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No Charges Filed in Chimps' Attack

Kern County D.A. says ranch owners secured the animals, but one was able to slip a lock. A West Covina man was terribly maimed.

April 21, 2005|Amanda Covarrubias and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

Chimpanzees who viciously attacked a man last month at an animal sanctuary near Bakersfield managed to open the locked gate to their enclosure, according to a report released Wednesday by the Kern County Sheriff's Department.

The report, which offered the first full account of the March 3 attack that left a West Covina man maimed and near death, came as prosecutors announced that the operators of the Animal Haven Ranch would not face criminal charges.

Virginia Brauer, who owns the ranch with her husband, Ralph, was cleaning the cages that morning and left two of three gates within the chimpanzee compound unlocked, investigators said. The four chimps pushed those doors open.

At the third gate, authorities said, one of the chimps pulled out a 4-inch steel pin that locked the door in place.

Animal behavior experts consulted by the district attorney believe that the chimps were determined to get out of the enclosure because they were jealous of the attention that LaDonna and St. James Davis were giving to their own chimp, Moe, who lives at the sanctuary. The couple had gone to the private sanctuary south of Lake Isabella that day with a cake to celebrate the chimp's birthday.

Wildlife experts said Wednesday that they were not surprised the chimps got free.

"Chimps are incredibly smart animals. They manipulate things all the time. They're thinkers," said Jennie McNary, curator of mammals at the Los Angeles Zoo. "They have the ability to reason and figure things out. They can handle things with their fingers just like we can. It's certainly within their ability to unlock a lock with a key."

Although the Sheriff's Department and the state Department of Fish and Game urged prosecutors to file charges against Virginia Brauer, Kern County Dist. Atty. Edward Jagels concluded that her actions were not criminal.

"The chimps were locked in a locked cage," Jagels said Wednesday. "What you have is a terrible tragedy, but it is not a crime."

According to investigators, the two male and two female chimpanzees were in an open, caged area while Brauer was cleaning the cinder-block bunkhouse where they slept and watched TV. The steel door that leads to the bunkhouse was locked.

When the Davises arrived, Brauer hurriedly left the bunkhouse to greet them and help carry food they had brought. But she had not secured the door inside the bunkhouse or the one that leads outside.

One of the female chimps probably reached about 18 inches through a tight space between the chain-link fence and the block wall and popped the metal pin out of the steel door's locking mechanism. She then turned 90 degrees and slid the door open to the bunkhouse.

Once inside, the chimps got free by pushing open the two unlocked doors. The two males attacked the Davises for up to seven minutes before a worker at the facility shot the animals. The females ran into the mountains, where they were later caught.

St. James Davis lost all of his fingers from both hands, an eye, part of his nose, cheek and lips, and part of his buttocks. The chimps bit off LaDonna Davis' thumb.

Some ape experts said chimpanzees are highly intelligent creatures who could easily unlock some cage doors.

"They have nothing but time on their hands," said Deborah Fouts, director of the Chimp and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University. "They probably know every inch of [the enclosure]. Those of us who have worked with captive chimpanzees know that they're ingenious and that they figure ways to get out, especially if they're bored and have nothing else to do."

She said chimps in Zambia have learned that if they lean branches against electrified fences, they can climb over without being shocked.

Her institute has footage of chimps trying to pick a lock with a piece of metal. Chimpanzees in Oklahoma have spent hours trying to unravel chain-link fences with some success, Fouts added.

"It's completely easy to understand how they could do this," Fouts said. "They know their area. I'm surprised Ms. Brauer didn't know they could do this."

Experts said the ferocity of the attack on the Davises was highly unusual. Sheriff's Department and state Fish and Game officials said Brauer should have been prosecuted for three misdemeanor violations: failure to keep animals under control, failure to keep cages completely enclosed and failure to house animals to prevent escape.

But Jagels said the evidence wasn't there.

"Had there been some evidence that Mrs. Brauer was aware that the lock could be manipulated, a misdemeanor prosecution might be appropriate," Jagels said in a statement. "However, there was no such evidence."

Sheriff's Cmdr. Hal Chealander said he had no problem accepting Jagels' decision.

"It was very clear that Virginia Brauer cared very much for those animals and cared properly for them," Chealander said. "We've done our job."

Fish and Game spokesman Patrick Foy said officials would look closely at the facts before determining whether to renew the Brauers' permit to operate an animal shelter.

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