Moe, Free To Be a Chimpanzee

Moe, 42, broke out of his cage and fled into the San Bernardino hills a week ago.
Moe, 42, broke out of his cage and fled into the San Bernardino hills a week ago. (By Walt Mancini -- Associated Press)
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By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 4, 2008

DEVORE, Calif., July 3 -- There's an ape on the loose, a chimp on the lam. He's a ribbon-cutting celebrity. But now he's like a monkey gone wild.

Moe used to drive a car. Apparently, he was once issued a driver's license, but it expired. Moe is now believed to be on foot. Lost? Hiding? Worse? He's been out there, somewhere, in the rugged, brushy, snaky foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains west of Los Angeles since last Friday when he escaped from his cage. His frantic parents -- that is what they call themselves -- are weeping with worry. The authorities are not offering much help, though the folks at animal control do have a dart gun ready. The search continues.

Usually, a piece about an escaped chimpanzee is catnip to news editors, especially over a long holiday weekend. Like a good shark attack (or poodle-eating alligators or lurid panda sex), your missing-chimp story is a leafy green perennial of the news business. So here we go. Except. Except this is all sort of sad and disturbing.

Because maybe chimpanzees aren't really supposed to wear short pants and live in suburban houses with humans who treat them as their child. It never really ends well, does it? Because even though the humans love them dearly, cute baby chimps grow into big adult apes, who can bite, which can have a tragic trajectory, as we shall see.

But then again, who are we to judge, those of us who have never put a pair of pajamas on an ape.

Outside Devore on the way to Las Vegas, you get off Interstate 15 and cross a creek and railroad tracks and head up a gravel road that leads to the gate of an outfit called Jungle Exotics, where Moe was living in a large, newly built cage with his toys, blankets and bananas. By all reports, a safe, sanitary, comfortable home.

According to its Web site, Jungle Exotics has been providing the finest in exotic and domestic animal rentals -- dogs, tigers, iguanas, cats, lions, pigs, bears, rats, etc. -- to the motion picture, television, print and video industry since 1982, with more than a thousand credits, including such standouts as Mr. Bigglesworth, the hairless Sphynx cat, in the "Austin Powers" movies.

Moe was not rented out. At 42, he had long ago retired from public appearances. He was a boarder at the facility. A permanent guest. Joe Camp, the co-owner of Jungle Exotics, says that somehow Moe, at 125 pounds, had the strength, guile and desire to squeeze his way to freedom. "We can't figure out how he broke those welds and got out," Camp says. "That cage should have been able to hold a gorilla." This was Friday afternoon, a week ago.

After Moe got loose, he wandered over to a nearby house where workers were doing construction. Moe looked in. He might have held out his hand, for food or a handshake. Reports are confused on this point, on whether Moe was offered or accepted a sandwich. Regardless, he hopped a fence and disappeared into the bush. He hasn't been seen since.

"He's a sturdy animal, and there's food and water out there," says Camp, meaning there are natural springs and wild berries, but no burritos with extra cheese, which Moe favored. "Sooner or later, somebody is going to see him."

A helicopter searched the area, and also news helicopters, which Camp would prefer not to see. He thinks the commotion might scare the chimp back into the hills.

Camp and his team have been scouring the countryside in four-wheel-drive vehicles. They've broadcast chimp calls. They've had bloodhounds out to the ranch. They are asking the public to report any big, black, hairy apes in the vicinity. They are also pleading with people not to go off on their own to search for Moe. "It's dangerous, hilly country, and Moe is not somebody's monkey child," Camp says. "He could be frightened, and people should not come too close."

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