Sunday, July 1, 2012

Chimpanzee attack

I've worked with wild and captive exotic animals in a variety of settings - zoos, sanctuaries, veterinary situations - so whenever an exotic animal mauls a keeper or caretaker I try to analyze the situation to make sure I never make the same mistakes.

If you haven't heard - a graduate student was mauled by two adult male chimpanzees at a facility in South Africa called Chimp Eden.  It takes in abused chimpanzees rescued from the pet and bush meat trade.  It does really good work.

File:Adult male chimps in mahale.jpg

This situation is harder for me to analyze.  I've never worked with chimpanzees.  I do know that they are highly intelligent, they use tools and they plan ahead.  And they are STRONG. 

So what happened at Chimp Eden in South Africa?  The photos and videos from there show what appears to be good fencing.  There must have been some weakness where the event occurred.  Possibly some weakness created by the chimps and hidden from the staff (chimps have been known to hide things from their keepers before).

What I do know that the grad student did wrong were two things:  1)  he stepped too close to the fence and 2) he turned his back on chimps.

Most facilities that allow public access have two  barriers between the public and the animals.  The fence of the enclosure and a secondary barrier that keeps the public at a safe distance.  You probably don't even notice these at zoos but they are there.  The grad student who was mauled was between these barriers and therefore too close to the chimps.

The grad student was leading a tour and witnesses state the he had his back to the cage.  This is a major no-no.  If you aren't at a safe distance (and heck, sometimes even if you are at a safe distance) you always watch the animals.

[The few occasions I led tours I would stand sideways to the cage - one eye on the animal and one of the people.  Of course I was working with exotic cats at the time and some of them would...  um... hose you down.  And that would reach further than the safety barrier!]

Do I blame the the grad student?  No, he made mistakes.  He got too comfortable.  He paid the price.

Do I blame the facility?  No, from what I can see most of their procedures and fencing are good.

Do I blame the chimps?  Ha!  No.  They've come from horrific backgrounds and are probably mentally unstable.

So where should the blame fall?  I don't have the data to determine that.  Did the grad student break procedures?  Did the facility not adequately take into consideration the risks?  What triggered the incident?  We may never know.

Hey, I know who to blame!  Let's blame the people who perpetuate a trade in exotic pets and meats and who contributed to the trauma that these chimps had to endure before ending up in the sanctuary.  As a species we really should be doing better by our close relatives.

[image from wikimedia commons - thanks to Caelio]

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