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February 17, 2009

Five Fatal Lessons From Chimp Attack

I feel like we at The HSUS are constantly reminding policy makers, animal-use industries, and regular people about mind-numbingly reckless behavior when it comes to our treatment of animals—whether it’s dragging sick or crippled “downer cows” into slaughterhouses for human consumption, dosing animals on factory farms with human-grade antibiotics that result in the development of drug-resistant bacteria, giving animal abusers a slap on the wrist in the courts for sociopathic behavior toward animals, or, in yesterday’s case, bringing dangerous wild animals into our homes and communities because we want to keep them as pets.

On Monday, we saw more evidence of people not heeding the warnings and the perfectly predictable outcomes from irresponsible behavior. In Connecticut, police shot and killed a pet chimpanzee after the animal mauled and critically wounded a woman, seriously injuring her face, biting her hands off, and causing massive blood loss, according to news reports.

Chimpanzee in forest
© iStockphoto
Primates, like this wild chimpanzee, do not make good pets.

May we all learn from this and never let it happen again. But to learn, we must do a rather blunt forensic analysis, in order to see how this situation could have developed in the first place.

It defies common sense that anyone could think it is acceptable to keep “Travis” as a pet, and the accountability must start with the woman who thought that this extraordinarily powerful wild animal could lead a comfortable suburban life without incident. You may be able to dress them up, or put them in the front seat of a car, but a 200-pound adult chimpanzee is not a hairy person. Travis was a great ape, with the strength of two or three adult men and the cunning to match. In the wild, chimps make war with other chimps, and it’s foolish to think they’d adopt our social norms because we give them a bed to sleep in. They are smart, but they still can’t read our law books that proscribe assault and homicide.

The second dose of culpability goes to the state of Connecticut, for the failure of the state Department of Environmental Protection to pass a strict regulation banning primates as pets. You need not be a primatologist to know it’s bad for non-human primates and human primates to live together. Connecticut requires people who have a primate to get a permit. What a feckless policy. There are at least 20 states that ban keeping primates as pets, and key decision-makers in my native state of Connecticut should have known better.

Third, if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had listed all chimps as “endangered” 20 years ago as it should have, no private citizen in America could legally possess a chimp for use as a pet. But in a cave-in to the biomedical community and other users of chimps, the Fish and Wildlife Service came up with a convoluted “split listing” of the species—designating the wild populations as “endangered,” but the captive populations “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. This latter, less stringent designation, coupled with a set of lax special rules for chimps, allows the buying and selling and keeping of chimps as pets to continue. This bizarre regulatory scheme also allows biomedical labs, roadside zoos, and movie and advertising trainers to exploit chimps.

Chimpanzees in CareerBuilder TV commercial
© CareerBuilder.com
The use of primates in entertainment perpetuates the pet trade.

Fourth, in his younger years, Travis was conscripted for use as an animal actor and forced to perform in movies and television commercials. You must remember seeing chimp ads, with the greatest number on display during commercials aired during recent Super Bowls. Yes, they are fetching and human-like and humorous as babies and juveniles, but they don’t stay that way for long. Once the chimps reach physical maturity and acquire their super-human strength, they can no longer be safely used in movies. They are then shuttled off to the pet trade or to roadside zoos, to languish for decades and perhaps to injure and kill people in the hands of other amateurs.

Fifth, the Congress had a chance to address this problem last year. The U.S. House passed the Captive Primate Safety Act to ban the interstate transport of primates for the pet trade, by a vote of 302-96 (with all of the “no” votes coming from Republican lawmakers). Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) and a few other anti-animal lawmakers made fun of this attempt to stop the abuse of primates in the pet trade and to protect people and communities, but fortunately, their efforts fell short in the House. But in the Senate, despite repeated efforts by bill co-authors Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and David Vitter (R-La.) to get the legislation over the finish line and sent to President Bush for his signature, Sen.Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blocked consideration of the bill. But for Coburn, a medical doctor, we’d now have a federal law banning the interstate transport of dangerous primates as pets.

In my position, I not only see cruelty and greed too often on display, but also colossal human stupidity. All of those human weaknesses were in evidence in the long run-up to yesterday’s tragic attack.

May the obstructionists now finally get out of the way and allow mainstream voices to impose bright-line standards that will prevent this sort of tragedy from unfolding again.

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