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A Primate Party Gone Horribly Awry

A West Covina couple raised Moe the chimpanzee like a son. On his birthday, that devotion nearly cost them their lives.

March 05, 2005|David Pierson and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

HAVILAH, Calif. -- St. James and LaDonna Davis raised Moe the chimpanzee as their son. That was the word they used to describe him, and that was how they treated him -- like a hairy, rambunctious child who was a pampered member of the family.

They taught him to wear clothes, to take showers, to use the toilet and to watch TV in their West Covina home. They had their picture taken in bed with him.

On Thursday, the day they marked as Moe's 39th birthday, their love for the chimp nearly cost them their lives.

The Davises were visiting Moe at an animal sanctuary in the hills of eastern Kern County -- a place to which he had been banished after biting a woman -- when they were attacked by two other chimps and brutally mauled.

St. James Davis took the brunt of the attack, the ferocity of which left paramedics stunned.

"I had no idea a chimpanzee was capable of doing that to a human," said Kern County Fire Capt. Curt Merrell, who was among the first on the scene.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 10, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Chimpanzee attack -- An article in Saturday's Section A about an attack by chimpanzees said that chimps kill much larger animals in the wild. Chimpanzees' main prey are colobus monkeys, which are smaller. They also are known to kill bush pigs, young antelope and baboons, all of which tend to be smaller.

Davis, 62, who remained in critical condition Friday at Loma Linda University Medical Center, was badly disfigured. According to his wife, he lost all the fingers from both hands, an eye, part of his nose, cheek and lips, and part of his buttocks. His foot was mutilated and his heel bone was cracked.

"They don't think he's ever going to be the same," LaDonna Davis said, her voice strong but her hands shaking.

She spoke outside the couple's home Friday evening, having been released from Kern Medical Center. She lost a thumb in the attack.

LaDonna, 64, said she was sitting at a table with her husband, getting ready to cut the chimp's birthday cake, when she saw the two other chimps out of the corner of her eye. Moe, according to other accounts, was still in his cage.

"I turned around and they started charging," she said. One of the chimps pushed her against her husband, and at some point her left thumb was bitten off, she said.

"James saw that, pushed me behind a table and took the brunt of everything else," she said.

The attack ended when the son-in-law of the sanctuary's owners shot and killed the two rampaging chimps. Moe was uninjured.

"He stayed out of this one," said Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Among the questions for which there were no immediate answers: How did the two chimps escape? And why did they attack?

The chimpanzees were housed in outdoor cages at the Animal Haven Ranch, a private sanctuary tucked into a grassy fold in the hills a few miles south of Lake Isabella. The ranch is owned by Ralph and Virginia Brauer and has been licensed by the state since 1996 to take in primates, usually from zoos that no longer want them.

According to Kern County Sheriff's Cmdr. Hal Chealander, Virginia Brauer was at home Thursday morning when she was startled to discover that four chimps -- two young males and two older females -- had gotten out of their cage and entered her home.

She reportedly detained the two females, Suzie, 59, and Bones, 49. (Both are quite old for chimps, who rarely live past 50 in the wild or 60 in captivity, according to the Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group.)

The male chimps -- Buddy, 15, and Ollie, 13 -- escaped. Virginia Brauer gave chase, and soon found the chimps mauling the Davises, Chealander said.

"Get your gun!" Brauer yelled to her son-in-law, Mark Carruthers, who was at her home with his wife and infant son, Chealander said. Carruthers, 32, grabbed a .45-caliber revolver and headed toward the cages.

Male chimps usually stand about 4 to 5 1/2 feet tall and weigh from 100 to 120 pounds, experts say. They are strong and aggressive animals who routinely kill much larger creatures in the wild. Their upper-body strength is said to be at least five times that of the average human.

"These are vicious, vicious animals that can pick you up and throw you across the room," said Dr. Tom Jenkins, a veterinarian in Lake Isabella who is familiar with the Brauers' sanctuary.

Buddy, the 15-year-old, was the primary attacker, according to Chealander. The younger primate, Ollie, "was looking very aggressive and running around."

Carruthers shot Ollie, but the shot had no apparent effect. He reloaded with more powerful, fully jacketed ammunition, this time turning on Buddy.

Carruthers "kneeled down, got pretty close and shot the first chimp in the head," Chealander said. "When he fell off Mr. Davis, the second chimp attacked Mr. Davis and dragged him down a walkway by the back of the house.... By this time, Mr. Davis was really torn up."

Carruthers followed, and shot the second chimp in the head, ending the attack.

Merrell, the paramedic, said he could hardly believe the damage when he arrived at the ranch. "It looked like a grizzly bear attack," he said.

Merrell described St. James Davis' injuries as among the worst he had ever seen, but added that he was astonished to find Davis conscious and speaking.

"It was unbelievable," Merrell said.

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