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"The adult male chimpanzee is five times as strong as a human," says Frans deWaal, 52, a professor of psychology at Emory University and research primatologist with the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta. "Long ago in the U.S.," he explains, "experiments were done that compared the chimp male's arm strength -- pulling strengths -- to that of a college football player's, and that was the proven ratio: 5-to-1. There's no way a man -- Arnold Schwarzenegger; you name the man -- there's no way he's going to hold his own against the male chimpanzee.
"It's an extremely unfortunate circumstance," says deWaal after being told the details of Suzy's death. "If the kids had not been there, they would have tranquilized the chimps, and nothing would've happened. But the kids, being kids, they were not able to sit and be patient -- because that's what they should have done, of course, just stayed in the car, turned the music down and waited until things calmed down.
"They could have gotten killed," continues deWaal. "Normally, in a situation like that when they're loose, if familiar people approach them, especially people they like, and they act calmly, then the chimps will also act calmly. And tranquilizing may not even be necessary. But if strangers throw stones at them, yeah, they're going to throw stones back. The dog probably also did not help, because chimps hate dogs in general. And when you agitate them, they become even more dangerous. So the approach to take is to try to calm them down. But, you know, that's hard to expect from a 17-year-old who has never been around a chimp.
"Though I don't sympathize with people carrying guns and shooting at things," deWaal surmises, "it seems unfair to lay all the blame on the boy. I think there's blame on both sides. If these people have 23 chimps over there, they have an obligation to inform the community about what it means when a chimp escapes or to make sure it doesn't happen at all."
Mike Casey hasn't seen the need to educate his neighbors about the chimps: "It happens so rarely and because everybody here has grown up with the chimps."
Like most primate researchers, deWaal disavows the practice of showing chimps for entertainment, such as the events put on by Chimparty. "I think it's degrading for the chimps to be dressed up as clowns, almost," he says. "I don't think that's funny at all."
It's comments such as this one -- along with all the publicity from Suzy's shooting -- that have prompted the Caseys to retool the image of Chimparty. Started in 1992, Chimparty has allowed thousands of kids and adults to get up close and personal with a chimpanzee. No more, says Mike Casey. "Chimparty is no longer going to do chimp parties per se," he says. "We intend to apply for nonprofit status. We're thinking of opening to the public on an appointment basis. We may accept college students who want to do behavioral studies. We're going to reach out to touch a different side of the community.
"Don't get me wrong," he goes on, "everything about Chimparty was great. I mean, it was started because we thought, 'Most people go through their whole life without ever getting to see a chimp, unless it's behind glass or bars at a zoo.' And we thought, 'What better way to create awareness than through hands-on learning, and let people see that this is a special creature that we really do need to be concerned about, rather than just some name on a list?' But Chimparty, even though the name was appealing to the masses, I think you still have some people thinking, 'Oh, chimps on roller skates,' and that kind of thing."
It is a sunny weekday morning in June and, though Suzy is dead, life goes on for the primates in this bucolic enclave. Most of the hirsute inhabitants are in the large indoor-outdoor habitat that connects to the Casey's home. Like the ape house at the St. Louis Zoo, visitors watch the apes through thick glass. Out on the expansive yard are several open-air corn cribs, in which one or two chimps may be seen sunning or exercising. In the midst of it all is a manicured pond whose banks are watched over by life-size sculptures of chimps and a gorilla. The place has the feel of a Club Med for primates.
In the late 1960s, Connie Casey and her first husband, Sylvester Braun, opened a pet shop, Braun's Aqua Barn. There were some primates even back then, and neighbors still recall seeing Braun on his riding lawnmower, cutting the grass with a chimp in his lap. Braun died in 1986, and a few years later Mike Casey stepped into the picture. He had left the U.S. Navy, raised and sold exotic animals to zoos and private collectors, and operated a wholesale tropical-fish warehouse. Before marrying Connie and moving to Festus, he had worked at a private zoo in Florida, where he was drawn to the apes because of, he says, "their level of intelligence. God put these creatures on this earth for a special reason, probably to teach us about ourselves."