The Animal Within
They Tamed Moe. But Two Other Chimps Heeded the Brutal Call of the Wild.

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005


In 1967, LaDonna Davis's boyfriend went on a trip to Tanzania and came back with quite a surprise: a chimpanzee. It was a baby still, an orphan that St. James Davis said he had rescued from the poachers who killed its mother, and it was just adorable -- "a large teddy bear," LaDonna's mother declared. They named him Moe.

St. James, a stock-car racer, became so bonded to Moe that he would carry the little fellow in a sling around his chest as he worked at his auto body shop in West Covina, Calif. When St. James and LaDonna married a couple of years later, Moe was "a combination of flower-thrower and best man," LaDonna recalls, sitting across from her mother this sunny spring day.

"Tell her about . . . " interrupts her mother, Terry DeVere.

"Oh . . . well . . ." says Davis, with well-practiced delicacy: "Moe . . . peed on a woman." All the excitement of the reception, maybe too much punch. DeVere and her daughter glow with the memories of the beautiful day and of the beautiful years that followed.

Wait a minute. Aren't they forgetting a part -- the point when Davis surely must have thought: This is crazy! A chimp? In our house?!?

Davis and her mother glance at each other.

This wasn't just any chimp, they explain patiently. This was Moe.

"He would reach his hands out and put them around your neck," says Davis, a sun-creased blonde of 64. "You couldn't turn it off," all that charm, all that love.

As Davis tells her story in the sleek conference room of a Los Angeles attorney's office, she gingerly moves her left hand, swaddled in the cotton gauze and tape that protect what remains of her thumb, a reminder that this train of sweet memories and funny stories is not going to end well.

For Davis is here to talk about a terrible thing that happened to her, an event so traumatic, so bitterly ironic, she would be forgiven for not wishing to talk about it at all. But she must. As news of the incident rocketed around the world, Davis fears some people may have come to assume that the chimp who mauled her hand and attacked her husband with such a frenzy that he remains in critical condition two months later, struggling for his life, his face forever disfigured -- was Moe.

And she wants them to know this: "I wouldn't change anything about what we did."

Raising a Chimp

Moe slept in their bed until he got too big. He learned to use the toilet. He loved to watch cowboys and Indians on TV. A pretty normal childhood, as Davis describes it.

Animals, like babies, "learn the words no and yes, they learn a caress, and what love means," she says.

And just as there are good people and bad people, she says, there are good animals and bad, those who want to learn and those who do not.

She adds: "I don't know if you could do this today. . . . Maybe I was one of the select blessed few."

Southern California in the 1960s and '70s was a place where it was perhaps not beyond the pale to welcome a chimpanzee into your family. In tune with everything else going on -- the flourishing of alternative lifestyles, the return to nature, the quest for authenticity -- popular culture was filled with lovable primates, from Ronald Reagan's Bonzo to Clint Eastwood's "Every Which Way but Loose" orangutan and countless sitcom monkeys in between -- adorable comic relievers who mocked the absurdity of the human condition. One of the most subversively brilliant TV shows was the children's program "Lancelot Link/Secret Chimp," in which costumed chimps were put through their paces in skits whose plot lines they would hijack to hilarious effect, forcing the voice-over actors to improvise dialogue.

Jane Goodall's research revealed the intelligence and sensitivity of chimpanzees, and their uncanny similarities to humans -- how they use tools, how they live in families. Her later studies would chart more brutal behavior -- such as the chimps' capacity to engage in systematic warfare -- yet the images that stuck were those of soulful, sociable creatures.

Davis recounts life with Moe in sunny anecdotes that sound like scenes from the goofball comedies of the era. On a day trip to Morro Bay, they briefly left him in the car, the door tied shut. But rascally Moe rolled the window down. They returned to an empty car and panicked until someone from a nearby restaurant called to them. Moe was in the kitchen, surrounded by new friends, happily snacking on french fries and milk.

There was the time Moe, an occasional performer in sitcoms and commercials, was enlisted to participate in a fundraiser for Actors and Others for Animals. He held court in a kissing booth -- 50 cents for a handshake, a dollar for a smooch. Lassie was there, too, and the parrot from "Baretta," but "the line for Moe was about three times as long as the lines for the others!"

In 1998, Moe helped apprehend a car thief. He was in his outdoor cage when Davis and a friend heard him rattling the bars and clapping his hands. The friend went to check and saw a man in a black ski mask emerge from a car. He had vanished by the time police arrived, but Moe pointed to next door. Officers headed that way just as the suspect appeared in the yard.

Some people in West Covina looked askance at this unconventional domestic situation, but their objections seemed to exist only for the dramatic tension that would lead to a heartwarming finale. City officials tried to evict Moe a few years after his arrival, but the judge ruled for the Davises. Moe, he proclaimed, "is somewhat better behaved than some people."

He made their lives complete, Davis says. Cancer had left her infertile at a young age, and they had once considered adopting children. But Moe, she says, "changed my wants and feelings."

The Start of Trouble

Moe had lived peaceably with the Davises for more than 30 years when on Aug. 16, 1998, he escaped from his 10-by-12-foot outdoor enclosure and rampaged through the neighborhood.

The Davises said Moe had been frightened by an electrical shock when a worker tried to repair his cage. But it took several police officers and animal control workers to restrain him, city officials said, and they claimed Moe dented police cars and mauled an officer's hand.

A little more than a year later, on Sept. 2, 1999, a visitor came to the Davis home to see Moe. The Davises said they warned her not to go near his cage, but she put her hand inside. They say she had long red fingernails that looked like Moe's favorite licorice. He bit, and the Davises later settled a lawsuit with the woman.

The next day, West Covina officials descended on the Davis home and removed Moe to a wildlife refuge.

The Davises were devastated. They cried. They lost sleep. They became ill. And they fought back, in petitions, fundraisers and heart-rending media interviews.

"The honesty I see in Moe's eyes is beyond anything I can compare to it," St. James Davis told the Los Angeles Times after Moe was taken away. Reporters found him weeping outside a court hearing: "I want our family back together!"

Chimpanzees -- our closest animal relatives -- have always inspired reactions more complex than that of other exotic animals, primatologists say.

"They look so much like humans," says Virginia I. Landau, director of ChimpanZoo, a research program at the Jane Goodall Institute in Tucson. "When you look in their eyes, it's not like the eyes that look back at you from a mountain lion. It's the eyes of an intelligent creature."

That ineffable feeling of interspecies connection may be what inspired many animal lovers to try to bring chimpanzees into their homes -- a practice now prohibited or tightly regulated in about 22 states and banned in the District. The Humane Society of the United States, which strongly opposes keeping wild animals in private homes, estimates that as many as 15,000 chimps across the country may be living as pets.

Except, Landau noted, many chimp owners "don't really think of it as a pet -- they think of it as a replacement for a child."

And Moe was no longer a child. He was in vigorous middle age, a roughly four-foot 130-pounder with the upper-body strength of three linebackers. West Covina officials maintained that they could no longer allow him to live within city limits.

A years-long legal battle ensued. In the end, all criminal charges were dropped and the Davises won a $100,000 judgment in their due-process suit against the city, but Moe was still not permitted to come home.

The Davises visited Moe regularly until 2003, when the sanctuary had licensing problems. Months of negotiation followed, and finally they got Moe transferred to Animal Haven Ranch, near Bakersfield. Last October they went to see him -- the first time in five years they had spent substantial time with him.

It wasn't home, but LaDonna Davis was realizing it might be the best they could do for their boy. "You can't spend your entire life in battle," she says.

A Vicious Attack

Primatologists say the animal sanctuary was almost certainly the best move for the chimp. For all the love lavished on him, he needed his space. The attacks on the police officer and the visitor were symptoms of discontent.

"He was caged up and frustrated and a little bit territorial," says Craig Stanford, a professor of anthropology and biology at the University of Southern California. He needed the companionship of other chimps. At Animal Haven Ranch, he had them.

The 22-acre nonprofit sanctuary was founded by Virginia and Ralph Brauer to provide a home for exotic pets who had worn out their welcome, castoffs from circuses and zoos. The Brauers had six primates in addition to Moe, who as a 38-year-old newcomer to the animal world was kept in his own cage.

In a cage nearby were four other chimps, veterans of somewhat rougher environments: Susie, 59, was a former breeder chimp who had lost an arm in an accident. Bones, 40, had been rescued from an abusive home. The other two were young males, 16-year-old Buddy and 13-year-old Ollie, who had worked for a Hollywood animal trainer until they grew too strong and aggressive.

The Davises began making the three-hour drive to see Moe every 10 days or so, bringing enough food for the entire menagerie as a way of compensating the Brauers. Yet LaDonna Davis says she never ventured over to visit the other chimps.

"They were just . . . different animals," she says carefully.

The day of the attack, March 3, started as a happy one -- the day they celebrated as Moe's 39th birthday. The couple arrived about 10 a.m. with special treats -- candy hearts, new toys and a beautiful sheet cake with raspberry filling. They unloaded the groceries at the Brauers' back door, and as her husband headed toward the cage with Moe's favorite chocolate drink, Davis remembers seeing their chimp clap his hands with joy.

She put the cake on the table next to Moe's cage and made another trip to the car for the rest of the presents. She returned and started putting out plates just as her husband refilled Moe's cup. She cut two pieces of cake. When St. James handed one to Moe through an opening in the cage, the chimp dug in immediately, smearing blue icing all over his lips.

As LaDonna moved to cut her own piece, she glimpsed something to her left. It was one of the teenage male chimps. He was out of his cage.

"I made eye contact with him," she says. "That instantly changed his demeanor."

He slammed into her backside, knocking her into St. James. She thinks she must have thrown her arm around her husband's neck, and just like that, the chimp "just chomped off my thumb."

Her husband pushed her under the table, and the chimps -- because now a second had appeared -- turned their frenzy on him.

LaDonna watched as one latched onto St. James's head, the other onto his foot. And here, she chokes on the words: "They virtually were -- I don't know how you say it -- eating him alive."

Davis says she screamed and the Brauers' son-in-law, Mark Carruthers, came running. She cried to him, "He's killing James!"

Carruthers retrieved a handgun, according to Davis and police accounts. He had to struggle to find a clear shot. As Buddy, the larger male, lifted his head, Carruthers came in close and fired a single bullet into the animal's brain.

As Buddy fell away, Ollie began dragging St. James's mutilated body down a walkway. The 62-year-old man was conscious but near death. He had lost his nose, an eye, most of his fingers, both testicles and much of the flesh from his buttocks and face and left foot, but the chimp was not done with him yet.

Carruthers followed, took aim again and fired.

And then it was over.

Territorial Behavior?

Why did they do it?

It's the question that hangs over almost every conversation about the case. Chimp attacks on humans are highly unusual. How could this have happened to people who knew and loved these creatures so well? Why did it get so ugly?

USC's Stanford gets frustrated with this kind of talk. "If a tiger attacked these people, you wouldn't say, 'Why was this tiger angry?' " he says.

Stanford's point is: They were wild animals. Intelligent enough to learn how to jimmy the lock on their cage and push through two other doors Virginia Brauer accidentally left unsecured, according to an investigation by the Kern County sheriff. But immune to our attempts to psychoanalyze or blame.

Were they jealous? Resentful of the chimp getting all the cake? That was the theory some experts offered Kern County prosecutors, who recently decided not to file charges against the Brauers. Stanford argues it was probably much simpler than that: The chimps were out of their cage, and out of their comfort zone. Moe was the new, threatening male on the scene who needed to be taken down a peg, but they couldn't get at him. So "they attacked the first individuals they came across who were in their immediate territory."

For the ugly truth is that these kinds of attacks are quite common -- in the wild, against other chimpanzees. The males are highly territorial; if threatened, they will shred a rival's genitals, rip out his windpipe.

"They just have the same tendencies as all of us," says Stanford. "Some individuals can be violent and nasty, others not."

Back to the Ranch

Which brings up the question: What might another chimp -- one who had been raised differently -- make of all of this?

"Moe hasn't ever been around violence," Davis is saying. During the terrible minutes of the attack she remembers catching sight of Moe. He was frozen, she says, unable to scream.

For weeks, she went without seeing Moe. Almost every day has been spent at the hospital bedside of her husband, who remains in a medically induced coma, still fighting for his life.

"I don't think he'll ever be the same," Davis says. "It's one day at a time."

St. James has had more than a dozen surgeries so far; the Davises, who are uninsured, could end up with medical bills totaling more than a million dollars, according to their lawyer, Gloria Allred. The couple has decided against suing Animal Haven because it turns out the ranch had no liability insurance. Outraged by this revelation, Allred and Davis persuaded a state senator to sponsor a bill requiring animal sanctuaries to carry insurance; a new campaign now lies ahead for them.

But on a recent May Sunday, Davis got friends to drive her the three hours to see Moe. It was May 8. Mother's Day.

"I had some fear" going back to the scene, she says. But there was her boy, jumping up and down as she waved to him, and then she did not feel so afraid.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company