Moe, Free To Be a Chimpanzee
Ape of Some Notoriety Escapes Civilization

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."

The local authorities are treating the missing ape case as not really their business. "We're not doing anything," says Arden Wiltshire, a public information officer for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. "I believe this is being treated as if you'd lost your dog. With it being a domesticated or somewhat domestic animal, I believe it's being treated as a private matter."

San Bernardino Animal Care and Control, though, is ready to help. "We made a toll-free number available," says division chief Brian Cronin. "As of this point, no one has yet to see him. Our officers are on standby if someone should see Moe. We have dart guns, sedation available. At this point, we view that Moe poses no risk. The family is enhancing their search efforts."

The family. LaDonna Davis drives her dusty old Dodge van to the edge of the Jungle Exotics ranch and pulls over. She looks like stress.

"Oh, I just don't know what he's thinking. Maybe he's scared to death. Maybe he thinks he's in trouble. This is all so new for him," says LaDonna, who considers Moe like the son she never had. She calls herself Moe's mom. Her husband, St. James Davis, a retired NASCAR racer, calls himself Moe's dad. When the couple married, Moe was in the wedding party. "He was my best man," St. James says.

LaDonna shows a reporter an old photograph of Moe, wearing pants with suspenders and sneakers, making himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in their kitchen in West Covina, a city a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles. "We always let him make his own choices. We let him decide. He has good sense. Now he has a choice to make, and we're just hoping he makes a good one. We want him to come back."

St. James says: "He's on his way home. He's probably looking for a car to drive." He says, "Moe is not a wild animal. He's a domestic pet. You know what the judge said about him, don't you?"

St. James, who worked in 1967 as a merchant seaman, says he rescued Moe as a baby from poachers in Tanzania who had killed and mutilated his mother. He says he brought Moe to the United States with the help of missionaries. The couple taught Moe to use the toilet, take baths, eat at the table with a knife and fork, and communicate in simple sign language. He slept in a bed.

In 1971, the City of West Covina sought to remove Moe from the Davis home, calling him an illegal wild animal. Moe and the Davises, with their attorney, went to court and won. The judge said, "From what I've observed of Moe outside and in the courtroom, he doesn't have the traits of a wild animal, and is, in fact, somewhat better behaved than some people."

Those were the salad days for the chimp. In the book "Moe" by their friend Joseph A. Garduno, there are photographs of the chimp driving motorboats and sports cars. He sold Girl Scout cookies. He rode in parades. He liked to watch cowboys and Indians on TV. "He was given the keys to the city," St. James says. "He was a celebrity."

But in 1999, Moe was frightened when he was shocked by electricity, and he ran away briefly and bit a policeman. Soon after, he bit the fingertip of a woman who came to visit. Moe's defenders say the cop was too aggressive and that the woman's fingernail was painted red and Moe thought it was a piece of licorice. Could happen to anybody. But Moe was removed and taken to an animal sanctuary in Kern County.

In 2005, when LaDonna and St. James were visiting Moe for his birthday, two teenage chimpanzees, Ollie and Buddy, somehow got out of their cages and attacked the couple. LaDonna lost a thumb. She was saved by her husband, who was viciously attacked. "One of them bit my eyebrow off and just crushed the bone and then he stuck his thumb into the socket and plucked out the eye," St. James says. "The other one started to eat me alive."

While Moe sat stone still in his cage ("I think he was in shock," St. James says) and before one of the keepers could shoot the two attacking chimps, the animals removed his nose and half his fingers. They bit his buttocks, testicles, legs, skull, mouth. St. James has undergone extensive reconstructive surgery. Today, where his nose would be, there are three magnets, designed to keep a prosthetic plastic nose in place, which keeps falling off.

"People used to call me good-looking, but they don't call me good-looking anymore," St. James says.

The couple has worked with celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, who represented Moe and his family in the West Covina case, which she won. "Who knows what would have happened if Moe had stayed with them?" she says. Moe might never have run away. LaDonna would have her son. St. James would have his nose? Perhaps.

"I just hope it's not all too late," St. James says, looking up to the brushy hills where Moe took flight. "Maybe he's watching us right now," LaDonna says. Maybe.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company