February 17, 2009 § 1 Comment
I just saw the story about the attack on the woman in Connecticut by a supposedly tame chimp named Travis, who’d been raised with humans and used in advertising. I was surprised at the naivete of the owner, considering how much is known about adult chimpanzee behavior. Last year I read a number of books about chimps raised with people, mostly by primatologists living in Africa. It inspired me to start a novel, set in the ‘70’s, about such a scientist who brings a baby chimp home to his family in Connecticut. (I’ve never lived in Connecticut. It just seemed like the right place for the story.)
I set the book in the ‘70’s because in those days the study of chimps, especially chimps raised with people, was still young. I could imagine a cocky, impulsive manwanting to prove himself in the new field of ape language studies, and thinking nothing would happen that he couldn’t handle. His chimp would learn to speak, learn the social graces, be the missing link personified. I intended the chimp in my book—an unusually sweet and gentle creature whom my husband is in love with after having read 75 pages—to be involved in a violent incident because what I learned from everything I read was that is what happens, if you let a chimp roam free long enough. While they are children (chimps stay children for 7 or 8 years) they are generally controllable, but as adolescents and adults the males especially are very strong and often violent. They don’t always intend to hurt, but many times they do. How much harm they think they’re inflicting is impossible to know.
It’s difficult for even professionally observant ‘parents’ to understand what sets off an incident. A chimp can be charming, loving, clownish, testing limits but generally behaved for years, and then all of a sudden become the ‘beast’ it in fact is. In the wild, chimps are routinely violent towards each other, mostly rivals but also sexual partners and offspring. They’re not like dogs, animals that co-evolved with humans over millennia, becoming tamer and tamer until eventually we trusted them to be our closest companions. Your dog isn’t safe around the kids because you love him and were kind to him as a pup, though that certainly helps, but because he was bred to be. A pet is not any animal you choose to take home, but one that has adapted over generations to be able (for the most part) to share our homes. What chimps share is roughly 98 % of our genes.*
Imagine a teenage boy raised by an alien species, close enough to ours that he sort of feels like one of them but not quite, can’t understand the language or the meaning of social norms, and hasn’t learned from early childhood—from both witnessing and participating—what fighting is and what its consequences can be. Imagine further that this boy-turned-youth, with all his hormones firing and causing the usual emotional confusion and aggressiveness, has grown four or five times as strong as the alien adults.
What you end up with is not a “tragedy” but a predictable and avoidable disaster. I’m not one to call for a lawyer quickly, but if I were the daughter of the savaged woman, I’d be sorely tempted to sue that owner for sheer stupidity. Why didn’t she take the trouble to learn what happens as chimps mature? (I would ask the same question about the town authorities, who were all familiar with the animal.) Why didn’t she have a backup plan if the chimp got out of control? It especially bothers me that, knowing she needed help, she chose to call a female friend who was apparently unarmed and untrained. If a professional with a tranq gun wasn’t handy, a beefy neighbor with a baseball bat would have been a better choice.
*The precise number is still a matter of debate, as is what it means. How the genes are regulated matters.