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Searchers comb mountain for missing chimpanzee

Moe, formerly of West Covina, vanished from a wild animal compound near Devore.

July 01, 2008|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

More couch potato than jungle swinger, Moe the chimp used to relax by watching animal shows at home on TV rather than romping through rain forests.

That's why his owners were frantic Monday to find the 42-year-old chimpanzee raised in captivity who apparently disappeared from a refuge into San Bernardino County's mountains.

A West Covina celebrity for decades, Moe is said to have been rescued from Tanzanian poachers in 1967 by St. James Davis. Moe showed up at local ribbon-cutting ceremonies and helped sell Girl Scout cookies, dressed sportily in the latest fashion.

But he was ousted from West Covina after several biting incidents. For the last decade he has lived in wild-animal refuges and centers.

Moe vanished Friday from Jungle Exotics, a compound near Devore. Searchers were continuing to look for the 125-pound, 3-foot-tall animal as Davis and his wife, LaDonna, fretted over his safety.

"This is a new environment for him, and we don't know if he can survive," said LaDonna Davis.

Added her husband: "He's more of a domesticated pet than anything wild."

Not that chimpanzees are fragile jungle flowers, as St. James Davis can attest.

The 65-year-old former NASCAR driver lost all of his fingers, an eye, his nose, parts of his cheek and lips, and pieces of his torso to attacking chimpanzees in 2005. The animals pounced after apparently becoming jealous that Davis was preparing to present a birthday cake to Moe at their refuge.

Davis sat in a wheelchair and struggled to speak as he told of the hunt taking place above Jungle Exotics, which houses wild animals used in the movie and television industry. It was Moe's fourth home since authorities removed him from the Davises' West Covina home after he mauled a police officer's hand and bit off a woman's fingertip in two 1998 incidents.

"From the helicopter they did find a couple of water holes up there," Davis said. "They did see three black bears. Moe's quite friendly with dogs and cats, but I don't know if a wolf or a bobcat or something comes up, what's going to happen. Hopefully he'll run away or get in a tree."

Davis and his wife met with reporters at lawyer Gloria Allred's Wilshire Boulevard office. She represented them in their earlier struggle to keep the chimp in their home.

So far the search has been a privately organized affair, although San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies and firefighters have joined in the hunt, according to LaDonna Davis.

A chartered helicopter has flown low over the San Bernardino National Forest in hopes of scaring the chimpanzee into the open.

There have been scattered reports of missing chickens and garden hoses turned on in the vicinity of the hunt -- but no solid evidence that Moe is to blame.

"They've positioned people about every 300 feet in cars. Their job is to keep a lookout and see if they can see movement anywhere. Thank goodness for people willing to do this," LaDonna Davis said. "A lot of people on horseback have offered their services, a lot of hikers."

Allred stressed that volunteer searchers should not approach Moe but instead call the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department. "This is a task for animal control, not the public," she said.

Joe Camp, an owner of Jungle Exotics, said early Monday evening that Moe was still missing. "We don't know if he is a long way away or if he's sitting right here watching us and waiting to come back home," Camp said. "The general public has to be advised not to go near it. We're going to try to talk him back home."

St. James Davis agreed that Moe should not be crowded or cornered. But he described the chimp as a babe in the woods when it comes to freedom.

"He's like our only kid. Even at 20 or 30 he still wanted to live at home, and we thought we had the best of both worlds," Davis said.

"I can't believe that with all these people's efforts we haven't seen him. How often do you see a cute chimpanzee walking around?

"He has no blankets or supplies or clothes to wear. We always provided for him -- he never had to think where the next meal's coming from or when he's going to get a drink or another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He always had it provided. Now he's going to have to think for himself."

Moe likes Popsicles, sunflower seeds, grapes and other fruit and vegetables "as long as it's clean and not overripe," Davis said. He suggested that people who have hunting dogs might be helpful in the search because there are blankets and articles of clothing with Moe's scent on them.

"I don't believe he's dangerous. He's never shown hostility to anybody," Davis said. "Moe doesn't know how much strength he's got because he never had to use it on anything."

Allred quickly interjected a disclaimer. "But we don't know what his reaction might be" if approached, she warned.

LaDonna Davis, who lost a thumb during the 2005 chimp attack, became emotional as she described Moe.

"He's a nice animal. He deserves to be safe, and he's not, and I don't know what to do about it," she said.

"I'm really afraid for him. He's never been anywhere close to something like this. I'm really afraid for him."

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

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