LOS ANGELES - 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
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, May 31, 2005
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 "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.
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
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
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
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.
research revealed chimps' intelligence, sensitivity and uncanny similarities
to humans. Her later studies would chart more brutal behavior.
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
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 together!"
Chimpanzees have always
inspired reactions more complex than that of other exotic animals,
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
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.
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 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.
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
The day of the attack, March 3, started as a happy one 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 demeanor."
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 because now a second had appeared turned their frenzy on
LaDonna watched as one latched onto St. James' head, the other
onto his foot. She chokes on the words: "They virtually were I
don't know how you say it 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
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?
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.
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 Day.
"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.
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