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. Mark Wickersham

    I feel sorry for the state of the nation if you represent the general comprehension level of the US. He was NOT at tourist "leaving a tour group". He was a researcher, a trained primatologist. He took a calculated risk for the safety of the tour group. That makes him... a big damned hero. Go and re-read the article.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dr. Hemlock

      All that education and training and yet no common sense.

      July 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • lynne

      he was a primatology STUDENT, not a trained primatologist. He more than likely was not supposed to be entering those zones. I admire his concern for others, but he made a big mistake. I hope he recovers and wish him the best, but still.

      July 3, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Y-knot

      The article states Oberle is a primatology student from University of Texas. This was his first time leading a tour group at the reserve.

      I do not agree with your assertion that he is... a big damned hero.

      Mark, no article mentions or claims that he or a member of his tour was in danger. The guy made a misfortunate decision. Entering the 'no-go' area was in violation of the training he had received and the protocol at the reserve.

      He does not deserve what happened. It is a damn shame. I wish him all the luck in the world for a speedy recovery and a long & fruitful life. But he is not a big damned hero.

      July 4, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
    • 22X Richer

      He wasn't trained so well if he went into a "no-go" area on purpose. They didn't label it a "go if you feel it's worth the risk" area. No really meant no in this case.

      July 4, 2012 at 6:24 am | Report abuse |
  2. photogrrl

    Ever hear the saying about "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones?" Are you really that perfect that you've never made a mistake? Wow, very impressive that you've never once done something stupid and find it amusing to laugh at someone else's tragedy...I'd like to be you in my next life (NOT).

    July 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • advocatusdiaboli

      It wasn't a mistake, a mistake is an unintentional act. He deliberately took a risk he thought was low when it was high. He should have consulted more experienced people at the compound to determine the safe course of action. It's tragic nonetheless, but confining primates is wrong to and they are intelligent enough to rebel when they get a chance. I think it is safe to say some of them hate humans and chose to hurt one they could get a hold of. And I don't blame them: humans do the same things when angry over injustice.

      July 3, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Some guy

      A tragedy he brought on himself. The chimp that got shot deserves sympathy not this stupid kid. If that kid had died I still wouldn't care.

      July 12, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Robert Calloway

    Why should the chimps be killed because this man made an idiotic mistake. He ignored the signs and now is suffering the consequences.

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

    Poor guy! He should have just left the rock alone and reported it, let someone better equipped take care of it. I hope he can recover.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ezo

    Really, dude? That's your answer for coping with wild animals? If so, then add yourself to the hit list, moron!

    July 3, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. John

    They're mean? While you are as sweet as pie - maybe someone should do the same to you?

    July 3, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Odin

    If they are not killed, they should at least be brutally beaten and have their eyeballs poked out. We can't let these dirty apes get the best of us. Let's show them what happens when they attack a fellow human. An eye for an eye!

    July 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  8. kls817

    that's right – too much like humans

    July 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Areacode612

    lol... i would've punted that chimp to the moon!

    July 3, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      He couldn't have punched the chimp because he didn't know the chimp was going to attack him! Animal behavior is often unpredictable even for the most experienced of animal handlers! The best defense is to keep a safe distance! Ever watch Tom and Jerry and that bad bulldog? Tom always maked a safe line to keep his distance before he poked and teased the bulldog, that is until the bulldog erazed the line and mauled Tom! Hopefully the primatologist survives to take in some Tom and Jerry!

      July 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Eva Slade

    Odin, I pity your children.

    July 3, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • no one important


      August 16, 2013 at 7:14 am | Report abuse |
  11. Geri

    Human error! He went where he wasn't suppose to be.... I am sorry for his injuries; but who is to blame? We are dealing with wild animals; humans are supposed to be the animal with the brain....

    July 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Hadenuffyet

    Chimps organize hunting parties in the wild, they are omnivorous , they can kill you . What was this COLLEGE student thinking?

    July 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  13. GIUK

    Nice . It took 15 minutes before someone used a gun. And then wasted time to fire waring shots while this kid was being torn to pieces.

    They're really on top of things at that sanctuary. Good work

    July 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  14. sonofliberty

    tell us what the injuries were!!!!

    July 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  15. soul2squeez

    tell us the injuries.

    July 3, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
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