It rarely ends well for chimpanzees in captivity when they try to escape.
And the fact is they always do want to escape … they’ll do anything to escape … and whatever their captors say about how they like their home in a zoo or as a “pet” in someone’s house, it’s not true. They know they’re being kept prisoner. They don’t like it, they want out, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get out.
On Wednesday, at the Experience Zoo in Hanover, Germany, five chimpanzees broke out of their compound, using a ladder they’d put together out of tree branches, and began roaming the zoo in search of a better life, preferably in the wild.
Zoo officials panicked, super-mindful of what had happened just a couple of weeks ago in South Africa, when a young American graduate student who was leading a tour through a chimpanzee sanctuary, crossed into the “airlock” between the two fences separating chimps from humans. One of the chimps managed to grab his leg, drag him under the second fence and tear him apart. He survived but is in intensive care following major surgery.
At the zoo in Hanover, no one got attacked by the five escapees, who seemed content just to wander about. The only people needing medical attention after officials rushed to evacuate all 2,500 humans were a young girl who fell over, and an older man who got locked in the tropical house in 100 degree heat.
Four of the five chimpanzees decided that the grass – or rather the concrete – wasn’t, after all, any greener on the other side of the fence , and they soon wandered back into their compound. But Maxi, their leader, decided to pay a visit to the gorilla house and spend some time talking to his opposite number there before returning to the compound.
“He’s getting on a bit,” one of zookeepers said. “So we gave him a ladder to climb back into the enclosure.”
By the end of the day, everyone – chimpanzees and humans – was back where they were supposed to be, but the zoo will have to pony up for the fleet of 27 police cars, plus ambulances and fire engines that raced to the scene in case of disaster.
Escape in Las Vegas
Things did not work out so well for the two chimpanzees who escaped from their enclosure at a private house in Las Vegas the following day – Thursday. Police raced to the scene after people called 911 saying that two dangerous and agitated chimpanzees were on the loose.
“All of a sudden I noticed huge chimpanzees tearing leaves off the trees in my backyard,” one of the residents told reporters. “One of them looked right at me. They eventually climbed over the backyard wall and were gone. I was scared. They seemed agitated. They could have really hurt someone.”
Another of the onlookers said she first saw one of the chimpanzees in an empty lot with someone, presumably the owner, trying to corral him. Then police started to pull up. “My stomach sank,” she said. “I knew he was going to be dead.”
Nevada doesn’t have any laws about keeping exotic pets. All you need is a permit, which is easy to get. Buddy and C.J. used to be well-known around town and were put on display every weekend at the Fantastic Indoor Swap Meet. People would pay to hold them and take pictures. Then they grew up, and a grown chimpanzee is a dangerous chimpanzee, seven times stronger than any human and potentially very territorial and aggressive. Think of the “pet” who simply got fed up one day, a few years ago at his home in Connecticut, and tore off the face and hands of the person supposedly looking after him.
Police didn’t want to see anything like that happening in Las Vegas. Buddy jumped on a police car and started pounding on it. Then he opened the door of an SUV and got in. Then he started running down the street and heading off through the neighborhood. That’s when one of the officers shot him dead. C.J. was shot with a tranquilizer dart by animal control and taken back to her enclosure. The right thing to do would be to admit that we can’t go on trying to play God, and just butt out of their lives, once and for all.
What will happen to C.J. now? She’s 12 years old and has been with Buddy her whole life. Her owner says she wants to find a sanctuary for her. She did, in fact, rescue C.J. and Buddy from their former situation, and in their own way it seems they were trying to do some good. But it was all wrong, hopelessly misguided, and the outcome was always and inevitably going to be disastrous.
What will happen to other chimpanzees? In the wild they are now critically endangered – plundered to be sold to circuses and zoos, for other entertainment, for medical experiments, and, in Africa, to be eaten. Some zoos are better than others; most are not. These animals are our closest relatives, and in a few years there may none at all left in the wild. But captivity is not a solution – it would be virtually impossible to repopulate their former homes in Africa with captive-bred animals.
Their only chance is for those who remain in the wild to be left alone. That’s all they need. They don’t need or want our help. Humans, however well-meaning, can’t help; we don’t know what to do and we can only interfere. But it’s almost like the “taking dominion” thing has become a matter of pride, like we just have to keep trying to prove our superiority over every other living being. The right thing to do, for our own good as much as for theirs, would be to admit that we can’t go on trying to play God, and just butt out of their lives, once and for all.
Leave them be. It’s the right thing to do.