Judging from the smattering of comments on yesterday’s entry about Travis the face-eating chimp, it’s clear that others also find the story unsettling. (My co-worker has actually banned me from talking about it.)
After hitting publish, I realized that the post never really addressed the question as to why so many of us are freaked out by the attack. Is it because the chimp was unprovoked? Was it the unusual level of pampering Travis received from his owner? The fact she fed a monkey wine, lobster and Xanax? The incident’s grisly consequences?
While I’m certain that these are all factors, I think there’s a good bit more to our revulsion.
Most folks are aware of the genetic similarities between humans and chimpanzees — our DNA is between 95 and 98 percent identical, according to the labcoat brigade. Some might point to Monday’s attack as evidence of our biological differences. But to do so would be to ignore the full spectrum of primate aggression, of which humans represent a significant portion.
Everyone is wondering why, why, why Travis the chimp went on his ghastly rampage. But It’s not like we really ever know what provokes human beings to snap. School shootings, church rampages, bell tower sniping — the list goes on and on, with the root causes as varied as the episodes themselves.
Then there’s mankind’s propensity for large-scale violence. From religious crusades to ethnic cleansing to weapons of mass destruction, human history is rife with examples of expansive and organized savagery. The chimp attack forces us to reconcile our own brutality with that of our simian cousins, which is psychologically uncomfortable.
Likewise disagreeable are the incident’s contextual elements. Travis wasn’t just a pet — he was also a lonely spinster’s closest companion. Many of us understand the tremendous guilt and loss associated with having to put a beloved animal down. Imagine having to stab your best friend with a butcher knife or instructing the police to shoot them!
Lastly, our own instincts nudge us towards the infantization of creatures approaching — but not quite attaining — our level of intelligence. I, for one, am enamored of people with Down Syndrome. This is in part because I project a sweet-tempered benevolence upon such individuals. Now, I’m not trying to force a comparison between partly-domesticated chimpanzees and the developmentally disabled, but surely there are parallels in our behavior towards each. So when a chimp acts upon instinct and violates our soft ‘n’ cuddly preconceptions, it can be quite jarring to our sense of order and place.
I’m fairly convinced that with the Travis incident, each of these factors came together in a perfect storm of hard-to-process awfulness. I’m not certain what the remedy is, but perhaps it’s healthy for us to engage in this kind of self-examination. After all, isn’t that what separates us from the apes?