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. Cane

    Those Chimps did not go crazy; those chimps went chimpanzee; The dummy should have not entered the restrictive area.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Donna b

    All animals will defend their territory against intruders. Adult chimps are known to be aggressive, he has only himself to blame for getting attacked. He should have known better. Hope he and the chimp recover.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  3. matt

    Chimps, riding the world of one dumb grad student at a time. Seriously, why is it the more advanced a degree the lower the common sense is?

    July 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • J-max

      ...and quite a ride it must be!

      July 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  4. walkthetalk

    When people learn that you can't put animals in cages and expect them to behave. Try that on humans and see what happens.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • GreedyGussie

      We do. Its called 'Jail'. And from what I've seen on Lockup Raw those primates throw poo too!

      July 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Bill N Ted

    Jane Goodall spent years amongst the chimpanzees and was never attacked. She knew the boundaries, respected them and always kept in mind that these were wild animals.

    I'm sorry this young man was hurt and I hope he recovers and is able to have a productive life. But he should have really studied Jane's research a bit harder.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dave

    Texas Crazy Man: I agree . . he should not have done what he did. But, to say he deserves what he got is too harsh. Sandusky deserves what this student got (if not more).
    The fact that there was a warning doesn't make his actions idiotic–ill advised, perhaps, but we all disobey warning everyday. Do you never drive 70 in a 55, or text while driving?
    It is possible that staff members frequently went past the first barrier . . . this student observed that behavior and followed suit, but he happened to be unlucky. Again, he is no hero, but doesn't deserve this tragedy. Imagine if this was your brother or son . .. you would probably not be so harsh.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • photogrrl


      July 3, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • photogrrl

      Dave, my comment "Exactly" was meant for your well written response. Thanks for that.

      July 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Li

      Add to that the fact that if the chimps had gotten the rock and thrown it, and injured a tourist, everyone would be blaming this poor kid for not doing enough to protect his group.

      July 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Texas Crazy Man

      Dave, I disagree. He does not have that benefit of the doubt because he works with wild animals and their is no logic as to why they do what they do in most cases. Its like this Dave, if I were a Marine Biologist and was working with Great White Sharks and do not follow the correct safety protocols and get my hand bit off, it would be my mistake and just part of the job that I would have to accept but not actually like that situation and I might decide to change my work environment like just feeding the fishes.

      July 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |

    I don't understand why all the hudbub of chimps attacking humans, guess it is newsworthy because they attacked an american, chimp terrorist.
    Some blamed the currator fo.r not immediately shooting the chimp, but one animal being attacked by other animals, the chimps were more valuable.
    This was not an accident, an unavoidable or unforseen event, it was an act of. poor training or lack of good judgement on humans part.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. walkthetalk

    He got what he deserved. Rise up Apes!

    July 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert McCabe

      If it were up to me I would shoot every chimp there.

      July 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jack sheet

    I feel for the victim and his family. I believe that what happens is that after several years of nothing bad happening to a person in a dangerous profession, he or she let their guard down and take unnecessary risks, as in this case. Praying for his recovery.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cb1knobi

      Why show emotion for the stupid. He blatantly disobeyed a warning and suffered the consequence. Stupid makes the world go round and gives the rest of us something to laugh at.

      July 3, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • CJ

      When Chimps attack humans it is not a pretty picture if your survive. They tear arms out of your sockets and rip your face apart. They are much strong that what most people could imagine. If this young man lives his life will be very different from this point forward.

      July 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Nkima

    He's right, though. Chimps are DANGEROUS. You rarely see full-grown ones in movies for that reason.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mark Wickersham

    He was absolutely an expert. He took what (I imagine) was a calculated risk. It didn't work out well. Sometimes it just doesn't. I admire people doing dangerous research with open eyes. I hope he recovers and can continue to do his life's work.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Nkima

    "If you leave a tour group and jump over a security fence," Not what happened at all, so what exactly are you laughing at? You must be easily amused.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Carl Sagan

    What would Dr. Zeus do?

    July 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Manny

      You mean Dr. Seuss from the cat in the hat book?

      July 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Hopefully animal santuaries and zoos start laying out yellow marking arears withing restricted arears for animal handlers! And perhaps they could also provide animal handlers with an extended pole that could be used to reach safely into the restricted arears to control the animals, supply food or remove objects from the restricted areas!

    July 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  15. photogrrl

    He was not part of a "tour group." He was actually a trained volunteer at the sanctuary...made an unfortunate mistake. How is this possibly laughable?

    July 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • firetreekauai

      Yes, it was simply a mistake by one who was trained and knew better...but, in all honesty, a very dumb mistake. A stone is not an immediate threat. Perhaps he was trying to impress the tourists with his knowledge/access...but in any event I feel compassion for this young man and hope he heals.

      July 3, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
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