This morning, several days after the first shocking reports of a young graduate student being attacked and seriously injured by chimpanzees at a sanctuary in South Africa, the story remains at the top of the news around the world. This morning I counted 1,321 stories from just the last 24 hours.
Andrew Oberle is a 26-year-old graduate student from Texas, who was interning at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden sanctuary in South Africa. While he was giving a tour, Oberle apparently left the group and crossed one of the two fences that make up an “airlock” that separates the chimpanzees from their human visitors. The chimps saw an opportunity, grabbed his feet, pulled him under the electrified fence and dragged him nearly a half a mile while savaging him. When he was rescued, which included firing a gun in the air to scare off the chimpanzees, and taken to hospital, Oberle was in critical condition. Today, he’s said to be marginally better and may soon be fit for intensive surgery.
Certainly, by any standard, it’s a shocking story. But, like the news of a woman in Connecticut, Charla Nash, having her face torn off by by a “pet” chimpanzee, we are singularly upset by news of our own kind being treated this way by one of our closest cousins, the chimpanzees. It gets to us more than shark attacks, lion and tiger maulings and other savage interactions with wildlife. A few thoughts:
1. It’s always big news when any human is taken down by a predator. If you’re murdered by another human, it’s not national news; but it is if you’re taken by a mountain lion. That’s probably because for millions of years before we learned how to make weapons, we were basically a prey species, hiding in trees to escape from the big predators. And while, today, we’ve become the most dangerous species ever to inhabit the planet, that fear of other animals has never left us. Indeed, our desire to subjugate everything and everyone else speaks clearly to our deep insecurity.
2. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the wild. We share more than 98 percent of our DNA with them. Jane Goodall, who has spent a lifetime studying them, often says, “When I was young (and idealistic), I used to think that chimpanzees were like us, only better. Now I’ve learned that, in fact, they’re just like us.”
3. We’re very ambivalent about chimpanzees. We love to be hugged by baby chimpanzees, and part of us wants to be like Tarzan and Jane, living at one with the apes. At the same time, we’re very ambivalent about how they remind us of who we truly are: just one of five species who comprise the great apes. We’re primates, pure and simple, and there’s basically nothing that chimpanzees do that we don’t do.
4. In our Tarzan-and-Jane mode, we want to be accepted by our fellow animals, especially by the other great apes. So it’s upsetting to discover that tearing us apart at the very first opportunity is right at the top of their agenda.
5. It’s not surprising that they want to hurt us: we’ve hurt them very badly. The chimps at Chimp Eden, where this latest attack happened, are all rescues from disgraceful situations. Some are survivors of the illegal pet trade to zoos; others come from circuses; and others from research facilities. They’re all traumatized, and they’re not dumb: they all know exactly what species did this to them. Unlike dogs who are rescued from abuse, chimpanzees don’t just forgive and move on.
They’re also very territorial, and when they form a clan, like at the sanctuary, we humans are not part of their in-group. They are always on the alert, and will look for any opportunity to take down anyone who isn’t part of the in-group. It’s office politics, family politics and international politics all in one. We’re no different; we’re just able to kill more than they are.
6. While we don’t know the full medical details yet, we do know that the chimpanzees did much damage to Andrew Oberle’s hands. That’s typical: Whether attacking another group of chimps or a human “intruder”, they go primarily for the hands, the gonads and the face.
We’re wise to think of chimpanzees as family, but not as friends. Most of all, we need to respect them for who they are, not for who we’d like them to be – compliant medical subjects, cute freaks in circuses and sitcoms, or the welcoming committee when we occasionally have a few minutes of wanting to go “back to nature.”