The Lucy Story
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 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.’ (Fouts was obviously not at all familiar with The Gambia when he makes such an assumption about the fate of Lucy’s hands and feet: 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 - this time with 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.
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’.
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 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 (sic) poachers…’ - is there another kind of poacher? And, if there is, would they be the inclined 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 the description of the state of Lucy’s remains when found by one of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Association (CRA) staff (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 CRA) and not by Carter as stated by Fouts.
According to Bruno it was some weeks after her disappearance when he found the bones - they were partly covered by fallen leaves with grass starting to grow around them. (In the high humidity and temperature of the tail-end rainy season a dead animal very quickly decomposes and the presence of wart hogs and hyenas mean that a decaying body or a skeleton are unlikely to remain undisturbed for very long.) As there was a potentially dangerous male chimp in the area Bruno quickly gathered whatever bones he could find and took them 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 they would a human daughter – except that in reality Lucy was the subject of Temerlin’s long-term research project.
When Lucy became adolescent and difficult to handle Temerlin needed a solution to a growing problem. In mid-1977 he contacted Stella in The Gambia, and it was agreed that Lucy and Marianne, a companion chimp, would become a part of 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 most definitely not a candidate for the rehabilitation process.
Unfortunately for Lucy she arrived when Stella was heavily involved in trying to integrate a group of chimps into a wild community in Senegal. (At that time wild chimp behaviour 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, undoubtedly inspired by Stella’s work, had other ideas for Lucy. Carter’s complete lack of rehab experience, and surely of all empathy, meant that she had no qualms about subjecting Lucy to the rehabilitation process. Carter, either unwilling to acknowledge, or incapable of registering, that Lucy was not a suitable candidate, was somehow able to observe and document the many years over which Lucy’s difficult and traumatic attempt at ‘adjustment’ lasted. It was an ‘adjustment’ for Lucy never was 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.)
No one involved in the Lucy saga comes out well. (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 ten years; Stella’s father, Eddie Brewer who, as director of the Wildlife Department, had the power to ensure that Lucy just ‘retired’ as Stella had planned; and Stella herself for not following up and insisting that Lucy went into ‘retirement’. (At the time of agreeing to accept Lucy into her project Stella had recognised that ‘retirement’ was probably the only humane option. On Lucy’s arrival in The Gambia it was immediately obvious that this was the only option - and Lucy’s subsequent long years of traumatic suffering confirmed this.) And sorriest of all: Carter for so personally and persistently insisting that Lucy should endure years and years of the rehabilitation process - years which Lucy so obviously found so very difficult and very confusing. As Carter herself liked to relate - Lucy had been taught sign language and she could, and she did, tell Carter in no uncertain terms that she wanted to go home! Lucy, born-in-the-USA, raised in a middle-class household and not yet a teenager chimp, very suddenly found herself an orphan and on an island in West Africa. And Carter did see when Lucy asked to go home - but never had compassion enough to care and to act on what she saw.
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 was never rehabilitated. And whilst humans did kill her it was probably not in the way Fouts and others imagined. Lucy died prematurely through being forced into a rehabilitation process that was, in her case, as unnecessary and undesirable 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.
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, various ‘confiscatees’, etc) Lucy was the only one to suffer the process and still remain essentially unrehabilitated. By her behaviour she always reminded people that her heart and her mind were elsewhere - a long, long way from Africa. Tellingly, she was the project’s only female who, having lived to reproductive age, never gave birth.
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