Back in the 1990s, Joe the chimpanzee was a California TV and film actor owned by a well-known Hollywood animal trainer. The chimp’s best-known work was a 1997 movie called “Buddy,” in which Rene Russo played a socialite who lives in a mansion with various primates and other creatures she treats as her children.
By 1999, Joe was 11 years old, and his career path had taken a new turn. He’d been handed over to the small Mobile Zoo in Wilmer, Ala., where for 16 years he was a star attraction who lived in a chain-link enclosure and, according to animal rights activists, was sometimes harassed by peanut-throwing visitors.
Though chimpanzees are highly social animals in the wild, the zoo’s owner told AL.com earlier this year that Joe had “imprinted” onto humans and not taken well to other chimps at the facility. So Joe lived alone, with a color television and a DVD player that showed him movies.
That ended last week, when Joe retired to a chimp sanctuary in Florida. The impetus for the move was a change in federal law regarding chimpanzees, which formed the basis of a lawsuit against the zoo by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which challenged what it called his “solitary confinement.”
Last fall, after years of campaigning by famed chimpanzee advocate Jane Goodall and animal welfare groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated all chimps — not just wild ones — as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That ended a longstanding distinction between captive chimps and wild ones, whose population has fallen from millions to about 300,000, and it afforded captive chimps the same protections.
Among those is protection from what is known as “take,” which includes harming and harassing an endangered species. The change was hailed by animal rights groups as the likely end to medical research on chimpanzees in the United States, the only developed country that performs it.
But it was also Joe’s ticket out of his Alabama cage.
Over the years, the Mobile Zoo had been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for dozens of violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, including the conditions Joe was kept in. More recently it was fined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violating worker safety by allowing employees to directly contact Joe.
In January, PETA filed suit against the zoo, claiming that Joe, now 29, was being held in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Last week, the group dropped the suit after the zoo agreed to surrender him — making him the first captive chimpanzee to be released to a sanctuary since the federal change.
En route to Save The Chimps sanctuary in Florida, he met a famous benefactor: Goodall. In a video released by PETA (you can view it here), Joe seemed unimpressed by her. He promptly gave a hug, however, to a female chimp at his new home.