A Primate Party Gone Horribly Awry

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Times Staff Writers

HAVILAH, Calif. -- St. James and LaDonna Davis raised Moe the chimpanzee as their son. That was the word they used to describe him, and that was how they treated him -- like a hairy, rambunctious child who was a pampered member of the family.

They taught him to wear clothes, to take showers, to use the toilet and to watch TV in their West Covina home. They had their picture taken in bed with him.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 10, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 10, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Chimpanzee attack -- An article in Saturday’s Section A about an attack by chimpanzees said that chimps kill much larger animals in the wild. Chimpanzees’ main prey are colobus monkeys, which are smaller. They also are known to kill bush pigs, young antelope and baboons, all of which tend to be smaller.

On Thursday, the day they marked as Moe’s 39th birthday, their love for the chimp nearly cost them their lives.


The Davises were visiting Moe at an animal sanctuary in the hills of eastern Kern County -- a place to which he had been banished after biting a woman -- when they were attacked by two other chimps and brutally mauled.

St. James Davis took the brunt of the attack, the ferocity of which left paramedics stunned.

“I had no idea a chimpanzee was capable of doing that to a human,” said Kern County Fire Capt. Curt Merrell, who was among the first on the scene.

Davis, 62, who remained in critical condition Friday at Loma Linda University Medical Center, was badly disfigured. According to his wife, he lost all the fingers from both hands, an eye, part of his nose, cheek and lips, and part of his buttocks. His foot was mutilated and his heel bone was cracked.

“They don’t think he’s ever going to be the same,” LaDonna Davis said, her voice strong but her hands shaking.

She spoke outside the couple’s home Friday evening, having been released from Kern Medical Center. She lost a thumb in the attack.


LaDonna, 64, said she was sitting at a table with her husband, getting ready to cut the chimp’s birthday cake, when she saw the two other chimps out of the corner of her eye. Moe, according to other accounts, was still in his cage.

“I turned around and they started charging,” she said. One of the chimps pushed her against her husband, and at some point her left thumb was bitten off, she said.

“James saw that, pushed me behind a table and took the brunt of everything else,” she said.

The attack ended when the son-in-law of the sanctuary’s owners shot and killed the two rampaging chimps. Moe was uninjured.

“He stayed out of this one,” said Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Among the questions for which there were no immediate answers: How did the two chimps escape? And why did they attack?


The chimpanzees were housed in outdoor cages at the Animal Haven Ranch, a private sanctuary tucked into a grassy fold in the hills a few miles south of Lake Isabella. The ranch is owned by Ralph and Virginia Brauer and has been licensed by the state since 1996 to take in primates, usually from zoos that no longer want them.

According to Kern County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Hal Chealander, Virginia Brauer was at home Thursday morning when she was startled to discover that four chimps -- two young males and two older females -- had gotten out of their cage and entered her home.

She reportedly detained the two females, Suzie, 59, and Bones, 49. (Both are quite old for chimps, who rarely live past 50 in the wild or 60 in captivity, according to the Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group.)

The male chimps -- Buddy, 15, and Ollie, 13 -- escaped. Virginia Brauer gave chase, and soon found the chimps mauling the Davises, Chealander said.

“Get your gun!” Brauer yelled to her son-in-law, Mark Carruthers, who was at her home with his wife and infant son, Chealander said. Carruthers, 32, grabbed a .45-caliber revolver and headed toward the cages.

Male chimps usually stand about 4 to 5 1/2 feet tall and weigh from 100 to 120 pounds, experts say. They are strong and aggressive animals who routinely kill much larger creatures in the wild. Their upper-body strength is said to be at least five times that of the average human.


“These are vicious, vicious animals that can pick you up and throw you across the room,” said Dr. Tom Jenkins, a veterinarian in Lake Isabella who is familiar with the Brauers’ sanctuary.

Buddy, the 15-year-old, was the primary attacker, according to Chealander. The younger primate, Ollie, “was looking very aggressive and running around.”

Carruthers shot Ollie, but the shot had no apparent effect. He reloaded with more powerful, fully jacketed ammunition, this time turning on Buddy.

Carruthers “kneeled down, got pretty close and shot the first chimp in the head,” Chealander said. “When he fell off Mr. Davis, the second chimp attacked Mr. Davis and dragged him down a walkway by the back of the house.... By this time, Mr. Davis was really torn up.”

Carruthers followed, and shot the second chimp in the head, ending the attack.

Merrell, the paramedic, said he could hardly believe the damage when he arrived at the ranch. “It looked like a grizzly bear attack,” he said.

Merrell described St. James Davis’ injuries as among the worst he had ever seen, but added that he was astonished to find Davis conscious and speaking.


“It was unbelievable,” Merrell said.

The two female chimps, who had fled when they heard the gunshots, were found about five hours later, about a quarter-mile away from the Brauers’ house, Chealander said. The two voluntarily climbed into the back of the Brauers’ pickup and were taken back to their cage.

Chealander said the Brauers were shaken by the attack. Virginia Brauer, he recalled, “kept saying, ‘I don’t understand. We never had a problem.’ ”

The couple have been caring for six chimps and one spider monkey, as well as parrots and other birds. They could not be reached for comment Friday.

Officials said they have no idea why the chimps attacked the Davises. But ape expert Deborah Fouts, director of the Chimp and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University, said the attack may have been prompted by an emotion that chimps may share with humans: jealousy.

“Chimpanzees have a real sense of right and wrong and fairness and unfairness,” said Fouts, who has worked with chimps for four decades. “It sounds like people were showering a lot of attention on Moe, birthday cake and the like.... Perhaps the other chimps were jealous of Moe.”

St. James Davis, a former NASCAR driver, claimed to have rescued Moe during a visit to Tanzania in the 1960s. Poachers had killed the chimp’s mother, he said, and he brought Moe back to the United States, where he and LaDonna began raising him.


For years, the animal earned money with appearances on television and in films.

Tales of the Davis household were like something out of “Dr. Dolittle” or “Bedtime for Bonzo.” St. James Davis claimed to have taught Moe how to write his name. The chimp cultivated a taste for potato chips and banana-cream pie. He was said to enjoy watching animal shows on television.

The story of Moe and the Davises began to sour in 1977, when the chimp attacked a woman, biting her on the finger. The Davises ended up in court, but the case was dismissed.

In 1998, Moe escaped. He was caught by animal-control officers and the police, but not before biting a police officer’s hand so badly that it required $250,000 worth of medical treatment and rehabilitation.

West Covina officials mounted a campaign to rid the city of Moe. Animal-lovers mounted a counter-campaign, financed by bake sales and raffles. In 1999, Moe bit another woman on the finger. This time, the chimpanzee was taken from the Davises and brought to the Wildlife Waystation in Angeles National Forest.

The Davises were not allowed to visit Moe regularly at the Waystation and said they were devastated at being separated. In January last year, the Davises, accompanied by their lawyer, Gloria Allred, had a reunion with Moe. They brought him a Christmas stocking, and both the humans and the chimp seemed genuinely thrilled to see each other.

“We have been a family for over 30 years,” LaDonna Davis said at the time. “We want to complete our journey in life together.”


Some animal-rights activists had criticized the Davises for denying Moe an existence more like that of an ordinary chimpanzee -- even a captive chimp -- including the opportunity to live with others of his species and to mate.

But LaDonna Davis insisted: “Moe is separated from normal chimp life, but that doesn’t mean he’s had a bad life.”

Moe was moved last fall to Animal Haven, and the Davises began visiting him there.

Joyce Kasnetsis, a neighbor and friend of the Davises in West Covina, described the couple as “gentle and kind.” She sobbed as she said: “I knew they were taking a birthday cake up there. But you don’t expect it to turn into a tragedy.”



Powerful primates

State and Kern County authorities Friday continue to investigate how two male chimpanzees attacked and injured two people visiting another chimp, Moe.

Chimpanzee (Pantroglodytes)

Weight: 100 to 120 pounds

Height standing: 4 to 5.5 feet

Diet: Plant material, insects

Strength: About five times that of humans.

Lifespan: 55 to 60 years

Sources: Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care in Florida, Kern County

Sheriff’s Department. Graphics reporting by Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago


Times staff writers Claudia Zequeira, Amanda Covarrubias and Patricia Ward Biederman contributed to this report.