LOS ANGELES ˆ In 1967, LaDonna Davis' boyfriend went on a trip to
Tanzania and came back with quite a surprise: a chimpanzee. It was a
baby still, an orphan her boyfriend said he had rescued from the
poachers who killed its mother, and it was just adorable ˆ "a large
teddy bear," LaDonna's mother declared. They named him Moe.
The boyfriend, a stock-car racer named St. James, would carry the
little fellow in a sling around his chest as he worked at his auto
body shop in West Covina, Calif. When she married St. James a couple
of years later, Moe was "a combination of flower-thrower and best
man," LaDonna Davis recalls.
This wasn't just any chimp, Davis and her mother, Terry DeVere
explain patiently. This was Moe.
"He would reach his hands out and put them around your neck," says
Davis, a sun-creased blonde of 64. "You couldn't turn it off," all
that charm, all that love.
As Davis tells her story in the sleek conference room of an
attorney's office, she gingerly moves her left hand, swaddled in the
gauze and tape that protect what remains of her thumb, a reminder
that this train of sweet memories and funny stories is not going to
end well.
Davis is here to talk about a terrible thing that happened, an event
so traumatic she would be forgiven for not talking at all. But she
Moe slept in their bed until he got too big. He learned to use the
toilet. He loved to watch cowboys and Indians on television. A
pretty normal childhood, as Davis describes it.
Jane Goodall's research revealed chimps' intelligence, sensitivity
and uncanny similarities to humans. Her later studies would chart
more brutal behavior.
Some people in West Covina looked askance at this unconventional
domestic situation. City officials tried to evict Moe a few years
after his arrival, but the judge ruled for the Davises. Moe, he
proclaimed, "is somewhat better behaved than some people."
Moe had lived peaceably with the Davises for more than 30 years
when, in 1998, he escaped from his 10-by-12-foot outdoor enclosure
and rampaged through the neighborhood.
The Davises said Moe had been frightened by an electrical shock when
a worker tried to repair his cage. But it took several police
officers and animal control workers to restrain him, and an
officer's hand was mauled, city officials said.
The next year, a visitor put her hand inside Moe's cage, though the
Davises said they warned her. They say she had long red fingernails
that looked like Moe's favorite licorice. He bit, and the Davises
later settled a lawsuit with the woman. The next day, West Covina
officials removed Moe to a wildlife refuge.
The Davises were devastated. And they fought back, in petitions,
fundraisers and heart-rending media interviews. Reporters found St.
James Davis weeping outside a court hearing: "I want our family back
Chimpanzees have always inspired reactions more complex than that of
other exotic animals, primatologists say.
The Humane Society of the United States, which strongly opposes wild
animals in private homes, estimates that up to 15,000 chimps
nationwide might be living as pets.
Except, Virginia Landau, director of ChimpanZoo, a research program
at the Jane Goodall Institute in Tucson, Ariz., noted, many chimp
owners "don't really think of it as a pet ˆ they think of it as a
replacement for a child."
And Moe was no longer a child. He was in vigorous middle age, a
roughly 4-foot, 130-pounder with the upper-body strength of three
linebackers. West Covina officials maintained that he could no
longer live within city limits.
A years-long legal battle ensued. Eventually all criminal charges
were dropped and the Davises won a $100,000 judgment in their due-
process suit against the city. But Moe still couldn't come home.
The Davises visited Moe regularly until 2003, when the sanctuary had
licensing problems. After months of negotiation, Moe was transferred
to Animal Haven Ranch, near Bakersfield. Last October they went to
see him ˆ the first time in five years they had spent substantial
time with him.
"He was caged up and frustrated and a little bit territorial," says
Craig Stanford, a professor of anthropology and biology at the
University of Southern California. He needed the companionship of
other chimps. At Animal Haven Ranch, he had them.
The 22-acre non-profit sanctuary was founded by Virginia and Ralph
Brauer for exotic pets that had worn out their welcome, castoffs
from circuses and zoos. The Brauers had six primates plus Moe, who
as a newcomer to the animal world was kept in his own cage.
In a cage nearby were four other chimps, including males Buddy, 16,
and Ollie, 13, who had worked for a Hollywood animal trainer until
they grew too strong and aggressive.
The Davises made the three-hour drive to see Moe every 10 days or
so, bringing enough food for the entire menagerie. Yet LaDonna Davis
says she never visited the other chimps.
The day of the attack, March 3, started as a happy one ˆ the day
they celebrated as Moe's 39th birthday. The couple arrived with
special treats: new toys and a beautiful sheet cake with raspberry
filling. As her husband headed toward the cage with Moe's favorite
chocolate drink, Davis remembers seeing their chimp clap his hands
with joy.
She put the cake on the table next to Moe's cage and got the rest of
the presents. She cut two pieces of cake. When St. James handed one
to Moe through an opening in the cage, the chimp dug in immediately,
smearing icing all over his lips.
As LaDonna moved to cut her own piece, she glimpsed something to her
left. It was one of the teenage male chimps. He was out of his cage.
"I made eye contact with him," she says. "That instantly changed his
He slammed into her backside, knocking her into St. James. Just like
that, the chimp "just chomped off my thumb."
Her husband pushed her under the table, and the chimps ˆ because now
a second had appeared ˆ turned their frenzy on him.
LaDonna watched as one latched onto St. James' head, the other onto
his foot. She chokes on the words: "They virtually were ˆ I don't
know how you say it ˆ eating him alive."
Davis says she screamed, and the Brauers' son-in-law, Mark
Carruthers, came running. Carruthers retrieved a handgun, according
to Davis and police accounts. As Buddy lifted his head, Carruthers
fired a single bullet into the animal's brain.
As Buddy fell away, Ollie began dragging St. James' mutilated body
away. The 62-year-old man was conscious but near death. He had lost
his nose, an eye, most of his fingers, both testicles and much of
the flesh from his buttocks and face and left foot.
Carruthers followed, and fired again. And then it was over.
Why did they do it?
It's the question that hangs over almost every conversation about
the case. Chimp attacks on humans are highly unusual.
How could this have happened to people who knew and loved these
creatures so well?
USC's Stanford gets frustrated at that. "If a tiger attacked these
people, you wouldn't say, `Why was this tiger angry?' " he says.
Stanford's point is: They were wild animals.
Intelligent enough to learn to jimmy the lock on their cage and push
through two other doors that Virginia Brauer accidentally left
unsecured, according to an investigation by the Kern County sheriff.
But immune to our attempts to psychoanalyze or blame.
Were they jealous? Stanford argues it was probably much simpler than
that: The chimps were out of their cage, their comfort zone. Moe was
the new, threatening male who needed to be taken down a peg, but
they couldn't get at him. So "they attacked the first individuals
they came across who were in their immediate territory."
For weeks, Davis went without seeing Moe. Almost every day has been
spent with her husband, who remains in a medically induced coma,
fighting for his life.
"I don't think he'll ever be the same," Davis says.
St. James has had more than a dozen surgeries so far; the Davises,
who are uninsured, could end up with medical bills totaling more
than a million dollars, according to their lawyer, Gloria Allred.
The couple won't sue Animal Haven because the ranch had no liability
insurance. Allred and Davis persuaded a state senator to sponsor a
bill requiring sanctuaries to carry insurance.
On a recent Sunday, Davis went to see Moe. It was May 8. Mother's
"I had some fear" going back to the scene, she says. But there was
her boy, jumping up and down as she waved to him, and then she did
not feel so afraid.http://www.fortwayne.com/mld/journalgazette/living/11768688.htm <http://www.fortwayne.com/mld/journalgazette/living/11768688.htm>