The South African chimp sanctuary where a Texas graduate student was mauled by two chimpanzees last week is safe and has not changed its safety protocols in the wake of the accident, officials said today.
"We still maintain that we are a safe facility," Eugene Cussons, director at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden near Johannesburg, said today on "Good Morning America." "As far as our protocols go to ensure the safety of visitors coming here, it's still the status quo."
Cussons was one of the first to respond to the calls for help Thursday after Andrew Oberle, a 26-year-old graduate student who had been spending his summer conducting research at the institute, was attacked by two chimpanzees after he stepped into a restricted area while leading a tour.
His condition has been upgraded to stable.
Cussons, appearing on "GMA" today feet from where the accident occurred, provided a timeline of what happened in the first moments after he received word of the attack.
"I got the phone call from the sanctuary manager that said to me, 'Listen, we need to invoke lethal force protocol in order to save Andrew's life,'" he said. "So at that point I raced up with a vehicle, got to the scene, spotted the two chimpanzees, immediately jumped out of the vehicle and charged towards them with a handgun and fired two warning rounds into the air.
"Normally, this would chase any chimpanzees off that might be in attack mode but these two chimpanzees were highly motivated. They were hyped up. So I retreated back to my vehicle and fired a third warning round out of the window, right next to the chimpanzee that was now about 30 meters [about 100 feet] from me," Cussons said. "Finally, I closed my window up and the chimpanzee jumped onto the bottom of my vehicle and started beating through my windshield.
"I was then forced to fire a round at the chimpanzee, warning the chimpanzee because my intention at that point was that I needed to get to Andy so there was no other alternative option," he said. "The absolute necessity there was how to save human life."
After the fourth round was fired, the chimps moved away, allowing Cussons and first responders to get to Oberle, who suffered huge cuts to his head and face that left his skull and facial bones exposed.
Oberle, an anthropology major at the University of Texas at San Antonio, underwent six hours of surgery in a South African hospital Sunday. His parents arrived at the hospital from the United States. this morning to be with their son.
"As far as the information that we've received, he is in stable condition," Cussons said. "We are hurting at the sanctuary in the sense that we've witnessed a lot of things and we're very sorry for what happened and we're just so sorry for the family to have to endure this and for Andy to have to go through this."
The institute's internal investigation of the attack, launched immediately after the attack occurred, shows that the two male chimps, Nikki and Amadeus, responded to Oberle's crossing into a "no-go zone" in one of two fences separating him from the animals. Oberle did not have clearance to be standing in the area past the public fence, Cussons said.
"I think Andy made a judgment here by entering the 'no-go zone' and getting too close to the fence," Cussons said.
The two chimpanzees pulled Oberle halfway under the fence by his foot and then used the space created by his body to escape the restricted area. They then dragged Oberle about 100 feet into the public area and continued to maul him.
"They have no anger," Cussons said of the chimps. "This is why we come to the conclusion, as far as our expertise goes, that it was a territorial defense. They directed the violence towards Andrew whom they feel was infringing on their territory."
The chimpanzee shot by Cussons after the attack was taken to the Johannesburg Zoo where he is healing, according to officials. Neither of the chimps will be euthanized.
Oberle has not been able to speak yet to explain why he went into the restricted zone. His friends in Texas are raising funds for his care and his father said he will likely return to his research work with the animals if he is able.
"I'm sure if he's able to do it, that he is probably going to be right back there when he can," Andrew Oberle Sr. said. "That is what he wants to be doing."
The institute also hopes to return to normal and return to its work of opening the world of chimpanzees to the public.
"We still maintain that we are a safe facility and that we need the support of the public also to understand that these are dangerous animals," Cussons said. "These are wild and dangerous animals and they need to respect the laws and regulations that we put in place."