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One minute, harmony; the next, chimp mayhem

Lowry Park Zoo officials are trying to figure out what started a fatal fight between two long-friendly male chimps.

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published June 10, 2006


TAMPA -- Bamboo and Herman behaved like the best of friends since they were introduced five years ago, laughing and tickling each other as they played in their Lowry Park Zoo exhibit.

"Everybody considered them buddies,'' David Murphy, the zoo's veterinarian, said of the elderly chimpanzees. "They were like two old grandpas rolling around on the ground together."

On Friday, staff members were still puzzling over what prompted Bamboo to viciously attack his old friend. They were also grieving the loss of Herman, one of the zoo's oldest and most colorful characters, who blew kisses at women and was once known for smoking lighted cigarettes thrown at him by visitors.

Murphy, who has worked at the zoo since 1986, said the cause of Herman's death was still unknown. He planned to perform a necropsy Friday afternoon.

Murphy received a radio call about 12:30 p.m. Thursday alerting him to the fight. He rushed to the habitat, where zoo employees had already sprayed the chimps with water and ushered the females into the night house.

"That usually quells any kind of disturbance," Murphy said. "That didn't happen this time. The males continued to fight."

It took another ten minutes to separate the aggressive males, he said. Herman was slumped over with his head bowed.

The 42-year-old chimp's external injuries weren't extensive, Murphy said. Herman had puncture wounds on his lip and a torn fingertip and toe. He died shortly after 7 p.m. after hours of surgery.

The fight appeared to be a struggle for dominance, common in the socially complex chimp world. They have a strict hierarchal order. Females ally with males, who fight to establish their rank within the group.

Herman and Bamboo, who is 44, are the only adult male chimps at Lowry Park Zoo. There is an adolescent male, Alex, 8, who was "totally confused" by the fight, Murphy said.

There are also three females, Jamie, Rukiya and Twiggy, although Twiggy was in the night house when the fight erupted, Murphy said.

Rukiya, 26, intervened in the fight and was injured, requiring stitches. She is expected to fully recover.

Herman, who was born in Africa and lived at the zoo since 1965, was the dominant or alpha male.

Zoo officials plan to introduce another chimp to the exhibit, 6-month-old Sasha. The female arrived three weeks ago from the Montgomery Zoo in Alabama after being rejected by her birth mother.

Zookeepers hope to pair her with Rukiya, who has been a successful surrogate in the past.

Sasha has not been introduced to the exhibit, although she is being gradually matched with Rukiya. Murphy said there's no way of knowing if Sasha's behind-the-scenes presence played a role in the skirmish.

"It's possible," he said. "But that's really speculating."

Rachel Nelson, the zoo's spokeswoman, said neither Bamboo nor Herman had met Sasha.

Somehow, Bamboo knew the time was right to stage a coup.

"It's possible, although we have no way of knowing, that Bamboo sensed some kind of illness in Herman," Nelson said.

Murphy said he didn't know how long it would take to determine a cause of death. He was also unsure how the death would affect the group's social hierarchy.

The struggle for social dominance is the primary theme of a male chimp's life, said Linda Brent, the director of Chimp Haven, a retirement sanctuary for chimpanzees in Caddo Parish in Louisiana.

Skirmishes between males are common. But it's rare for those brawls to end in serious injury or death, she said.

Brent said she couldn't speculate as to why the fight was so vicious.

"Chimps should be respected," she said. "They are wild animals."

With their humanlike behavior and soulful eyes, chimpanzees may seem cute. But they can be aggressive, and attacks aren't uncommon. The primates generally weigh between 80 and 115 pounds and are much stronger than men, according to the Jane Goodall Institute.

In April, a group of chimpanzees fled a preserve in Sierra Leone and attacked a group of sightseers.

In March 2005, two chimps escaped from their cage at a Bakersfield, Calif., animal sanctuary and mauled a 62-year-old man before they were shot by the man's son-in-law.

But Herman was always known as a gentle soul, Murphy said. A non-breeder, he preferred human women to chimps and was known to flirt with zoo visitors by blowing them kisses.

"He was kind of a wimpy male," Murphy said.

Zookeepers were devastated by Herman's death. The zoo is planning a memorial service and might install a plaque in the chimp's honor.

Herman was one of the original 32 animals at Lowry Park Zoo. Born in Liberia, Africa, he was one of two chimps captured by Tampa businessman Edward Shultz, who was in Liberia at the time for business.

Shultz treated Herman and the other chimp, a female named Guita, like children, and taught them to eat with a fork. He brought them back, and, when they grew too big for him to handle, sold them to the zoo.

Guita died about the time the old zoo closed, about 1988, Murphy said. Herman and his cohorts moved into the new $20-million facility that year.

Herman charmed crowds by throwing fistfuls of dirt at them. Old-timers occasionally pitched him a cigarette, a throw-back to the days when he would smoke the lighted cigarettes people would give him at the old zoo.

The chimpanzee exhibit at Lowry Park Zoo was closed Friday. It is expected to reopen today.

There were no signs alerting the public to Herman's death, but guides told anyone who inquired.

A group of students from St. John Lutheran School in Ocala paused in front of the chimp exhibit Friday.

"Where are all the monkeys?" asked a girl with blond pigtails.

Their teacher, Pam Havener, said she was sorry about Herman's death.

"I remember him from last time we came," said Havener. "He was very entertaining. He was the only one of them you'd be watching because he had so many antics."

Tim Musgrave, 51, a Lakeland resident, said the incident was sad but not unpredictable.

"Fights like these happen every day in the wild," Musgrave said. "The strong survive."

Times staff writer Tom French and staff researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Carrie Weimar can be reached at (813) 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com