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The Untold Stories of Chacha, Rachel, and Teeoni

By Lauren Choplin

On April 14th, media outlets ranging from the New York Times to US Weekly to Sports Illustrated reported on the story of a 24-year-old captive chimpanzee named Chacha who escaped from his enclosure at the Yagiyama Zoological Park in Sendai, Japan. For two hours, Chacha fled from zoo workers who were attempting to capture him, agitatedly swinging from power lines before seeking refuge on top of an electrical pole, being shot in the back with a tranquilizer dart, losing consciousness, and falling into a blanket held by a group of workers waiting on the ground. He was then returned to the zoo, which said it was investigating how he managed to escape.

Just the day before in the US, a 41-year-old chimpanzee named Rachel died at the Kansas City Zoo, seemingly of a heart condition (in the US, more than a third of captive gorillas die of some form of heart disease). This same zoo announced the week before that one of Rachel’s daughters, Teeoni, stopped taking care of her recently born daughter, who is now being cared for by zookeepers (maternal rejection and hand-rearing by humans are not uncommon in captive chimpanzee populations).

The video of Chacha’s escape and fall went viral, the headlines dominated by language designed to amuse and attract: “Cha Cha the Chimp Leads Police on Merry Dance After Dramatic Escape,” “Chimpanzee sparks alert after electrifying escape from Japan zoo,” “Chimp Performs High-Wire Act in Residential Neighborhood After Escaping Zoo in Japan.”

Even the more straightforward headlines—”Chacha the chimp flees Japanese zoo in two hour bid for freedom,” “Desperate chimpanzee who escaped from zoo makes futile lunge for freedom in Japan,” “Watch: This chimp escaped from a zoo and did not want to go back”—had a flippant irony to them, since virtually any reader would know that Chacha was never going to find freedom this way, that his story could end only in death or a return to captivity. For Chacha, it was the latter.

That Chacha’s “great escape” at once provoked horror and amusement, empathy and irreverence, speaks to what we at the NhRP consider an increasingly pervasive discomfort in our society with the imprisonment of self-aware, autonomous nonhuman animals, which some humans (and human institutions) remain unwilling to fully acknowledge or express.

Instead, this discomfort works its way out in silly headlines (we’ve encountered our fair share; they often involve jokes about bananas) and, no matter how horrible the details of Chacha’s story, it’s seemingly resolved with the information that Chacha was ultimately unhurt (physically at least) and is safely “back home” in the zoo.

In contrast to the extensive media coverage of Chacha’s story, Rachel’s death in Kansas City made only the local news. Reported in brief, obituary-like fashion, these articles follow the typical formula of announcements of the deaths of chimpanzees and other great apes in zoos. They quote zoo officials who remembered her best qualities (“She had amazing maternal instincts, knew some sign language and was a leader in the troop”) and use the zoo’s press release as a model, moving on from Rachel’s death and Rachel’s daughter’s rejection of her baby to reassure us, in cycle-of-life fashion, that the baby is “clinging onto a keeper-made “chimp chest” constantly … she has feedings every two hours—keeping this crew constantly on their toes.”

As with the articles on Chacha’s escape, they provide little to no context for Rachel’s life in captivity other than to tell us that she had three children and was moved from the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, KS in 2003. We learn nothing about the circumstances of her birth, nor how she wound up at the Sunset Zoo. These articles also neglect to mention that in 2014, seven chimpanzees at the Kansas City Zoo, Rachel perhaps among them, used a fallen tree as a tool to escape from their enclosure before being lured back with “malted milk balls.”

Chacha’s escape has now been seen by millions, whereas Rachel’s life and death may be known only to some. What they have in common is that most news outlets covering their stories failed to consider the larger issues concerning captivity itself, turning Chacha’s surely traumatic experience into a passing joke or a scene in an action movie (with a happy enough ending for us to be able to forget about it the next day) and implying that Rachel’s life and death and Teeoni’s rejection of her baby are sad but essentially commonplace non-events.

The subtext is that life goes on; there is nothing to worry about here. As long as we joke about Chacha’s escape, or look ahead to the life of the newborn captive chimpanzee, we don’t have to seriously consider the inherent wrongness of the lives we have forced these beings into, nor the complete lack of rights that enables their imprisonment.

There is deep systemic injustice in all of these stories. As nonhuman animal advocates, we must continue to point it out and together work to change it: for Chacha, for Rachel, for Teeoni, and for all the other captive nonhuman animals whose stories have yet to be told.

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