MONTH: November 2006
Did poachers really kill Lucy, the sign language chimp?
ANIMAL PEOPLE in June 2006 published
a review of Hurt Go Happy, a novel by Ginny Rorby, said to be
based on the true story of Lucy, a chimp who was taught American sign
language and was later sent to the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust in
Gambia. The review stated as fact that "Lucy was killed by poachers
in 1987." The truth is that we have no idea how she died. Illness,
a fall, snake bite, or even lightning strike are all more likely causes
of her death than being killed by poachers.
Dale Peterson in Chimp Travels was almost
certainly paraphrasing Janis Carter, who was greatly responsible for putting
Lucy through her rehabilitation ordeal, when he wrote of Lucy that "...her
hands and feet [were] brutally severed and her skin simply stripped off..."
He certainly quotes Carter in "...We can only speculate that Lucy
was killed--probably shot--and skinned..."
Carol Jahme's Beauty and the Beast states
as fact that Lucy "was killed and skinned by fishermen."
Lucy was last seen alive in mid-September
1987. Her widely scattered bones, not an entire skeleton, were found by
Bruno Bubane, who is still a member of our Gambia staff. He says it was
some weeks after her initial disappearance. The remains were partly covered
by fallen leaves, with grass starting to grow through them.
The high humidity of the tail-end rainy
season and the presence of wild pigs and hyenas mean that a dead animal
very quickly decomposes and a skeleton is unlikely to remain undisturbed
for very long. As there was a largish male chimp who could be dangerous
in the area, the bones that could be readily found were quickly gathered
up into a sack and taken to the mainland.
Under such conditions the lack of skin
and of the small bones of the hands and the feet is to be expected. To
state the lack of them as an indication or "evidence" of her
being shot or poached is entirely fanciful.
But reviewer Bev Pervan is right to describe
Lucy as "ill-fated." Born into a colony of carnival chimps in
Florida, she was reportedly taken from her mother when only two days old.
Her owner is said to have acknowledged selling her to the Institute of
Primate Studies in Oklahoma with an agreement that Lucy would be returned
at the end of the research period. Over the next 10-12 years a number
of researchers became familiar with Lucy, but none more so than Maurice
Temerlin, who with his wife Jane raised Lucy as a daughter. When Lucy
became adolescent and hard to handle, the Temerlins in mid-1977 contacted
my father and I, and we agreed that Lucy and Marianne, a companion chimp,
could enter the chimp rehabilitation project at Abuko Nature Reserve.
When Lucy arrived, I was heavily involved
with trying to integrate a group of chimps into a wild community in Senegal.
At that time, wild chimp behavior was not well enough known for me or
any one else to realize that this was an attempt more or less doomed from
the outset. This work and other personal commitments kept me from ensuring,
as I had intended, that Lucy and Marianne occupied an island of 300 acres
of chimp habitat with a couple of other chimps for whom rehabilitation
was also not an option. Here Lucy would have had her freedoms with chimp
friends, but would still have had access to elements of the way of life
she had experienced from birth: food, magazines, toys, etc.
Carter, who came as Lucy's caretaker,
had no qualms about subjecting Lucy to the rehabilitation process, and
was able to document the years of Lucy's difficult adjustment. I say "adjustment,"
as she never became truly rehabilitated. She remained underweight, and
although chimpanzees normally first give birth at about 13 years old,
she had not reproduced by the time of her death at 21.
There is not one single person that I
know of who does not come out badly in the whole Lucy saga except possibly
Jane Goodall, who was very critical of the venture--but somewhat after
the event. What a sorry bunch we are: the woman who sold a two day old
chimp; the researcher who bought her for one of his students to experiment
on; Maurice Temerlin, who conducted the experiment for almost 12 years;
my father and I, for not being effective monitors and ensuring that Lucy
just retired as I had planned. Perhaps sorriest of all is Carter, for
so personally insisting that Lucy should endure the rehabilitation process--which
Lucy so obviously found difficult and confusing--for so long. In truth,
Lucy's whole life was manipulated solely for the benefit of human beings.
Her death was probably the only event she suffered that was not manipulated.
For her sake can we please just leave it that way?
For almost a decade the reintroduction
was heralded as a success.
Dale Peterson interviewed numerous
sources, including both Janis Carter and Stella Brewer, in producing the
accounts of Lucy's death that appear in Chimpanzee Travels (1995), Visions
of Caliban (2000), and Eating Apes (2003). The latter was further informed
by wildlife photographer Karl Amman's independent interview of Carter.
"Her entire skeleton, minus hands
and feet, was found intact at Janis Carter's old campsite on the island,"
Peterson summarized in Visions of Caliban. "There was no evidence
of injury from a fall, no signs of attack by other animals. Death by snakebite
or a sudden viral illness seemed unlikely; Lucy would have possessed the
strength to return to a provisioning area where project workers regularly
checked on the apes. Perhaps, it was thought, Lucy had been shot by human
Wrote Roger Fouts in Next of Kin,
1997, affirming Peterson's account, "Janis Carter found Lucy's skeleton
by their old campsite. It appeared that Lucy had been shot and skinned
by human poachers...¹Whoever had killed her had cut off her hands and
feet. They were probably sold as trophies in one of the African markets
that also offer gorilla skulls and elephant feet."
The Eating Apes version synthesized
the same details.
Only one previously published account coming to the awareness of ANIMAL PEOPLE did not attribute Lucy's death to poachers. This was a single sentence by Eugene Linden, who profiled Lucy in his 1986 book Silent Partners. Linden wrote in The Octopus & The Orangutan (2002), that "despite extraordinary commitment and sacrifice on the part of Janis Carter, poor Lucy never did achieve full independence before she died," not mentioning any cause of death.