You've likely already seen this story all over the news:
Chimp's owner calls vicious mauling 'freak thing'
STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) -- The owner of a 200-pound chimpanzee that viciously mauled a Stamford woman calls the incident "a freak thing," but says her pet was not a "horrible" animal.
Sandra Herold told NBC's "Today Show" in an interview aired Wednesday that Travis, her 14-year-old chimpanzee, was like a son to her.
Herold tried to save her friend by stabbing the chimp with a butcher knife and bludgeoning it with a shovel.
I have extremely strong emotions concerning this particular issue... in part because of my conservation biology background, but more recently, from my friendship with science writer Vanessa Woods and her husband, evolutionary anthropologist Dr. Brian Hare. The very reason they study sanctuary orphans is because often mothers have been killed so the babies can be sold to people who want them as pets. Vanessa explained the problems with this last year at her terrific blog Bonobo Handshake, reposted here:
#1 Chimpanzees are wild animals. Animals that make good PETS like dogs and cats, have been domesticated for [thousands] of years. There has been selection on them against agression, which is why a dog, unlike a wolf, will not automatically tear you to pieces. Anyone who has a pet chimpanzee for long enough will eventually no longer be able to control them and will either get a body part bitten off or will have to use extreme force to control them. Chimps live to be 50 years old and grow almost as big as a human male. They have extremely powerful muscles and are 5-10 stronger than a heavy weight boxer.
This is the size of a full grown adult next to the baby sized chimps you see in commercials and on TV
#2 Because of this aggressive temperament people who sell these animals as pets must do so when they are adorable and harmless infants. Their customers do not know the level of aggression these animals are capable of or there strength.
#3: Even accredited zoos and universities struggle to pay the expenses required to house wild chimps humanely and safely. The vast majority of chimp owners do not have the resources to assure the welfare of their wild pet and the safety of their neighbors.
#4 ALL primates potentially carry diseases deadly to humans including herpes B, yellow fever, monkeypox, Ebola, Marburg, SIV, and tuberculosis.
#5 But politicians in these countries point to the lack of laws in the United States and ask why someone in North Carolina can have a pet monkey or tiger but a Congolese or Brazilian cannot. My hope is that we will set an example for the world for the humane treatment of wild animals - their very survival depends upon it.And finally and most importantly, the pet trade is an international problem that threaten many species with extinction. Conservationists are trying to stop this trade in developing countries where people kill endangered wild animals to sell as pets at home and abroad. But politicians in these countries point to the lack of laws in the United States and ask why is it wrong and illegal for them to have a chimpanzee as a pet, and if chimpanzees are an endangered animal that should be conserved and protected, wanyone in the USA can order one over the internet with a credit card?
We don't buy and sell people any more. Since chimps and bonobos share 98.7% of our DNA, don't they deserve the same respect?
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Thanks for this (many of those thoughts hit my head when I saw the interview), although I would take exception to the phrase "millions of years" regarding dog and cat domestication. More like thousands, I think.
Posted by: Joe Shelby | February 18, 2009 2:58 PM
Thanks Joe. I'll note the change above, but the message remains the same.
Posted by: Sheril R. Kirshenbaum | February 18, 2009 3:12 PM
I don't mind if chimpanzees are kept as pets but only if, since they share 98.7% of our DNA, they are treated like children, sent to public schools, fed carb-rich sodas, allowed to play video games on the Xbox, and taken to the zoo to watch...chimps in cages.
Posted by: Ashutosh | February 18, 2009 3:24 PM
You put into words exactly my reaction to that story. Thank you.
Posted by: Lilian Nattel | February 18, 2009 5:23 PM
A wolf will not "automatically tear you to pieces" and I find the credibility of everything else in the article suspect after reading such a false and unqualified statement.
While there are good reasons a chimpanzee shouldn't be kept as a pet, I'll suggest that you have more to fear from your own species than from any wild species.
Posted by: BJN | February 18, 2009 5:27 PM
Wild wolves don't attack people but wolves raised in captivity frequently do (as do wolf/dog hybrids). So while they won't automatically do so the likelihood of someone with a wolf, tiger, or other predator (and male chimps do hunt) being attacked by it is pretty high. As a perfect example Siegfried and Roy for several decades had no incidents with their tigers and then Roy was almost killed because no matter how well trained a tiger is not a domestic animal.
Posted by: Noadi | February 18, 2009 7:00 PM
Won't a wolf tear you to pieces if it sees you as weaker than it?
I know some people breed wolf/dog hybrids, and a lot of them have similar problems - they start out cute and cuddly but end up as very strong, very aggressive wild animals.
What's sad isn't so much that there isn't a law against keeping chimps as pets, it's that there *needs* to be a law against it. What is wrong with people?
Posted by: KristinMH | February 18, 2009 7:14 PM
Years ago my wife was involved in state licensed wildife rehab (primarily baby raccoons). Every summer several litters would pass through our house before being released.
It's easy to see why people would think of them as pets, when young they are pretty much like puppies but more agile and clever. The difference is, though, being solitary, they have no pack structure (unlike dogs or even wolves). When they mature, they don't see the human as an alpha, they see the human as a competitor. that's where the trouble starts.
The difference in instincts between the pack and the solitary animal, a mountain lion is about the size of a large dog, but there is a huge difference between letting your rottweiller sleep by your bed and letting a mountain lion (even one raised in captivity) do so.
Posted by: jay | February 18, 2009 7:25 PM
One of the problems in the US is that while wild-born chimpanzees are protected, those born in the US have few protections. Each state has its own laws about exotic pets, and some people swear by their "right" to own primates.
Travis was, like most show biz chimps, pulled from his mother as an infant and taught to perform. By the time show biz chimps are 6 or 7, they are no longer manageable and are dumped into inappropriate settings -- or else used to produce more babies to make money for their owners. It's a business.
I read today that Rep Earl Blumenauer is calling for federal legislation to govern transport of primates across state lines. Federal controls on the exotic pet trade would be a start protecting both communities and animals. I'll be writing a letter to Earl tonight.
Posted by: Gerry L | February 18, 2009 11:29 PM
The trouble/danger with taking on wild animals as pets is that: they lose their fear/respect of humans; as it matures there will be a struggle for dominance, which the human probably won't win; they learn that humans are a source of food and can get demanding; and, as has been mentioned, they are still wild animals with their natural teeth, claws and greater strength, hunting and self-defense instincts.
Posted by: Katkinkate | February 18, 2009 11:44 PM
I wonder how many places there are where it is legal to own a Chimp but pit bulls are banned?
There are so many reasons why keeping a chimp as a pet is wrong.
Posted by: Militant Agnostic | February 19, 2009 12:03 AM
I saw a link to an article on Digg about another horrific chimp attack. The story starts off innocently enough. The couple had a chimp for years. Had it taken away. Went to visit the chimp. Two other chimps got loose and mauled the guy, bit off his fingers, his nose, his genitals, ripped open his face, ripped out an eye. The man survived but barely.
I'd heard about lion and tiger attacks in domestic situations. At least they may short work of you. And it's always some story where nothing happens for years and years. Then one day. Chomp.
People should not be allowed to own wild animals as pets. Especially ones that can inflict brutal injuries on anyone who are in the way.
Posted by: CLM | February 19, 2009 2:38 AM
I definitely agree with all of you on this.
It's a very sad situation all around. Laws need to be changed and enforced, and mass informative education distributed worldwide.
Posted by: Sciencefan | February 19, 2009 8:49 AM
Since 1975 import of primates for the pet trade has been illegal. Primates kept legally in captivity must be purchased from a USDA licensed breeder. If their home countries don't put tough penalties on poaching the problems will not be solved. It is not only the US. IN fact thousands of primates areimported to research facilities in countries all over the world. Chimps cost upwards of $50,000. Their cost alone is highly prohibitive to the average pet owner. Only zoos and research facilities can import them from the wild... and their progeny can not be sold into the pet trade. What is needed is enforcement of current laws, not new ones that will remove the rights of responsible owners and do nothing for the animals because they won't be enforced. Who is going to follow pet owners in their car to see if they have crossed state lines? That bill would stop ALL travel of primates across state lines. What if a current owner needs to relocate to another state? If that bill passed they would be forced to not move, find the animals another home, or give it to a sanctuary. This is removing the rights and ability of current primate owners to properly care for their pet. It is a poorly written bill. Banning the sale of primates across state lines is one thing, but ALL travel. Owners would be prisoners of their state.
I do think legislation needs to be in place, but it needs to be fair. The well-being of the animals need to be considered. There are responsible and irresponsible people in every task one would undertake.(driving, drinking, heck horseback riding has been deadly, not mention those severely injured by paraplegia). Banning something takes away the right of those responsible as well. I don't agree with telling people how to live their lives. This incident with a chimpanzee was unfortunate, but quite frankly dogs kill more people a year than pet exotics have combined. Should we ban all dogs as well? No, it all boils down to responsible ownership. Animals are animals and no matter what animal is owned knowledge is required before obtaining it, as well as proper confinement and husbandry to ensure the animals physical and mental health.
Posted by: Eileen | February 19, 2009 9:07 AM
I don't really buy that argument. The bulk of the article is talking about how different chimps are from us, and then suddenly the author wants to say how similar?
Regardless, I see no clear connection between percent DNA similarity and the "rightness" of keeping pets.
Posted by: Greg Esres | February 19, 2009 9:10 AM
On the other hand, Indian man suffers heartbreak over confiscation of adopted bear cub. On a different note, based on the comment above I too don't think DNA similarity is a good reason against keeping chimpanzees as pets. There are of course other good reasons which you have cited above.
Posted by: Ashutosh | February 19, 2009 10:20 AM
I find domestic cats pretty exotic, if you ask me. They're like tiny little tigers! Of course, given how they act when they want to be playful (mine liked to nip and claw at me, before she learned that would only get me to leave), one has to wonder why one would keep a larger cat.
If someone wants an unusual pet, why not fancy rats? Small, domesticated, much less likely to carry disease, plenty of good resources about care and safety, and they're actually kind of cute. Or so I've heard.
Posted by: Gray Falcon | February 19, 2009 10:25 AM
The Spaniards are trying to pass a law that would give the great apes the same legal status as children (i.e. no torture, human conditions, etc.). You might be interested in that.
Posted by: Metalraptor | February 19, 2009 12:30 PM
Metalraptor - that idea is not uncommon; it is called Great Ape Personhood, and is promoted by Jane Goodall, among others. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_ape_personhood
Posted by: Wehaf | February 19, 2009 2:20 PM
Even my 6 year old can figure this out. People are so weird- don't even talk about those odd people who buy tiger cubs and raise them,.... and shall we move on to wolves and hybrid wolves?
Posted by: drdrA | February 19, 2009 3:12 PM
While chimpanzees are certainly not pet material for most (if not all) people, there is always a problem when these stories paint a very broad brush and lump in a lot of perfectly fine animals that can be kept as pets into the exotic category and legislators then take that broad brush and ban ALL these animals. This is unfair, and these type of restrictions makes it worse for people who are just keeping animals that are no danger to society and even helpful to people. Case in point, there are many paraplegics who use small capuchin monkeys as service animals and there is current legislation seeking to ban them, as well as miniature horses that are also used by the disabled. Both animals are deemed "exotic" and therefore "dangerous".
Posted by: Patient | February 19, 2009 9:08 PM
Michael Jackson must be counting his lucky stars about now.
Posted by: perturbed | February 19, 2009 11:34 PM
Rats? Those cute little curved front teeth hurt like the dickens when lodged in your finger.
Posted by: Matthew Platte | February 20, 2009 12:30 AM
Eileen - Chimps are far more dangerous than dogs. The reason more people are killed by dogs in the US than by exotic pets is because there many more dogs in the US than exotic pets by a ratio of more than 100:1. By your logic motorcycles are safer than cars.
Patient - don't monkeys that are used by disabled people have their teeth pulled so they can't bite? I am not saying that this should not be done in this case, but having a primate as a pet is different matter.
Posted by: Militant Agnostic | February 20, 2009 2:18 AM
I think there are two things that one has to keep apart:
For one, there is the question whether law should forbid people to have exotic animals in general or chimps specifically as pets. Such a law would be, in the furthest sense, to prevent the extinction of species. Even though chimps are often bred in captivity, not all of them are. Further, if there would be such a law in the US it would be a precedence (with respect to some comments above).
Second, one could contemplate whether it is worthwhile to forbid people to hold non-domesticated animals as pets because they are a danger to humans. This is non-specific to chimps and needs to be weighted against whether one wants people to make free choices in that respect. Maybe a law that ensures the correct ethical husbandry would then do the same trick, much alike laws in several countries for the keeping of pittbulls and the like.
Posted by: Fia | February 20, 2009 6:24 AM
It's perfectly possible to keep wolves as "pets". Now, you'd better know what you are doing and live in a suitable environment, but there is a reason they were the first animal to be domesticated. The difference between a dog and a wolf is that the former will (almost never) tear you to pieces if you act stupid, to keep a wolf you need to deserve its respect. Not that it is something you should do, it can be a risk to strangers and dogs and it needs a lot of room.
Posted by: Thomas | February 20, 2009 6:32 AM
Posted by: siva | February 20, 2009 7:03 AM
These acts are usually described as sudden and taking the owner by surprise. I think that's partly because many owners simply don't recognize when the chimp starts to threaten them, say by looking into their eyes, and fail to take appropriate action at that time. That leads the chimp to become more assertive, making more threatening gestures like for example standing in water as we see in the picture above. I understand chimps generally don't like water and to stand in it is a sign of a very assertive and confident chimp indeed. If the human fails to answer that chimp challenge, then that could lead to outright physical aggression as the chimp will assume he's in charge.
Posted by: Dave S. | February 20, 2009 8:27 AM
So can a cat's mouthful of needles. The trick is in training. Most domesticated animals can understand causation: Biting people leads to "YELP!" and no playing.
Posted by: Gray Falcon | February 20, 2009 8:41 AM
Did anyone read the murders in the rue morgue???
Is it just me, or is this eerily familiar?
Posted by: asrtobiologiste | February 20, 2009 8:51 AM
"Since chimps and bonobos share 98.7% of our DNA, don't they deserve the same respect?"
Actually, no. Not a good argument. Where exactly should this DNA similarity cutoff lie? If humans evolve into something that looks and behaves human (superhuman, even) but only has 98.5% in common with normal human DNA, should they be downgraded to animals? Or should chimps be upgraded? What about 90%? How about 82.7? Should we look to domesticated animals to get a baseline? I really don't think "percentage similarity of DNA" is a useful measure, particularly of something as subjective as "respectability".
Chimps are animals. Very cool, interesting and emotion-jerking animals, but I don't see why they should enjoy more respect than a domesticated dog, a wild crocodile, or the noble pig on his final walk to sausagedom. (Feel free to argue that humans are animals too, but that is apparently the Gold Standard (pah!) being compared against here.)
That said, no, I don't want a chimp for my birthday, for the other rather sensible reasons listed above. You can keep your Great Danes and pitbulls too.
Posted by: Letraix | February 20, 2009 9:35 AM
The reason more people are killed by dogs in the US than by exotic pets is because there many more dogs in the US than exotic pets by a ratio of more than 100:1. By your logic motorcycles are safer than cars
Don't forget that more humans kill humans (including spouses, parents and children) than all other animals.
What does bother me is the form that legal structures might take. Even some of the posts here seem to be basing the legal arguments on potential (determined by whom?) danger to humans and I can see this getting rapidly out of hand as lawmakers decide what is 'dangerous' (we see how this becomes perception driven in the ill thought out bans on breeds of dogs). Many domesticated animals can be dangerous under some circumstances, as well as many exotic wild animals that cannot (no one to my knowledge has been killed by a bog turtle).
I don't believe primates are suitable pets, but I'm also very concerned about the wisdom of legislators once they get rooting around the tent.
Posted by: jay | February 20, 2009 12:22 PM
I fully expected to find comments on the chimpanzee tragedy, here and in the main stream media, to bridge the spectrum from "a freak accident and the owner had a perfect right to harbor the animal in her home" to "a wanton, irresponsible act and the owner is criminally liable". Sadly, I was not disappointed. My only question is why do so many not consider it a triple tragedy? The chimpanzee was robbed of a life in its natural habitat, the victim, the target of the attack, was mauled and almost killed, and the owner, a victim herself of self-delusion and transference, even now lacks an understanding of her ethical and moral failure - the animal was treated like a favored toy or fetish; she attributed human-like behaviors to the now 200 lb. adult chimpanzee, a creature of enormous strength, a great ape, an omnivore (opportunistic meat-eater), a primate that has been shaped by Darwinian evolution and natural selection from its beginnings in the Paleogene, six million years ago, when our paths diverged, to unpredictable and violent behavior driven by a need for territorial protection, warped in unknowable ways by being removed from its own ecological niche in the tropical forest and kin-selected communities. Society failed as well by anthropomorphizing the owner's ill-considered belief that this was her child - it was not and all in all nature was violated. I mourn for at least two of the victims.
Posted by: Kenneth Fowler | February 20, 2009 1:10 PM
The arguement that cats and dogs (assumably other domestics like chickens, sheep, goats, horses, mules, cows, etc) are acceptable pets because of "thousands of years of domestication."
If keeping domestics is acceptable, then domesticating wild creatures is as well, as that is the source of all domestics.
Take the Chinchilla. In the wild they are so high strung and altitude sensitive that most early attempts at domestication failed. Now, only a century later, they are much calmer, more social, and come in a variety of colors and coats (the first two being far more important that the third). While they are still a rather jumpy and fragile pet, most people capable of caring for a rabbit can handle a chinchilla.
So, with training and breeding, who is to say that Chimps won't someday be the companion pet so many wish they already were? Unless you are a filthy neo-hippie willing to destroy/sterilize all living domestics (including agricultural/aquacultural animals) and return to a "wild animal only" earth (not a friendly place to man, by the way), then domestics are okay. If existing domestics are okay, then it follows that creating domestics from new species is okay.
By the way, many of the early Puritan settlers took wild skunks in as pets. Very similar to housecats and never descented like today's pet skunks are.
Posted by: Oakspar77777 | February 20, 2009 3:36 PM
You really want to keep a pet? Keep a shrew. You will be endlessly entertained when you have to leave your job and keep on procuring live food for their high metabolism 24/7
Posted by: Lactate dehydrogenase | February 20, 2009 11:14 PM
In many parts of the world escaped cats and dogs are a nuisance and threat to the local wildlife. "Exotic" pets that are local to the area may be much better.
Posted by: Thomas | February 21, 2009 6:10 AM