Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust

Check the validity of this site's HTML
Check the validity of this site's CSS

The Lucy Story

LUCY: born in the USA, 18 January 1966 died in The Gambia, September 1987

Although Lucy, the “ill-fated” language chimp, died way back in September 1987, the totally unfounded story that she was ‘…brutally killed by poachers...’ continues to be repeated in new publications. It is perhaps because this myth is still repeated that we continue to receive enquiries as to the events surrounding her death. To help clarify this sad saga we set out below the events as they are best known to us.

The truth is that no-one knows how Lucy died. Given that she was on one of the islands that comprise the River Gambia National Park in The Gambia then disease, a fall, drowning, snake bite, being snatched by a crocodile, lightning strike or even depression,  are each more likely causes of her death than being killed by poachers. (The very limited bush-meat trade in The Gambia rarely includes monkeys and certainly not chimpanzees which became extinct in The Gambia in, perhaps, the very early 1900s.)

Dale Peterson, author of Chimp Travels (1995), is almost certainly quoting Janis Carter - an American who arrived In The Gambia with Lucy as her carer (and who was primarily responsible for putting Lucy through her  rehabilitation ordeal) - when he writes of Lucy ‘…her hands and feet brutally  [our emphasis] severed and her skin simply stripped off…’  He certainly quotes Carter in ‘…We can only speculate that Lucy was killed – probably shot – and skinned...’  

Roger Fouts in Next of Kin (1997)  writes that: ‘Carter found Lucy’s skeleton by their old camp site….shot and skinned by human [sic] poachers…cut off her hands and feet. They were probably sold in one of the markets that also offers gorilla skulls and elephant feet.’ (Perhaps Fouts was very obviously not too familiar with The Gambia when he wrote that for his assumption about the fate of Lucy’s hands and feet is as unlikely as his assumption regarding her death. The nearest market to The Gambia offering such items is a very long way down the coast of West Africa – gorillas are not known to have ever occurred naturally in The Gambia and the last elephant was shot at the turn of the 19th century.)

In a later book, Visions of Caliban (2000), Peterson makes no mention of missing skin only of an entire skeleton, less hands and feet, being found. He goes on: ‘Perhaps, it was thought, Lucy had been shot by human [sic] intruders’.  

In Eating Apes (2003) Peterson once again recycles the story with this time Lucy being “…killed viciously and mysteriously, her hands ….etc etc”. Here he also states that: “…Lucy became pregnant and had a baby…”.  This rather damages Peterson’s credibility for Lucy was never known to become pregnant let alone give birth - despite reaching 22 years of age.

The foregoing speculations are more or less repeated in Carol Jahme’s Beauty and the Beast (2000), where Jahme also states as fact that Lucy ‘…was killed and skinned [but now] by  fishermen’.
In Eating Apes (2003) Peterson once again recycles the story with this time Lucy being “…killed viciously and mysteriously, her hands ….etc etc”. Here he also states that: “…Lucy became pregnant and had a baby…”.  This rather damages Peterson’s credibility for Lucy was never known to become pregnant let alone give birth - despite reaching 22 years of age.

Hillix & Rumbaugh in Animal Bodies Human Minds (2004) write that “Lucy nearly died on several occasions….Later she did die probably at the hands of poachers.” Whilst the first claim is true - Lucy even had at least one blood transfusion - the second claim is once again fanciful, albeit qualified, supposition. (The authors’ credibility is further compromised when they go on to state, erroneously, that “…Carter replaced the Brewers (sic) as director of the rehab centre…”)  At some point they suggest that every chimp removed from the wild deserves a lifetime of care. At least this statement shows that the authors’ hearts are of a better quality than their research! Lucy never got that care but she so easily might have done so had her carer truly cared for her.

Hurt Go Happy (2006), a novel said to be based on the ‘true story of Lucy’, states as fact that: ‘Lucy was killed by poachers in 1987’.

Why must these speculations always be couched in such dramatic terms? ‘…Shot by a poacher…’ - unlikely but, of course, not impossible. ‘…Brutally [emphasis added] killed ... by human [ditto] poachers…’ - is there another kind of poacher? And, if there is, would they be the kind to kill gently?  “…Lucy was killed viciously and mysteriously…” – perhaps ‘died from causes unknown’ would be a coroner’s verdict.  ‘…Skinned and hands and feet removed…’ – is of course pure supposition. That no-one has ever come forward to admit to seeing Lucy’s corpse with skin, etc. removed is not surprising given Bruno Bubane’s description of the state of Lucy’s remains when he found them (see below).

The known facts regarding Lucy’s death are simply that:

  • Lucy was last seen alive in mid-September, 1987; and
  • her scattered bones (not an entire skeleton) were later found by Bruno Bubane (then an employee of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Association.)

Bruno states that it was some weeks after her disappearance before he found the bones and that they were partly covered by fallen leaves with grass starting to grow around them. (The high humidity and temperature of the tail-end rainy season mean that a dead animal very quickly decomposes; the presence of wart hogs and hyenas mean that a decaying body and skeleton are unlikely to remain undisturbed for very long.) As there was a potentially dangerous male chimp in the area the bones that could be readily found were quickly gathered into a sack and taken to the mainland. (They were later returned to the island for burial.) Under such conditions the absence of skin and of the small bones of the hands and the feet is to be expected. To use such absence as an indication or ‘evidence’ of Lucy being ‘killed by poachers’ and of ‘hands and feet being cut off’ is entirely fanciful.   

A reviewer of Hurt Go Happy very aptly describes Lucy as “ill-fated” – as indeed she was. She is reported to have been born into a colony of carnival chimps in Florida and was taken from her mother when two days old. Her owner is said to have acknowledged selling her to a researcher in the Institute of Primate Studies, Oklahoma, USA, with an agreement that Lucy – as she became known - would be handed back at the end of the research period. [This reads more like a lease arrangement than a sale.] For well over a decade a number of scientists of various disciplines would become familiar with Lucy but none more so than Maurice Temerlin, an American psychotherapist, who with his wife, Jane, raised her as a human daughter – except that in reality Lucy was the subject of Temerlin’s long-term research project.

When Lucy became adolescent and hard to handle the Temerlins needed a solution to their growing problem. In mid 1977 they contacted Stella in The Gambia, and it was agreed that Lucy and Marianne, a companion chimp, could enter Stella’s chimpanzee rehabilitation project. Stella had already expressed her doubts as to Lucy’s suitability for rehabilitation given her age and background. But a relatively comfortable ‘retirement’ in The Gambia was certainly an option. The pair arrived in September 1977 and Stella’s doubts were immediately confirmed. Lucy was very obviously not a candidate for the rehab process.

Unfortunately for Lucy she arrived Stella when was heavily involved in 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 Stella, or any one else, to realise that this was an attempt more or less doomed from the outset.) This work and other personal commitments kept Stella from ensuring, as had been intended, that Lucy and Marianne retired on an island of chimp habitat with two other chimps for whom rehabilitation was also not an option. Here Lucy would have had her freedoms with chimpanzee friends but would still have had access to elements of the way of life she had experienced from birth: the food, magazines, toys, etc.

But Carter had other ideas no doubt inspired by Stella’s work - and perhaps her complete lack of rehab experience, and surely of empathy, gave her no qualms about subjecting Lucy to the rehabilitation process. Either unwilling to acknowledge or incapable of registering that Lucy was not a suitable candidate Carter was somehow able to observe and document the years of Lucy’s difficult and traumatic ‘adjustment’. It was an ‘adjustment’ because she never became truly rehabilitated. Lucy remained visibly under-weight and possibly as a consequence of this had not reproduced by the time of her death at 21 years old. (Chimpanzees normally first give birth at about 13-14 years old.)

There is not one single person involved who does not come out badly in the whole Lucy saga. (Jane Goodall  - who established the wild chimpanzee research station at Gombe in Tanzania and who has done so much for the cause of captive chimpanzees - was not in any way involved and she was very critical of Lucy’s ordeal – but even then somewhat after the event.) What a sorry bunch those involved are: the woman that sold a two day old chimp; the researcher who bought her for one of his students to experiment on; Temerlin who conducted that experiment for more than tenyears; Stella and her father, Eddie Brewer, for not being effective monitors of Carter and ensuring that Lucy just ‘retired’ as  planned. And surely, sorriest of all is Carter herself for so personally and persistently insisting that Lucy should endure years of the rehabilitation process - years which Lucy so obviously found so very difficult and very confusing. And remember given that Lucy had been taught sign language she could, and she did, tell Carter in no uncertain terms that she wanted to go home!

Hillix & Rumbaugh (ibid) quote Roger Fouts as writing: “Humans raised Lucy, taught her language and rehabilitated her. And in the end killed her.” But Lucy never was truly rehabilitated. And whilst humans did kill her it was probably not in the way Fouts imagines. Lucy was almost certainly killed through the imposition of a rehab process that was in her case as unnecessary as it was inhumane.

In truth, almost the whole of Lucy’s life - from two days after her birth - was one of manipulation solely for the benefit of a few misguided (to politely say the least) human primates.

Foot note
Out of more than 100 chimps that arrived at Stella’s project for rehab (a mix of ex-pets, drug addicts, photo props from the beaches of Spain, ex-research specimens, zoo inmates, ‘confiscatees’, etc) Lucy was the only one to suffer the process and remain essentially unrehabilitated. By her behavior she always reminded people that her heart and her mind were elsewhere - a long, long way from Africa. She was the project’s only female who, having lived to reproductive age, never gave birth.

Website design by John Marsden copyright © 2017 Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust