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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."
This myth continues to be repeated and re-quoted from book to book. Whilst it does remain a remote possibility that Lucy was shot, there is not a single piece of evidence to support such a claim.

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?

--Stella Brewer
Founder and chair
Rehabilitation Trust
P.O. Box 2208
Serrekunda, Gambia
Phone: 220 497554


Editor's note:
Lucy was born in 1964 at Noell's Ark Chimp Farm in Palm Harbor, Florida, founded in 1940 by carnival performers Bob and Mae Noell. Lucy was either leased or sold as an infant to language researcher William Lemmon, and was fostered by Maurice and Jane Temerlin. Maurice Temerlin recalled her childhood in Growing Up Human (1975). She learned American sign language from Roger Fouts, who later founded the Washoe Project to house his retired research chimps. The Temerlins took her to Gambia in September 1977 for introduction to the wild by Janis Carter. Carter lived on the island refuge herself where Lucy was released, along with other chimpanzees who were much less habituated to humans.


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 intruders."

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.