July 3rd, 2012
10:49 AM ET

U.S. student has surgery after savage attack by chimps

An American student is in critical condition after undergoing two operations after chimpanzees tore apart his body in front of tourists at a South African animal sanctuary, a hospital spokeswoman told CNN on Tuesday.

Andrew Oberle, a primatology student from University of Texas at San Antonio, was being treated at a Johannesburg hospital after two chimps attacked him Thursday, spokeswoman Robyn Baard said.

Oberle had been at the Jane Goodall Institute's Chimp Eden since May, according to Eugene Cussons, the facility's managing director. Oberle was at the sanctuary, near Nelspruit, South Africa, for the second time after training and volunteering there in 2010.  His training included an explanation about "no-go" areas - spaces for animals where people are not supposed to go.

Witnesses to the attack said that Oberle went into a no-go area because he seemed to want to remove a stone close to one of the animals that could have been picked up and thrown around, Cussons told CNN.

Oberle crossed one barrier and approached a second one, which is a main fence with 24 strands of electrical wiring, Cussons said. Two male chimps grabbed Oberle and tried to drag him under the fence, but were not able to yank him into their enclosure.

Cussons said he estimates the attack lasted 15 minutes.

At some point, people tried to stop the chimps, and Cussons shot two rounds in the air to see if that might get them to retreat, he said. One of the chimps then charged at Cussons, he said. Cussons shot that chimp in the abdomen, he told CNN, and it seemed to shriek as a kind of signal to other chimps that there was a more powerful threat present. The chimps then backed off, he said.

Oberle was rescued and transported for medical care.

None of the 13 tourists - most of them from local areas - were harmed, officials said.

The chimp that was shot had an operation at the Johannesburg zoo to repair damage to his small and large intestines.

Hospital spokeswoman Baard declined to discuss the nature of Oberle's wounds. She said the student's parents had requested privacy, adding that they are "quite traumatized."

The sanctuary, which is featured in the Animal Planet program "Escape to Chimp Eden," remains closed and its staff is receiving counseling, executive director David Oosthuizen said.

There are no plans right now to euthanize the chimps involved in the attack, said Dries Pienaar, who is leading the investigation into the incident. He works for a parks agency that makes sure zoos, sanctuaries and breeding projects comply with the law. Pienaar told CNN that his preliminary findings are that human error is to blame, but he cautioned that his investigation is not complete and that he wants to interview Oberle. He hasn't spoken to all of the tourists yet, either.

Chimp Eden was established as a home for rescued chimpanzees. Many of the primates have suffered "horrible injuries and abuse from humans," according to the sanctuary.

Dave Salmoni, an expert in large predators for the television channel Animal Planet, said abused and captive chimpanzees can be particularly dangerous, likening the chimps to troubled prison inmates.

"Now this is a very nice prison, but it's a prison nonetheless," he said Monday. "And that's why you can see a lot of acting out behavior, and in some cases, with chimpanzees, they act out just because they can."

Oberle was passionate about studying chimpanzees, his friend Anthony Reimherr told CNN affiliate KXAN-TV. He said it was "intriguing" to listen to Oberle when he spoke about the animals.

"It's just something that he loved to do, and I think it's something that he'll always continue to do," Reimherr said.

soundoff (295 Responses)
  1. Chuck in Jasper, Ga.

    There are no tour buses in Harlem. Given that, and the obvious intent of your posting, I doubt you have ever traveled North of South Carolina..

    July 3, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • JL

      There are tour buses in Harlem

      July 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Nancy Mahannah

    In his memoirs, vet Robert Miller from Thousand Oaks, CA describes his own encounter with a chimp from Jungleland, the zoo that provided many animals for early films. He had a practice that included a big variety of jungle and domestic animals. He states the only animal he feared was the chimp.

    July 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Genius

    They should stick tigers in the enclosure too in order to counterbalance the chimp threat

    July 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
  4. spellwizard

    He's lucky he didn't get his testicles ripped off and thrown across the compound. Chimps are known for that. No joking here. That's why that other doctor feared chimps more than any other animal he studied.

    July 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nonads

      Who said that he didn't?

      July 3, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Just Saying

      The poor kid was not lucky. Other news sites list the injuries.

      July 3, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Cantaloupe

    Very sad how a moment of maybe just "forgetting" can change your life forever. Wild animals are just that. Putting them in a cage doesn't make them tame.

    When I Lived in south africa a chinese couple was killed when they got out of their car at Kruger Park to get close to a pride of lions to film them. Yep, you know what happened next.

    July 3, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Texas Crazy Man

      Thats natural selection at its best.

      July 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |

    I hope he's okay!

    July 3, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
  7. RuRu

    Why would the person with the gun not fire into the chimp to start with rather than into the air? Seriously, someone is getting ripped to pieces and you fire into the air? That's like the zombie in Florida eating that person's face off and the cop firing into the air first.

    July 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • PhnxRay

      Now, we wouldn't want to shoot a harmless animal that just happens to be mauling a human, would we?

      July 3, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack sheet

      My thinking exactly. Perhaps he thought he might lose his job if he killed the ape.

      July 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • GreedyGussie

      Maybe he couldn't get a clear shot at the chimp and was afraid he would hit the young man.

      July 3, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
  8. jC in Western U.S.

    My husband was a zookeeper for twenty years. He considered the chimpanzees far more dangerous than the big cats or even the elephants (which kill at least one keeper/mahout somewhere in the world every year). Chimpanzees and elephants are both capable of communication and reasoning but elephants are more gentle. In the zoo where my husband worked, a young volunteer was attacked and nearly killed by two chimpanzees. No-go means no-go. Chimpanzees may be special to you. You are not special to them.

    July 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  9. nt

    Are the chimps okay?

    July 3, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Sumo

    Some people are so naive...

    You'd never catch me anywhere close to a bunch of wild animals like that. Then again, maybe I value my face and genitals more than this young man did...

    July 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Spidey-Man

    Don't euthanize the chimps because the guide stepped into the "no-go" area. That's just wrong.

    July 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Rodney Skinner

    They need to add this to an episode of curious george.

    July 3, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Johanna

      Your comment is soooo on target. Unfortunately for this young man, trying to remove a probable projectile has altered his life immeasurably. He's alive...he's taught us all ... being a good Samaritan can have consequences...be mindful of the
      boundaries...but keep on trying...

      July 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  13. calygurl71

    It's incredible that even a story as tragic as this invokes political hate speech a racist comments. This kid is fighting for his life. America is doomed 🙁

    July 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  14. car

    For someone who worked with chimps at a research facility in the U.S, I can attest to their physical strength, speed, and intelligence. I am 6'5" 275lb. and was a caretaker which put me in very close physical proximity to them. Occasionally, I would be grabbed (smaller chimps can reach through standard chainlink fencing up to their shoulders) by what felt like a very strong grown man but turn out to be a young female. As for the adult male chimps, their hands were too big to fit through the fence, thank goodness. If you have ever been in the company of an adult male, he let you know he is boss, in a fit of pure rage. That same chimp that wanted to tear you apart a minute earlier now wants his belly rubbed or to be groomed as a fellow chimp. They are beautiful creatures and should be respected and protected at all times. Chimps should never ever ever become a household pet. By the way, chimps will target your fleshies (eyes, nose, ears, genitals, lips, and as you scream your tongue) and fingers first, then everywhere else.

    July 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  15. weezer

    "..It's just something that he loved to do, and I think it's something that he will always continue to do..."

    Oh no...first call this dude makes is to his academic adviser. Fastest school major change in history: Primatology to economics - starting Monday.

    July 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • His Classmate

      I can attest that Andrew will not be calling his advisor to change his degree, knowing both him, his classmates (other primitological anthros), and his advisers that once he does recover he will finish his degree, he has a strong passions for these chimps

      July 4, 2012 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
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