Imagine a creature that is four times stronger than a man, with four grasping hands and inch long fangs. It’s covered in bristling fur, it hoots and hollers like an animal, and it is incredibly agile. It’s smart too, almost as smart as a human. As if that’s not bad enough, it’s incredibly temperamental–it will turn on you in an instant, with little or no warning, and can quite literally rip your face off.
You might think I am talking about a monster from one of those B-movies I like so much, but I am talking about a very real animal, one that shares 98% of its genes in common with us. Its Latin name is Pan troglodytes, but you probably know it by its common name–the chimpanzee.
Now you might think I’m being melodramatic, but I am not. Yesterday in Las Vegas, a pair of chimps escaped from a private residence and put an entire neighborhood at risk. One of the chimps was shot and the other tranquilized and returned to her cage. Luckily, nobody was hurt. With all of the people around–including a lot of kids–the situation could have ended very badly. Other instances where chimps sprang loose from their cages ended with people being mutilated if not killed.
When chimps attack, it is brutal. They go out of their way to incapacitate their victims, first going for hands and feet, then the face, and then the genitals. Yes, chimps will not only rip your face off but they will neuter you as well. They manage all of this with one inch fangs and thick, tough fingernails.
Chimps do that sort of thing to each other often in the wild. They are a very aggressive species, and they will quite literally go to war with other troops of chimps over territory. But those are wild chimps. Believe it or not, “domestic” chimps are a lot more dangerous than their wild cousins. That is because wild chimps know how to be chimps, while domestic chimps raised by humans don’t. You might think that’s a good thing, given chimps’ war-like ways, but it isn’t. While chimps are violent in the wild, like most animals they will attempt to intimidate an enemy and make it give ground rather than fight. From a biological standpoint that makes more sense, because fighting is risky business–you’re as likely to get injured as your foe. So, wild chimps give threat displays that will warn other chimps of an impending attack and give them time to back off in an attempt to avoid a fight.
“Domestic” chimps, never having lived with other chimps, do not learn these threat displays. Their attacks come completely without warning–they could go from playing one moment to chewing a hand to a stump the next. Put short, chimpanzees are not cute, cuddly pets. Not only are they wild animals, but they are our closest living relatives, and they deserve a healthy amount of respect. They should not be kept caged by private amateurs, who often hold the delusion that they have some sort of special bond with these animals. If chimps are going to be held in captivity, it should be by trained professionals for the purposes of conservation and education. To do anything else is to needlessly risk human and chimp lives.
Chimps are not the only exotic animals being held this way, and they might not even be the most dangerous. There are more tigers in the United States than live in the wild in India, and many of them are kept by private owners. Many states have no laws regulating the ownership of exotic animals, and there are no federal laws on the books. Think about that a moment. There are more laws for dog owners than for people who want to buy a tiger or a chimp. If that isn’t crazy, I don’t know what is!
There are bigger problems than simple animal attacks, although those are terrible enough. Exotic animals can bring contagious diseases with them, that local human and animal populations could not have resistances to. For example, monkeys carry Herpes B, a strain of the herpes virus they can spread through bites and scratches that, in humans, can cause brain swelling and in rare cases death. What’s more, some African monkeys carry Ebola Marburg. Ebola Marburg is so far not able to cross the species barrier as far as I know, but it is a cousin to the infamous Ebola Zaire, a hemorrhagic fever that basically liquifies a person’s insides. It has a mortality rate of 80-90%. Not precisely something you want in the neighborhood.
Plus, exotic animals often become invasive species, crowding out native species in competition for similar resources and thus destroying the local ecosystems. A great example of this is the veritable invasion of pythons and boa constrictors in Florida. These species entered the US as pets, and they entered the wild when owners got rid of them. They bred quickly, having no natural predators to keep their numbers in check, and now they’re spreading to other states, which have become more hospitable to their taste for warmer climates as global warming slowly ekes the temperatures up year after year.
The point is that we need to make a concerted effort to protect both human and animal lives, to pass better laws to curb the inflow of exotic animals into this country. A few people’s selfishness and ignorance should not be allowed to put the larger community at risk.