News & Politics

Chimps R Us: How Much Longer Are We Going to Keep Our Cousins as Pets?

A life of captivity is too cruel for chimpanzees and dangerous for their owners. We should give them the freedoms we grant ourselves.
Nobody should own a chimpanzee. Not in America. Not even in Africa, home of all chimpanzees not born in captivity.

The gruesome attack by an adult chimpanzee on its Connecticut owner last month provided a vivid reminder of why Congress should impose a complete ban on keeping chimps as pets. .

Twenty states still permit this dubious instance of animal loving. Last month, the House has passed a bill ending this option. Now the Senate must do the same. The debate in Congress centers on practical reasons against keeping chimpanzees. They are simply too dangerous to live alongside humans; and caring for them properly, in a private home, is virtually impossible.

The utilitarian case against pet ownership obscures a wider moral lesson about relations between chimpanzees and their human kin. They are too much like us not to be included in our what intellectual historian David Hollinger calls "the circle of we.".

A close genetic relative to humans, chimpanzees are intelligent, sensitive, solve problems and form coherent social relationships. They plan, they improvise, they endure. For those who closely study or assist chimpanzees, either in the wild or in African sanctuaries, come to believe, as I do, that chimpanzees are as glorious as humans -- and deserve to exist on some roughly equal plane as us.

"Chimpanzees deserve to be treated with the same dignity as a human being," says Sheri Speede, an Oregon veterinarian who runs a large chimp sanctuary in the West African country of Cameroon. "They are entitled to the same quality of life as we are."

If Speede is correct, should not chimpanzees be as free as humans? Should the nation debate -- with the same energy shown in the national conversation over the practice of keeping chimpanzees as pets -- ending the incarceration of the 269 chimpanzees now captive in 35 American zoos?

I perhaps have no standing to ask this question. I am not an expert in chimpanzees, nor have I been a militant defender of their rights and entitlements. At least not for very long.

My first close encounter with a chimpanzee came eight years ago. On a whim, I visited the zoo in Accra, Ghana. I saw an African woman inside a small enclosure, playing with an orphaned 1-year-old chimpanzee named Jimmy. Hunters had killed his mother.

The woman, named Chizo, was his surrogate mother. She joined Jimmy in his cage -- under the supervision of a primate expert from Europe -- bringing him some measure of natural development, since unrelated chimpanzees would not likely befriend him.

Baby chimpanzees are smarter than humans at the same age, research has shown (and orphaned chimps, given human care can be even smarter; one study, published in February, found that such chimps recorded higher scores on IQ tests than many human infants). As I returned to the zoo in successive days in order to strike up a friendship with Chizo, I came to agree with the scientific consensus, marveling at Jimmy's intelligence.

He quickly concluded, for instance, that I was a rival for Chizo's attention. And with an eerie insight, the afternoon that I first asked her on a date, Jimmy mounted a vigorous effort to prevent her from departing his cage, blocking the escape door over and over, even threatening to break out with her.

He kept me waiting on the other side of the bars. Time and again, I thought he'd planned this whole stalemate, simply to upset me. (Indeed, researchers in Sweden this month published a study documenting the "contingency plans" made by one adult chimp in a Swedish zoo.)

Chizo worked closely with Jimmy more than a year. Their partnership was ended by Chizo's decision move with me to the U.S. Before we left Ghana, we both felt sorrow over leaving Jimmy behind.

An effort by a global network of chimpanzees activists failed to secure Jimmy's release to a sanctuary, where he could live in a natural environment, while still under the protection of humans. After we settled in the U.S., another serious attempt was made to gain Jimmy's release, but again the government of Ghana refused.

The recent controversy over pet chimpanzees made me think about the hundreds of chimps in zoos in America and around the world -- and of Jimmy, too. He remains in a zoo in Ghana, although he's been joined by another orphan, a younger female, also rescued and brought to the zoo after the slaughter by hunters of her parents.

In September, Chizo and I visited Jimmy and his new friend. Jimmy instantly recognized Chizo from a distance of more than 100 feet. Jimmy, now 7 years old, is too big and strong to permit Chizo to join him in his cage. Yet they played anyway, hugging and dancing separated by steel bars. Jimmy showed off, jumping from a high perch onto a trampoline and doing endless somersaults.

He remembered me, too, though with less affection. Shrewdly drawing close to him by extending one hand in friendship, I approached the bars, looked in the eyes -- and then watched in astonishment as he three a hand full of waste at me. I ducked, adroitly, causing him to miss.

For a few hours, we played a game of cat and mouse. He drew me closer through acts of kindness, and then turned against me. Sometimes, he tossed waste at me with an unnerving accuracy, other times he spat in my direction.

Those days visiting Jimmy in the Kumasi zoo convinced me that, while he could not understand why Chizo and I had vanished from his life, he had felt long and hard our absence -- and now celebrated our return.

Before I departed, I asked the zoo director might he ever release Jimmy? I offered, as others have before, to arrange his transfer to sanctuary -- a kind of "gated community" where chimps experience something akin to living in the wild, yet are protected from hunters, each other and truly wild chimps who might attack them with lethal force.

I've visited Speede's sanctuary in Cameroon and seen up close the excellent care the chimps receive -- and their happy communion with each other and the forest. There are two other chimpanzee sanctuaries in this West African country, and together they are searching for land where a select group of their chimps can be released into a freer environment.

Releasing chimps, grown accustomed to the comforts of a sanctuary, is fraught; their survival skills diminished, these chimps can fall prey to other animals, hunters or even disease.

Speede, for instance, gives chimps medical care, and her sanctuary has special fencing, even at the canopy of the forest, to keep wild chimps from mounting attacks.

Lovers of chimpanzees worry of course that these human relatives are doomed to extinction as the lush forests they inhabit get cut down by loggers, bisected by roads and infiltrated by hunters. Trade in so-called bush meat, while illegal and constrained, continues. Demand comes from wealthier city dwellers, some of whom live in Europe or America.

Speede believes that sanctuaries -- and "release" programs of the sort she's preparing -- may be the only means of preventing the ultimate destruction of chimpanzees and their extraordinary ways of being.

If she's right, should Americans consider supporting such sanctuaries rather than the zoos where we now visit chimpanzees? In the case of Jimmy, I'm certain he would prefer to live in one of the two dozen sanctuaries around Africa. His cage in Ghana is small and has a cold concrete floor. The zoo director's desire for Jimmy to impregnate a female at the zoo strikes me as unwise. Given the longevity of chimps, Jimmy could easily live 30 or more years in his cage -- outliving me, easily, yet serving as a source of amusement and education for visitors to the Kumasi Zoo.

"He's our top attraction," the zoo director told me, when he once more rejected the idea of letting Jimmy go.

To free the 269 chimpanzees in American zoos is perhaps less urgent, because these zoos long ago switched to larger, more flexible enclosures that produce an illusion of open space. I do not doubt that the 269 chimpanzees residing in these advanced enclosures are unaware of their captivity.

The question is how long can we, the jailers, allow that to continue?

G. Pascal Zachary, a frequent contributor to AlterNet, is the author of Married to Africa, a memoir of his marriage to Chizo and his affection for Africa (Scribner 2009) and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century.