Last week in Stamford, Conn., a chimpanzee named Travis was shot and killed after he mauled a friend of his owner. The chimpanzee lived with a widow, eating lobster and ice cream at the table, wearing human clothes and entertaining himself with a computer and television.
But as the tragedy made clear, a chimpanzee can never be totally domesticated.
The human brain is more highly developed than that of any other living creature. So why can't we learn that wild animals simply do not make good "pets"?
I believe it has a great deal to do with the fact that chimpanzees are so frequently used in entertainment and advertising. Only a month ago, Americans watching the Super Bowl may have laughed at an ad in which chimpanzees dressed as mechanics worked on a car. They seemed cute, funny and even lovable. Is it any wonder viewers might think that chimpanzees would make great pets?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Only infant chimpanzees are used in entertainment and advertising, because as they approach maturity, at about 6 to 8 years of age, they become strong and unmanageable. Chimpanzees evolved in the tropical forests of Africa, and that's where they're suited to live, roaming in groups of their own kind. A house in Connecticut was a completely alien environment for a chimp.
Yet as a "domesticated" chimpanzee, Travis could never have returned to the wild. He had never learned the array of skills necessary to survive there. The entertainment industry and pet owners rarely, if ever, provide for the long-term care of chimpanzees. Zoos don't want them because they have not learned to interact with others of their kind. So most of these poor creatures spend the rest of their lives -- as much as 50 years or more -- in small cages in circuses, roadside attractions and, yes, even in the homes of individuals who lack the means to provide for them.
Meanwhile, more infant chimpanzees are bred to maintain the supply for the entertainment industry.
The use of chimpanzees in entertainment and advertising not only condemns chimpanzees to lives they were not meant to live, it makes it hard for people to believe that these apes are actually endangered in the wild. But they are.
Chimpanzees are losing habitat, in part because of commercial logging and in part because of encroachment by ever-growing human populations who live in poverty and cut down the forest to grow crops and graze cattle. This deforestation also contributes significantly to climate change. And sometimes chimpanzees are caught up in ethnic conflicts or killed for their meat, a practice that is believed to have led to the human strains of HIV.
The Connecticut tragedy should remind us not just that chimpanzees do not make good pets but that their fate is intimately tied to ours.