Face to Face with a Chimpanzee

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Explorer: Chimps on the Edge airs Tuesday March 30 10P et/pt


By Peter Yost, Director/Producer

Most of us have seen chimps before, either on TV, in magazines, books, zoos, or in circuses.  But nothing quite prepared me for spending some personal time with two boisterous, pre-pubescent chimps.

While making our film about chimpanzees in captivity, I visited a woman who was living with two young chimps in her house.  They spend most of their time in a large cage attached to the side of her house.  I approached the outside of the cage casually with our cameraman.  I smiled at the two chimps and they grinned innocently back through the bars.  Suddenly, our cameraman (who is also a good friend) stumbled and yelped in surprise.  In a highly impressive, coordinated effort the two animals had leapt to the ground, reached through the bars, and each grabbed hold of one of his ankles. 

They pulled and pulled and as the cameraman stumbled, cursed, and eventually wrenched himself free from the hairy, human-like hands, I laughed. I started to make a comment about how this was going to be an interesting shoot and how, despite his vast experience filming animals in the wild, my friend had better watch himself or he was going to meet his match here with caged, young chimps… But my joke was interrupted by a blur and a loud smack.  I felt a sharp pain on the back of my head.  Now it was my friend’s turn to laugh. 

Within a fraction of a second, one of the chimps had reached through the bars of his cage and smacked me on the back of the head. It felt like I had been hit by a brick. I must have let my guard down for a second. Big mistake.  While I had been enjoying the cameraman’s torment, one of the chimps let me know I was not immune from the hazing.

The attack had caught me off guard. Obviously, no one likes to be smacked in the back of the head, but what surprised me most was how quick and powerful this 7-year-old chimp was.  Even though I was facing him face to face, I saw nothing but a blur.  The hand had done its work and returned to its cage before my brain could register the motion. And his strength was tremendous. Many reports suggest that fully grown chimps are up to 7 times stronger than humans, but reading a statistic and feeling a sensation on the back of your head are two entirely different things.

Across the United States, it’s estimated that around 50 chimps live as pets in private homes.

Recently, a chimpanzee that had been living as a pet in Connecticut attacked his owner’s friend, inflicting grave injuries. The incident focused media attention on the issue of chimps as pets, and led many to ask the question: “what went wrong?”  But the truth is that chimpanzees have a strong violent streak. And with such a difference in strength, the results can be disastrous… 

Finally, we were able to enter the enclosure.  Having been overmatched by caged chimps within minutes of our arrival (and with memories of the recent chimp attack in Connecticut still fresh in our minds) we were certainly on edge.  It occurred to me that this was every parent’s worst nightmare – confronting a 7 year old with a mischievous streak and the strength of a bodybuilder!

First they crawled on my friend, grooming his hair, cleaning his ears, and pulling on his finger. Then it was my turn. It was a remarkable feeling as we held hands and groomed each other. As I looked into their eyes, I felt a remarkably strong personality looking back.  We played various jumping games together but after our rough introduction, I could never quite relax.  And it reminded me again why, as wonderful as they are, these wild animals should not be kept as pets.


By Edna Alburquerque, Associate Producer

One of the most interesting things I found while working on this project was that nearly everyone has an opinion about chimpanzees. All I had to do was mention that I was working on a film about chimps and I almost immediately got a strong response. Depending on the person, chimps were either ‘amazing, intelligent beings’ or ‘dirty, loud and disgusting’. For me, standing face to face with a chimpanzee was definitely a powerful experience, and one that left me with some mixed emotions…

Our crew had followed 10 chimps from Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the organization ‘Save the Chimps’ has taken over a former medical research facility and the 266 chimps living in it, as they embarked on a 2,000 mile journey across the country to their new home in Florida. Now, they would ‘retire’ onto custom-built islands and for the first time, step outside a cage.

As the ‘Chimpmobile” unloaded its exited cargo into their new enclosure the chimps were reunited after 40 hours on the road in individual cages. Standing there watching them I was immediately struck by how ‘human’ they seemed.

The first thing they did was hug each other. As each chimp was released into the enclosure, the others met him at the door, taking turns doling out a reassuring embrace. They then ran around their new cages, inspecting the dolls, blankets and streamers the staff had prepared for them. Once they had taken a look around their new home, they came up to the bars to greet the staff. They bounced up and down baring their teeth in an excited ‘smile’, then turned around and pressed their backs against the bars while the caregivers scratched them with the handles of their sunglasses. They came up and inspected me, too. Staring me straight in the eye, I got a feeling they were to figure me out just as much as I was them.

Despite all their ‘human-like’ characteristics, I was also very aware of the differences between us. As they shook the bars in excitement, their strength was obvious. And even the youngest babies moved so fast that the staff didn’t have to reiterate their warning of not getting too close to the cages. It was clear to me that these were powerful, unpredictable animals and that letting my guard down for even a second would be a bad idea. ‘Human-like’ as they were, these were still very much wild animals.

But these wild animals had spent their lives in cages. Used as medical research subjects and kept mostly in isolation, most of these chimps had never set foot on grass in their lives.

As the staff prepared to release the chimps onto the 2-acre, custom-built island complete with wood and concrete climbing structures, where they would spend the rest of their lives, I couldn’t help but ponder our strange relationship with our closest genetic relatives.

Chimpanzee habitats are shrinking by the year, and some experts warn that wild populations may face extinction within decades. In the United States, over 1200 chimpanzees are still housed in medical research facilities across the country, and hundreds more are privately owned.

As I watched the sun set over one of the islands, I wondered, was I looking at the future of all chimpanzees? Is retirement in Florida the best we have to offer them?