Director of Park Where Oberle Mauled Says Chimps Were Victims, Too

Eugene Cussons: Chimps reacted naturally to territory breach by fellow primate.

Aug. 16, 2012 — -- As Andrew Oberle, the Texas graduate student who was mauled by chimpanzees in South Africa in late June, recovers in a hospital, a director of the center where the attack took place said the chimps were victims, too.

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In his first extensive interview since the attack, Eugene Cussons, managing director of the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden, in Nelspruit, South Africa, said Nikki and Amadeus, the chimpanzees who attacked Oberle on June 28, suffered before coming to Chimpanzee Eden. Nikki was raised as a human child, and Amadeus watched his family be killed and cooked to sell as food on the roadside.

"He [Nikki] used to wear human clothes, he was shaved, it was very much like a human child," Cussons told ABC News. "Amadeus had a more traumatic past. He was just a baby and a product of the bush meat trade. Some of his family members were being cooked and served."

Oberle, 26, was leading a tour group at Chimpanzee Eden when he was attacked by two male chimps, Nikki and Amadeus. Cussons told ABC News it was a lack of judgment on Oberle's part that led to the attack.

"You have to always keep in mind that these are wild creatures," said Cussons. "You [Oberle] had a lapse in judgment across the safety boundary and get too close to the main fence, and he took his eyes off the chimpanzees when he did that."

Cussons said he believed Oberle crossed the public fence and entered a "no-go zone" just before he was attacked. From witness reports, it's believed that Oberle stepped on a rock under an electrified fence that Nikki and Amadeus viewed as their territory.

"The chimpanzee got enraged on the other side," Cussons said. "He lunged forward and tried to grab Andrew's foot from underneath the fence."

Cussons said that's when Oberle was dragged halfway under the mesh fence, struggling for his life. The electric fences had no effect on the chimpanzees.

"We know that chimpanzees can sustain electrical shock," Cussons told ABC News. "So this incredible force of this chimpanzee was coming to bear. Even though he was being shocked by the fence, he was in an absolute enraged state and he kept on trying to drag [Oberle] underneath the fence."

Oberle's body became stuck halfway under the fence, forcing Nikki and Amadeus to push Oberle back out of their compound and into the public area. The two chimpanzees then escaped their compound using the hole made by Oberle's body, grabbing and dragging him for nearly 100 feet.

Cussons said the two chimpanzees continued to maul Oberle for at least 12 minutes before Cussons himself was able to force the animals into submission by shooting Nikki in the abdomen.

"Nikki charged towards me. He felt that he could take me on," said Cussons. "I had no choice [except] to fire a round through the windshield that hit Nikki in the abdomen. He rolled off the bottom of the vehicle, but then he just started running, and I could see from the expression on his face that he was subdued."

Cussons told ABC News that people don't necessarily understand that JGI Chimp Eden's goal is to rehabilitate chimpanzees to the wild, not to showcase them as a petting zoo attraction.

"You have to understand that these chimpanzees have a semi-wild habitat, and our goal is to rehabilitate them so they become more wild," said Cussons.

Andrew Oberle Moved to U.S. Hospital, Awake and Talking; Chimps Won't Be Put Down, Official Says

Cussons said no matter the upbringing, at a certain age chimps like Nikki and Amadeus will revert back to some wild instincts, and they will become uncontrollable and extremely dangerous. Cussons said that's part of the reason the Jane Goodall Institute rescues them.

Andrew Oberle was recently transferred from a South African hospital to Saint Louis University Hospital in Saint Louis, Mo., his family said. Oberle was placed into a medically-induced coma after the attack but is now awake.

"Andrew is at Saint Louis University Hospital, awake, talking and spending time with his immediate family. We are very grateful for the help and care from Saint Louis University Hospital," Doc Coogan, Andrew Oberle's uncle, said in an exclusive interview with ABC News.

Nikki is recovering from his gunshot wound and will return to Chimpanzee Eden. Cussons said both Nikki and Amadeus will be studied before fully being reintroduced to their family group. But they will not be euthanized.

"How can you possibly want to euthanize a chimpanzee here at Chimp Eden that was just doing what comes natural, what his wild behavior is?" Cussons asked.

"They didn't try to climb over the fence because they were trying to attack a person that was taunting them. They didn't plan an escape to attack human beings. They just reacted to what was perceived as a territorial breach by another primate. And, unfortunately, it ended with Andrew being injured."

Watch the full story on "20/20: When Animals Strike Back" NOW