Attacks by Chimps Rare, Say Experts

Times Staff Writer

Although wild chimpanzees are very aggressive animals, attacks such as the one that severely injured St. James Davis on Thursday are very rare, experts said Friday.

“There are so few [attacks] that when they do happen, they are on CNN,” said Carole Noon of the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care in Florida.

Generally, when a chimp escapes its cage, it runs away or goes in search of food or other items. “When I was working in Africa, there used to be an occasional escape, and they would run away or run to the beer fridge and raid it,” Noon said.


If a chimp perceives that somebody is trying to corner it, the animal will usually run past the person and try to get away, said chimpanzee expert Martine Collette of the Wildlife Waystation in Angeles National Forest. “They might knock you down or bite your arm or kneecap or hand in the process, but that is pretty much all that it is.”

In the wild, Collette added, chimps have been observed to react very violently when defending their territory. They are among the few animals that engage in battles that end in fatalities, experts say.

“But that’s not normally observed in chimps in captivity or those that have escaped from an enclosure,” Collette said. “Something very definitely happened” to trigger Thursday’s behavior, she said, “but we have no way of knowing what it was. Definitely, the behavior is far from normal.”

Apparently, it was a personal attack against Davis, she said. “Either the chimp was very, very angry with Mr. Davis, or had a dislike for Mr. Davis, or Mr. Davis did something,” she said.

Chimpanzees can be “very aggressive,” said Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, who has studied the animals in the wild, “and that includes punishing attacks on individuals that have offended them in some way.”

Experts are puzzled about how the two animals involved in the attack got loose. California has very stringent regulations for housing primates. Cages must be strong and secure -- to the point that every nut and bolt is welded into place.


Could the lock have been defective? “Chimps are very enterprising and will test a lock after you have closed it,” Collette said. “Historically, any time an animal escapes or a keeper is killed, it’s human error. Somebody forgot to do something.”

Chimps are the species that is closest to humans. In adulthood, they stand about 4 to 5 1/2 feet tall; males weigh about 120 pounds, females about 100. They become sexually mature at about 10 years and have a life span of 55 to 60 years. Their strength is often said to be about five times that of humans.

The chief physical characteristics that set chimpanzees apart from lower primates, such as monkeys, are the absence of a tail, a more or less upright posture and a more highly developed brain.

The experts all agreed that chimpanzees -- and other primates -- make very poor pets. They normally live in complex societies, groups and families, and taking them out of those settings can lead to depression and other adverse effects. “They are best left to live their lives among their own kind,” Collette said.