The Call of the Wild

If you grew up in the 1960’s or watched television in the 1970’s, then you’ve seen them. Nature documentaries that depicted wild creatures as benign, gentle, loving souls. Many times these docs would end with the narrator pointing out, voice quivering with barely repressed scorn, that the natural world was free of all of the ills that plagued the more “advanced” human societies that were destroying it. Rape, war, murder, greed. All of these were absent in the breast of our wild-yet-more-noble cousins.

Except, of course, for insects because they made war on one another. But that was ignored in order to avoid spoiling the point.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time wandering through the wild places, watching what was going on around me. It’s with great confidence I can say that those documentaries were trying to pull a fast one.

Hobbs said it best, “Red in both tooth and claw.” Wild creatures are, you know, wild! The one thing that’s painfully obvious, just as soon as you get down to the nitty gritty, is that nature has no pity. In fact, shocking as it may be, there are some creatures out there which take great delight in murdering other creatures, including the occasional human.

I was strongly reminded of this when I came across this news story. It would seem that a man and his wife were viciously attacked by two escaped chimpanzees while they were visiting an animal sanctuary. After the woman lost her thumb, her husband moved to protect her. The animals then ignored their first victim and swarmed over him. He almost undoubtedly saved his wife’s life, but the price he paid for this act of bravery and self-sacrifice was horrific.

“St. James Davis, 62, lost all the fingers from both hands, an eye, part of his nose, cheek, lips and part of his buttocks in the ferocious attack, his wife said over the weekend on NBC’s “Today Show.” She also said one of his feet was mutilated. A Kern County Sheriff’s commander also said his genitals were mauled.”

The account above is actually rather reserved. This news item says that the chimps did more than “mutilate” or “maul” his foot and genitals. Instead they tore them off completely.

Keep in mind that these apes weren’t using tools or weapons. They did all of this with their teeth.

I was puzzled as to why this attack occurred until I read all the way to the bottom of the article. A pair of females, probably in heat, had also escaped from their cages. The male chimps acted the same way they would have in the wild when faced with a sexual rival. But why would a chimpanzee view a human being in such a way?

I can’t really be sure, but I think that Animal Haven Ranch, where the attack took place, is one of many places in the US which specializes in caring for exotic pets after they become too big and dangerous to be kept by their owners. I’m led to this conclusion because the Davis couple were there to visit a chimp that had been removed from their home after biting off part of another woman’s finger in 1999.

If the chimps which attacked Mr. Davis had been raised in captivity, if they’d been around humans for their entire lives, then they would essentially view humans as merely another ape. The facts would appear to support this.

I’ve been seeing incidents like this happening with greater frequency over the past two decades. People with more money than sense decide that it would be cool if they could keep an exotic pet, particularly tigers.

This has resulted in the rather odd fact that the there’s now three times as many captive tigers in the US than there are left in the wild. Sure, this means that the odds of their extinction, once a real concern, have abated a great deal. But it also means that innocent people might very well be at risk if one of these cats escapes.

What I find particularly puzzling is how law enforcement officials who are forced to protect lives by shooting these animals are then forced to defend their actions to the very people they’ve saved! Don’t the critics know what could have happened if the officer hadn’t shot the animal?

Call it a victory for 1970’s Leftist propaganda.

A measure that recently passed in the House entitled the Captive Wildlife Safety Act is geared towards restricting access to large wild cat species by private owners. It’s a good first step, but obviously it needs to now be enforced.

If anyone reading this is a rough-and-ready sort, then you might find my recommendations for guns I’d take camping to be of use. And for any of my regular readers who wandered over from my private blog: the chimps were put down by a .45 ACP handgun. Probably a 1911, I’m thinking.

36 thoughts on “The Call of the Wild”

  1. The full irony of this story is better appreciated with these additional facts from

    The Davises were visiting a different chimpanzee, their former pet, Moe. They had previously settled a civil rights lawsuit against West Covina for $100,000 as part of the fallout stemming from the city criminally charging the couple for keeping a dangerous animal. His lawyer, Gloria Allred, accused the city of overreacting when Moe bit a policeman and a woman in separate incidents, and succeeded in creating enough of a press-storm that the city backed down after having poured a quarter million dollars into Moe-related legal fees. (The policeman required $250,000 in medical treatment.) Davis won a previous lawsuit against West Covina in the 1960s allowing him to keep his chimpanzee in town because a judge held the chimp “doesn’t have the traits of a wild animal and was somewhat better behaved than some people.” But never fear, Ms. Allred is on this case also, and has been cited by the press as demanding “immediate answers”; the couple hasn’t decided whether they’ll sue. (David Pierson and Mitchell Landsberg, “A Primate Party Gone Horribly Awry”, Los Angeles Times, Mar. 5; Christina L. Esparza, “Saga of Moe takes a bizarre twist”, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Mar. 3; Christina L. Esparza, Ruby Gonzales, and Karen Rubin, “Moe’s owners mauled”, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Mar. 4; AP, Mar. 5; “Woman Has Faith in Chimps Despite Attack”, Good Morning America, Mar. 7; “Officials try to find what caused chimp attack”, KGET-17, Mar. 7; Cara Mia DiMassa, “2 Cities Can’t Get the Hang of Chimp’s Situation”, Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2002; Linda Deutsch, AP, Oct. 15, 1999; AFP, Feb. 4, 2000 (kibo commentary); Richard Winton, “Los Angeles to remain Moe-less”, Los Angeles Times, Jul. 21, 2001; Jeff Jardine, “Chimp charm is film illusion”, Modesto Bee, Mar. 6). Once upon a time, Moe was considered a leading candidate for the principle that animals should have court standing. (Amanda Onion, “Lawyers: Animals Should Be Able to Sue”, ABC News, May 13, 2002).

    Cosmic justice, perhaps?

  2. Good stories. I’m “rough and ready”, I suppose; enjoy camping and trekking enough to know that most of nature views me as an enemy or competitor, or as food. It seems totally normal now, but I had an experience long ago which was formative.

    I was wading chest-deep in the murky Gulf off Padre Island when something large bumped my shin underwater. Thinking it might be a log, I stepped back and to the side, to go around it. But then it bumped me again. I had one of those flash realizations: “I can’t see down there, there are millions of creatures here, and most of them are hungry!” I made like a human motorboat paddling furiously backward, without even turning around, and was churning sand by the time I knew I’d hit the beach. Funny now, but I still rarely go into water I can’t see through.

    I also had a next-door neighbor who used to amuse us by sticking his head in his St. Bernard’s mouth. He ended up with 40-something stitches and a changed face.

  3. Re: “nature has no pity”

    What a wonderful post. I am continually amazed at how the leftist view of the world filtered literally everything I saw, including, it turns out, nature itself. I was raised on the idea that man is a destructive and decidedly unnatural force in the world, and that The Peacable Kingdom exists wherever man is out of the picture.

    Reading Jack London in sixth grade cured me of that. It remains a puzzlement how fixed this delusion remains, however, as people continue to behave as if animals are saints despite all evidence to the contrary. Much like the repeated attempts to create “the new man” via socialism, the denial of “the law of club and fang” operating every day in forest, sea and sky is pernicious and dangerous.

    For those reasons, this was a really insightful post. Thanks,


  4. I think a lot of people believe that domesticated animals are representative of all animals without realizing the degree to which domesticated animals, especially dogs and cats, have been genetically modified. The adrenaline and generalized stress systems of domesticated animals are a mere fraction of those of their wild counter parts. The mixed coats and (in dogs floppy ears) seen only in domestic animals is a result of the suppression of the genes that control stress reactions in the animals. We have breed their behavior so extensively we have actually changed their body forms as a mere side effect.

    Combine this delusion that domesticated animals represent all animal behavior with the romanticized vision of nature driven by politics and you get a recipe for disaster when deluded morons take wild animals into their homes.

    Wild Chimpanzees are extremely viscous. They hunt monkeys for a primary food source often torturing their prey after breaking some limbs so that it can’t escape. Chimpanzee society is built around coalitions of brothers who kidnap females and wage war on other groups. IIRC, Chimpanzees actually succeed in intra-species killings at rates higher than any other mammal because their intelligence lets them gang up on and ambush stragglers from other groups.

  5. I am often frustrated when I read stories like these. I’m a graduate student in biology and I have always loved the natural world, but these kinds of stories are more demonstrative of the idiocy of my fellow man than anything else.

    Evolution has designed every creature on this planet to be successful for itself, at the expense of other creatures if necessary. However, this should not be an emormous surprise to anyone with a few functional brain cells. It’s unfortunate that the animals involved in these situations pay the greatest price, because the fault lies squarely with the human beings who refuse to respect them. If I decide to wander into an enclosure with territorial male chimps and a sexually receptive female, I expect to leave the enclosure minus a few appendages.

    I can only take comfort in the fact that selection will act against those who behave idiotically (losing one’s genitals is a significant breeding deterrent).

  6. Thanks James. Thanks Bill Wyatt.
    Society wrote upon the blank slate of the noble chimp; his tendencies for violence arose not because he was motivated by a baser desire for female chimps in heat but because our society developed the bomb. (London underestimates our abiity to transcend, the useulness of our consciousness – but at least he doesn’t pretend we don’t have bodies.)

  7. Good points, Shannon.

    As our closest relatives, chimps share many traits with us, including our coalitional territoriality and violence. Chimps wage vicious ‘inter-tribal’ warfare, where one troup will sometimes completely annihilate another- killing rival males and offspring and raping females. Pretending that human violent behavior is only a societal construct purposesly ignores these kinds of biological observations.

    One correction though- even though colobus monkeys are an occaisonal food source for chimps, they only make up about 5% of an average chimps caloric intake, (and many troups have never been observed hunting monkeys at all).
    The hunting behavior is interesting for other reasons though- it’s an almost exclusively male activity, and males hunt in groups and often give the meat to females in the hopes of gaining copulations. (lots of other interesting human/chimp parallels there too…)

  8. Excellent post. Some people just seem determined to ignore reality and anthropomorphize animals. I think it’s a form of hubris: “Look at my powers — I command the savage beasts.” Or maybe these people don’t realize that each animal has its own distinctive nature, and not even the great beast tamer can train his dog to be a child. This attitude isn’t a problem with domestic pets, most of the time, but it’s asking for trouble with wild animals.

    BTW, speaking of asking for trouble: guys who walk around with big constrictor snakes draped over their necks.

  9. …and males hunt in groups and often give the meat to females in the hopes of gaining copulations.

    Stupid ape! It’s supposed to be dinner and a movie!!!


  10. Thankfully, there are plenty of people who have a clue. My friends owned a very friendly Rottweiler, who like the rest of his breed was 125lbs of muscle. Great dog…but you just could never be sure… Anyhow, they recently had their first child. There were no issues with the child and dog interacting. But after the child was about six months, they started to get nervous. Even simply being playful, the dog could have snapped his neck like a twig. They decided to put the dog down…a sad day indeed. We still toast to the dog every time we sit down together for a drink.

  11. the American west has had more mountain lion attacks in the last 15 years than the previous century, primarily due to the lions becoming habituated to humans and the loss of aversion training they historically always received from man – we hunted or killed them, especially if they were perceived to be a threat to us or livestock. Lions used to avoid people and dogs, which they associated with wolves their ancient enemy. After we stopped killing the lions and we eradicated most of the wolves, the lions started to forget that people and dogs were to be feared, and over time started hunting both again. In the 70s and 80s homeowners near nature encouraged wildlife to intermingle in their communities (hay bales for deer, etc). This increased the rate of non violent human/dog/lion encounters, which trained the lions that we weren’t to be feared. When they started eating pet dogs 15 years ago the lions at first received much policital support in places like Boulder – one family’s dog was killed and eaten by a lion in Boulder and at the town meeting the citizens largely supported the lions and told the dog owners “if you don’t like the lions, move”. The lions didn’t lose their political support until inevitably they started killing and eating people.

  12. commandercornflake,

    Could have sworn I read that chimpanzees, in one area at least got something like 30% of their calories and 70% of their protein from monkey meat but I could be mistaken. They do however, often torment their prey.

    Dolphins are also vicious little bastards when it comes to their own intra-species conflicts. Coalitions of males wage wars and kidnap and apparently rape females as well as killing infants sired by other males.

    It is interesting that as the general population has less and less contact with the real natural world, their view of it grows progressively more disney-esc. Previous generations who had more extensive contact with animals coined such phrases as, “to act like an animal” as a perforative. Hard to see your average inhabitant of the dense urban cores coming up with a negative phrase like that these days.

  13. Does anyone remember the name of the lizard that survives by- laying its eggs in a birds nest after eating the eggs already in there, the bird cares for the eggs, and then feeds the lizards long enough until they grow up and eventually, well, eat the momma bird?

    I can’t remember the name of the lizard, but I remember reading about it.

  14. The cuckoo bird lays it’s eggs in another’s nest, but I’ve never heard of a lizard that does that. There was a lizard like that in a Simpson’s episode, were they parodying reality or making it up

  15. Jane Goodall dedicated her life to observation of chimpanzees and her work was among the first to puncture the myth of the gentle, loving ape of the forest.

    Among the more horrifying things she observed was a mother-daughter pair who had gotten in the habit of stealing chimp babies away from their mothers, and killing and eating them. Before that, no other ape besides humans had been known to engage in cannibalism.

    The “gentle chimp” myth is a direct relative of the “noble savage” myth, which postulates that humans who live a primitive tribal life are peaceful, virtuous, and gentle. That’s just as false, of course.

  16. By the way, there are actually two species of chimp. The first is generally called “chimpanzee”; the second is known as “bonobos”.

    Of the two, behaviorally the bonobos are much more like humans. Among other distinctions, bonobos females are sexually receptive at all times, and bonobos engage in sex even more often than humans do. (And interestingly, they all seem to be bisexual.)

    Among the primates, they seem to be the ones who have embraced the principle, “Make love, not war.” (More about them here.)

  17. You really like those bonobos, Steve. You mentioned them in a comment at another post of mine, the one where I was talking about that gorilla who supposedly knows American Sign Language.


  18. Excellent post, James. Of course I’d think so; I made essentially the same point over at Annika’s Journal, except that I blame Disney more than anyone else.

    The best line I have seen on this incident, anywhere, comes from Ace:

    “Eminent primate researcher Dr. David Atlee was asked why ‘reason’ proved futile in calming the chimps. ‘I would have to view the video to watch for hostility displays and behavioral clues, but at the present moment, my working theory is that attempts to reason with them failed because they’re fucking monkeys.'”

    (I know, I know — chimps are apes, not monkeys. That’s beside the point.)

  19. You should see animal documentaries in Japan. None of that sweetness stuff. Lions maul and tear into zebras, still alive and thrashing as the pride feeds. Then they screw. All the wonders of nature right there on camera.

    In one, a cute little penguin is hatched, is fed for weeks, then follows is mommy into the water for its first swim. Fow about 20 minutes we watch this little penguin. It then promptly gets tangled in seaweed, is caught by a large gull and eaten right in front of us.

  20. “speaking of asking for trouble: guys who walk around with big constrictor snakes draped over their necks.”

    I was told by a boa owner that smart boa owners only let the snake out of the cage if there is more than one person present.

  21. We got our house, in a canyon north of Boulder, soon after the previous owner looked up from a healing session she was conducting and watched a mountain lion take the family cat off a swingset they had put up for their 4-year-old. Two weeks ago, 300 yards up the road, a lion took a fawn under the volleyball net in the sideyard of a couple with 2-year-old twins.

    I keep a .45 handy, and a shotgun with slugs near the dog run. The dog is locked up unless we are actively watching it. I hunt. The rare times I’ve seen lions in the wild are among the high points of my hunting life. I don’t want to hunt them, and regard them half with reverence, half with professional courtesy, as one big predator to another. But if it comes to it, the dog’s mine, and I protect what’s mine.

  22. I think I precipitated this thread. I live in the middle of a medium size city (Columbus, OH), and I have done so on and off for a good chunk of my half-century plus. During that time the edge of the city has pushed farther and farther out into the surrounding countryside.

    When I was a child, no one saw critters around here except for little birds and the occasional possum. I have lived in the same house here for almost 20 years. When we moved in, we would see the occasional racoon, but it was occasion for excitement when my wife spotted a fox at the end of the street. A few years ago we started seeing deer on the other side of the street which abuts the charmingly named Alum Creek.

    Within the last two years our yard has become infested with the rats on stilts which eat our hostas and make a mess of things. A conversation with the Citiy’s animal control officer, who related just how pestiferous and nuisance making the wretched things can be, set me to thinking. If we have deer, how long will it be before we have things that regard deer as tasty treats? like cougars and wolves.

    Then last week the local fish wrapper ran this article: Predators may follow deer into urban areas, by Dave Golowenski, Columbus Dispatch, Sunday, March 06, 2005 [$ubscrition site]:

    Deer hunts are held in Gahanna and New Albany and at Alum Creek State Park because, in essence, those areas represent a most unnatural but not unusual state. In such an unnatural state, whitetail numbers can grow pretty much unchecked, habitat and ornamental destruction inevitably result, and public safety, particularly where traffic is concerned, becomes compromised. When those things happen, pressure, based on a community’s tolerance threshold, mounts to force reduction of the local herd. . .

    An intriguing essay, written by Peter Canby and entitled “The cat came back: Alpha predators and the new wilderness” appears in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine. The article postulates why large predators appear to be re-establishing their dominance in some urban areas, though none close to Columbus. A case in point: Boulder, Colo., a city of 300,000 people that apparently also holds a thriving mountain lion population. . . Though attacks on humans and pets remain occasional, chilling is the fact that they have occurred within earshot of children playing and traffic moving. The cats, in other words, feel right at home. . .

    Ohio, outside of pens, holds no known wolves or cougars, but that’s not the case with coyotes, bobcats and black bears, all present after years of absence. Coyotes are now thriving, to the detriment, some insist, of foxes and other relatively harmless species that for a time had the land, humans excepted, all to themselves. Bobcats, though hardly cougars in size or strength or potential for lethality, seem to be finding southeastern Ohio more and more to their liking. In 2004, there were 14 confirmed sightings and 52 that were unverified. Encounters with black bears, especially when children are involved, can be unnerving if not dangerous. In 2004, 16 different black bears were seen a total of 46 times, mostly in northeastern and southeastern counties. That was up from 18 confirmed sightings in 2003. Lion sightings, though apt to grab overheated media attention, were not confirmed in 2004 and so can be counted until further notice with UFOs, Sasquatch and straight-talking politicians as figments of the popular imagination. But that doesn’t mean one of those figments — and a lion seems not the least likely of the bunch — might not show up someday.

    So I wrote Jim and asked the next logical question: “Will a 9 mm do? Or are we going to carry need more serious stuff on our morning walk?”

    Jim’s answer is given at his other blog. Another possibility is a return to walled cities, which would be pretty neat.

  23. Yehudit, re. the boa constrictors:

    Haven’t heard of any reports lately, but the snakes (refugee pets from the east coast, no doubt) have found the Everglades to their likeing. I’m aware of two legit reports of these reptiles attacking large gators (one was successful, one not) and that rangers in the national park have a program aimed at their elimination. One imagines that it’s too late for that to be entirely successful.

    “Don’t go hiking alone and carry a weapon” and seems to be the key to staying alive and well doesn’t it?

  24. I think I precipitated this thread.

    You sure did, Steve! That’s what you get when you ask someone who’s an outdoorsman and a self protection expert which handgun would be useful in a wild animal attack.

    It was a good question, very thought provoking. I’m glad you sent me that Email.


  25. Years ago a friend who worked in a sporting goods store had a customer come in and ask for something to catch snakes. My friend pulled a 12 gauge shotgun off the rack.

  26. I have always, always taken a weapon of some sort with me when I go camping, deep woods/mountain hiking…I have never ever wanted to have that sinking feeling of being caught in an unlikely but threatening situation from other humans or animals and thinking about that 9mm pistol tucked away in my safe at home….

  27. James, you da man.
    Ya’ll have mentioned chimps, dolphins and catamounts (ie. mountain lions), but have you seen the documentary on the babbling Baboons of Ethiopia?

    Their groups venture out in the open, with the high-ranking members sequestered in the center of the troop, and the low rankers on the periphery. The entire group is abuzz with social chatter. But one ear is tuned to the alarmists on the fringes. They are the first to see their most feared predator, the leopard, and most likely to become its prey. And their alarms stimulate the troop to flee or fight.

    Am I the only one detecting a similarity with our mainstream media here?

    Or how about the Baboons of the Northern Arabian Peninsula? Here dominant males court lower ranking males and copulate with them to curry their assistance in enlarging and protecting the dominant baboon’s harem.

    Baboon society carries numerous lessons for any student of human behavior, lessons many would rather not have to ponder.

  28. commandercornflake:
    “I can only take comfort in the fact that selection will act against those who behave idiotically (losing one’s genitals is a significant breeding deterrent).”

    I agree, but the target of this attack was 62 yrs old, and so, unfortunately, has probably already passed on his genes…

    MP: did your friends consider giving the dog up for adoption?

  29. There was a nature show on some years ago that showed the visceral hate between lions and hyenas.

    A male lion was going off to do whatever it is that lions do and a hyena “razzed” him. He came charging back, chased down the hyena, grabbed it by the neck and throttled it until it was dead.

    He then turned away and resumed his journey.

    The hyena wasn’t food, it wasn’t threatening any other members of the pride – it just pissed him off.

  30. Keith,
    I saw a documentary on the feud between Lions and Hyenas that was fascinating, Eternal Enemies, and it showed footage you describe (link below). Also, I went on safari in Botswana where it was filmed and witnessed one pride of lions hunting another pride that had crossed into their territory while chasing prey. The infiltrators got away, but our guide assured us the home pride would kill any foreign lions they caught. So much for the fantasy that animals only kill to eat.


  31. There’s a lot about lions that many people don’t know. The core of a pride is the females, but there are usually two or three males associated with the pride, which will have a lot more females than that.

    Which means there are a lot of males who don’t have prides, and want to. They also roam in groups, and occasionally they make a challenge to the males in a pride to try to take it over. Those fights can get pretty vicious.

    If the new males win, killing and/or chasing away the previous males, the first thing the new males do is to kill all the cubs, offspring of the previous males. This causes all the females to come into oestrus so that the new males can breed with them and start making cubs of their own.

  32. OT –

    Hello Steven,

    I miss your USS Clueless site – it was an everyday must-read for me (and other thousands …).

    I hope that you’re feeling well.


  33. Hello! Does anyone know any information on why budgerigars are similar to red deer relating to oestrus? I know its linked because the males can both induce oestrus but there is so little information available and i’m also wondering if there is anything else such as promoting testicular growth as seen in the budgerigars species!

    Any information i will be so greatful!

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