuary, please do not be fooled.
I have been thinking a lot about the wide variety of emotional responses the Travis incident has generated. While it’s really difficult, I think it’s most important to maintain a degree of objectivity when trying to help our chimp friends. Chimps often can’t/don’t control their emotional outbursts and that can get them in trouble. So too with us when we advocate for them. So many of us have volatile opinions regarding the behavior, fate and welfare of chimps in US captivity.
It best serves our chimp friends to take them for who they are and resist the overwhelming temptation to explain their actions in human emotional terms. We can only describe what they do and not interpret their behavior in our terms. We will never know their thoughts and motivations. We should advocate for them well armed with facts and as little emotion as possible.
The situation is complex. The answer, at least to me, is simple – all captive US chimps should be in reputable sanctuaries. Implementing this is most definitely not easy. When trying to influence and educate others the objective facts are so powerful they speak for themselves. Emotional responses often alienate those we most want to influence and cloud the compelling facts that need to be clear and up front.
The chimps need us to be responsible advocates. The best advocate is clear, objective, and well educated. We owe this to our friends if we want to effectively speak on their behalf.
Just received this excellent article by Jane Goodall from the LA Times in response to the Travis tragedy.
This post is a little late, but there are still a couple points that I would like to mention. JB really hit the nuts and bolts of the situation, as far as the general public not understanding the complexities of chimpanzee culture and creating justifications for Travis’ behavior based on something that makes sense to us. And, as JB said, it’s not that any of those reasons might not have been part of the cause….we’ll never know. Let’s not forget, tho, that the neighbor was called because Travis had already been “acting a little rambunctious” that morning, and had already used keys to let himself out of the house!
I think one thing that has not been mentioned enough is the woman’s age. She is somewhere around 70 yrs old! Please, do not misunderstand me. I’m not condoning this type of ownership no matter what age, or how fit you are. No human is a match in strength. However, reports put Travis anywhere from 16-20 yrs old. I wonder what her plans were for Travis, when she becomes ill and can no longer take care of him. This is another place where legislature has let us down. Her “rights” to own Travis were grandfathered in. I have known other apes in this same situation and it very nearly ended the same way. Fish and Wildlife or any other agency is forced to look the other way, and continue to put their people in harms way to protect the public when the situation inevitable goes awry. Imagine, when drunk driving laws were passed, if someone killed your child, and the courts let them go because the law was passed this week, instead of last week. The tragedy has already occurred, but last week they had a “right” to drive drunk, and legislature protects that right.
On the heels of that, there are several places where news and media let us down, but I would like to point out two that are relevant to this topic 😉
First, I read several articles that absolutely martyred this woman; using phrasing such as “like her own child” or inferring that Travis somehow betrayed her with his bad behavior. Her own child whom she stabbed to defend her neighbor. Her reaction was absolutely understandable and tragic, but its possible that in Travis’ mind this was nothing more than a fistfight–remember their strength and the complexity of their culture—what mother would jump in and use lethal force if their teenage son popped the neighbor in the nose? My point here is that we are again letting her off the hook. She attempted to raise him like her own son. When he did not act like a human son would, she was forced to make a decision that no mother in real life would ever have to make. It seems Travis was “just” a wild animal after all.
Also, the media has continuously portrayed apes, most often chimpanzees, as these cute intelligent mischief makers. They are used in this way when they are only a few yrs old, and usually only until they are 5 or 6 yrs, max. This is a completely unrealistic portraiture (not to mention a 4 or 5 yr. career on an animal that can easily live to be 50 in captivity). Compare this to a video of a toddler taking its first steps, or playing on the jungle gym, and then flash ahead to a photo of an atomic bomb or war. It’s hard to imagine that the innocent baby could be capable of such violence. Its not a given….but it’s within our nature. In the case of chimps, it is a given. Displays are a part of a male’s nature, and if it is suppressed because he may break the china, it will create pressure that will likely explode. Like all of you, I would like to find a more palatable answer as to why this happened so that we can make sure it never happens again. The fact is, it happened because our laws allowed it to happen. That is where we need to focus.
Wanda Perry says
Thanks for all the opinions on this, I still believe the best thing we can do for the Chimpanzees is contact our representatives,senators, etc. The laws need to be changed, and until they are, there’s always the possibility of it happening again.
Late commenter is late, but I wanted to add a few words about the Woodland Park Zoo, home to poor Hansa the baby elephant. They are not really considered progressive to anyone who seriously cares to know about animal welfare.
Elephant welfare groups have been begging them for some time to turn the elephants over to a sanctuary instead of keeping them in the completely inadequate space they have, but the elephants are a major source of revenue for WP and so the zoo continues to refuse.
Hansa was kept separated from her mom for inexcusible periods of time for a baby elephant and there’s actually video in existence of her being hit with a stick.
Thanks for following us up on Hansa, I always wondered about the situation with their elephants. Just goes to show that zoo aren’t here for the benefit of the animals but for the benefit of the paying public. We know who often comes first when there’s a choice.
I have read the comments on the subject of Travis. I too agree that this is tragic. I do however have to disagree with some of the postings here. Yes Travis was being a chimp. He was also being a wounded wild animal and was not “just looking for a joy ride from the police officer”. I was a police officer for seven years after retiring from the military. I would be today if not for the fact that I could not continue medically. I would have shot Travis too and gone home to my family at the end of the shift.
Since this incident I have done a lot of research about the Great Apes. I’m retired, what can I say, I have time on my hands. Chimps don’t belong in zoo’s or on public display of any kind. Sanctuaries should be far enough from any people that there is no risk of death or injury “when” not if, they escape. I have yet to read about any sanctuary that did not have a chimp escape at least once.
Of all the Great Apes, Chimps are the only ones that “murder” each other just because. Gorrillas don’t, Orangutans don’t, and Bonobos are too busy being far more intelligent and hippies too boot.
Not only should Travis’ owner be criminally charged, but the people who sold her the chimp should be charged as well. The breeder should be charged with “reckless endangering” for reckless indifferance for the public safety when they sold a baby chimp that was bound to grow into a Travis that almost killed someone. The city is also guilty for not taking stronger steps the first time Travis bit someone, or tied up the city traffic for two hours.
I will leave you all with two thoughts, the first from a professional animal trainer of all people “it’s not if a chimp won’t work out as a pet and hurt or kill someone, it’s when. A primatologist who described chimps as “demonic”. That doesn’t mean they should be wiped of the face of the earth. It means they sould be left alone in their own enviroment and not used to entertain us or fill a void in our lives.