Chimp-Loving Duo Sees Their Darker Side

ByABC News

April 21, 2005 — -- When St. James Davis adopted an orphaned chimpanzee he found while on safari in Africa almost four decades ago, he hardly could have guessed how that relationship would lead to devastating trauma today.

Davis, 62, currently lies in a medically induced coma in a California hospital, his nose chewed off and his genitals and limbs severely mauled. Last month, Davis and his wife, LaDonna, were visiting the chimp they adopted at a wildlife preserve, when two other chimps attacked them.

"The big male took off to my husband's face, his head area, while he's on the ground. And the smaller one … went to his foot area," LaDonna Davis told ABC News' John Quiñones. They were "tearing away at him. And I'm begging somebody to do something here."

A ranch hand eventually shot the two chimps to death. Prosecutors said this week they won't seek criminal charges against the operator of the reserve because the animals apparently escaped on their own.

The Davises' relationship with chimpanzees began happily. When St. James first brought the orphaned chimp home, one of the first people to see him was his childhood sweetheart, LaDonna.

St. James had named the baby chimp Moe. "The very first time I met Moe, it was love at first sight," LaDonna said.

The young couple quickly incorporated him into their family. He served as the ring bearer at their wedding. He slept in their bed and dined at the family table. When he was still hungry, LaDonna Davis said, she would let Moe make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

"He'd pull the little stool, stand on the stool," she remembered. "I wouldn't say he would do an expert job, but that wasn't what it was about."

The Davises have both said Moe was like a son to them. LaDonna had cancer at an early age and had to have a hysterectomy. But she also insists, "I wasn't trying to make Moe into something that he wasn't."

Chimp or child, Moe's popularity soon spread in the Davises' town of West Covina, Calif. He was called on to entertain children, and got some work in show business. He was one of several chimps cast in the 1980s sitcom, "B.J. and the Bear."

But the welcome eventually wore off, when Moe jumped from his cage one day in 1998 and ran into the neighborhood. An accidental electric shock frightened him. Friends of the family calmed him down, but he got spooked again when the police showed up, and he attacked the squad car, then went after a cop.

Animal control officers subdued Moe with a tranquilizer gun, and Moe was returned to his cage. But a year later, Moe bit a woman's finger, and the people of West Covina demanded he be removed from their neighborhood.

"I was insulted," Davis said. "I felt betrayed by the same city that I felt we did a lot for in all the previous years."

The city charged the couple with the crime of harboring a dangerous animal, and kept Moe in custody as evidence. But after a protracted legal battle that saw the charges dropped and four more years, Moe was moved to the Animal Haven Ranch, which housed a number of retired chimp actors, in a canyon 30 miles east of Bakersfield.

LaDonna said it was a compromise they were comfortable with. But then, on March 3, the Davises went to visit Moe to celebrate his 39th birthday.

It was supposed to be like a birthday for any other child, Davis told Quiñones. They had brought Moe chocolate milk, and the chimp was clapping his hands.

"He knew that, boy, this was the time," she said. "And James kept saying, "I'm coming, I'm coming, I'm coming!"

She said she said good morning to Moe, gave him a kiss, and then set down a cake and a bag of goodies for him.

But then LaDonna realized other animals were loose. One chimp had figured out that their cages were just locked by a pin, and she was able to get a stick and push it out. She and another female escaped, along with two males.

The males attacked. "Before I could get turned back around, I was hit from behind," LaDonna said. "I must have reached my hand out to fall, and when I did, the thumb got crunched off."

Then the two males turned to St. James Davis. A ranch hand shot one of them, but had to return to the house to get more ammunition. Meanwhile, the other dragged St. James Davis another 30 feet before the ranch hand returned and shot him, too.

St. James "is covered in blood, and there are things all over the place. And I am going … frantic," LaDonna said. "I'm on my knees just rocking and telling my husband that he better not die on me. I said, 'Don't you die on me.'"

The two females were eventually recaptured.

Chimpanzees have at least three times the strength of men, and can be very aggressive in a social environment, said Jenny McNary, curator of mammals at the Los Angeles Zoo.

When males fight for dominance or territory, "you can get broken arms, broken bones," she said.

Timmi DeRosa, who founded a charity that helps care for retired apes from TV and films, said, "the first thing they do is they take off the hands, the feet, the testicles, the ears."

McNary said she hesitated to say the two slain males were motivated by jealousy, but she said they could have attacked because there was interference with the social structure.

"It could be that you are interacting with a subordinate animal, and that particular animal feels a need to show dominance over you," she said.

"If I was sitting in the back area with our chimps, and I was kind of interacting with one that I knew -- if that particular chimp was subordinate, and I was -- maybe I was feeding it grapes -- you might get a dominant chimp coming over to push that chimp out of the way or to threaten me."

Meanwhile, Moe is in seclusion back at the wildlife preserve. DeRosa said Moe was depressed for a few days, but now he's doing fine.

He's lonely, she added. "As much attention as everyone gives him, he's lonely."

Yet it's impossible to know for sure what goes on in the mind of an animal.

The Davises "think" they know, because they raised Moe like a child. Experts say you can't ascribe human qualities to an animal.

What is known is this: what happened to St. James Davis on March 3, 2005, is the same thing that happens regularly in the wild.

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