Did poachers really kill Lucy, the sign language chimp?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2006:
ANIMAL PEOPLE in June 2006 published a
review of Hurt Go Happy, a novel by Ginny Rorby,
said to be based on the true story of Lucy, a
chimp who was taught American sign language and
was later sent to the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation
Trust in Gambia. The review stated as fact that
“Lucy was killed by poachers in 1987.” The truth
is that we have no idea how she died. Illness,
a fall, snake bite, or even lightning strike are
all more likely causes of her death than being
killed by poachers.
Dale Peterson in Chimp Travels was almost
certainly paraphrasing Janis Carter, who was
greatly responsible for putting Lucy through her
rehabilitation ordeal, when he wrote of Lucy
that “Šher hands and feet [were] brutally severed
and her skin simply stripped offŠ” He certainly
quotes Carter in “ŠWe can only speculate that
Lucy was killed–probably shot–and skinned…”
Carol Jahme’s Beauty and the Beast states
as fact that Lucy “was killed and skinned by

This myth continues to be repeated and
re-quoted from book to book. Whilst it does
remain a remote possibility that Lucy was shot,
there is not a single piece of evidence to
support such a claim.
Lucy was last seen alive in mid-September
1987. Her widely scattered bones, not an entire
skeleton, were found by Bruno Bubane, who is
still a member of our Gambia staff. He says it
was some weeks after her initial disappearance.
The remains were partly covered by fallen leaves,
with grass starting to grow through them.
The high humidity of the tail-end rainy
season and the presence of wild pigs and hyenas
mean that a dead animal very quickly decomposes
and a skeleton is unlikely to remain undisturbed
for very long. As there was a largish male chimp
who could be dangerous in the area, the bones
that could be readily found were quickly gathered
up into a sack and taken to the mainland.
Under such conditions the lack of skin
and of the small bones of the hands and the feet
is to be expected. To state the lack of them as
an indication or “evidence” of her being shot or
poached is entirely fanciful.
But reviewer Bev Pervan is right to
describe Lucy as “ill-fated.” Born into a colony
of carnival chimps in Florida, she was
reportedly taken from her mother when only two
days old. Her owner is said to have acknowledged
selling her to the Institute of Primate Studies
in Oklahoma with an agreement that Lucy would be
returned at the end of the research period. Over
the next 10-12 years a number of researchers
became familiar with Lucy, but none more so than
Maurice Temerlin, who with his wife Jane raised
Lucy as a daughter. When Lucy became adolescent
and hard to handle, the Temerlins in mid-1977
contacted my father and I, and we agreed that
Lucy and Marianne, a companion chimp, could
enter the chimp rehabilitation project at Abuko
Nature Reserve.
When Lucy arrived, I was heavily
involved with trying to integrate a group of
chimps into a wild community in Senegal. At that
time, wild chimp behavior was not well enough
known for me or any one else to realize that this
was an attempt more or less doomed from the
outset. This work and other personal commitments
kept me from ensuring, as I had intended, that
Lucy and Marianne occupied an island of 300 acres
of chimp habitat with a couple of other chimps
for whom rehabilitation was also not an option.
Here Lucy would have had her freedoms with chimp
friends, but would still have had access to
elements of the way of life she had experienced
from birth: food, magazines, toys, etc.
Carter, who came as Lucy’s caretaker,
had no qualms about subjecting Lucy to the
rehabilitation process, and was able to document
the years of Lucy’s difficult adjustment. I say
“adjustment,” as she never became truly
rehabilitated. She remained underweight, and
although chimpanzees normally first give birth at
about 13 years old, she had not reproduced by
the time of her death at 21.
There is not one single person that I
know of who does not come out badly in the whole
Lucy saga except possibly Jane Goodall, who was
very critical of the venture–but somewhat after
the event. What a sorry bunch we are: the woman
who sold a two day old chimp; the researcher who
bought her for one of his students to experiment
on; Maurice Temerlin, who conducted the
experiment for almost 12 years; my father and I,
for not being effective monitors and ensuring
that Lucy just retired as I had planned. Perhaps
sorriest of all is Carter, for so personally
insisting that Lucy should endure the
rehabilitation process–which Lucy so obviously
found difficult and confusing–for so long. In
truth, Lucy’s whole life was manipulated solely
for the benefit of human beings. Her death was
probably the only event she suffered that was not
manipulated. For her sake can we please just
leave it that way?
–Stella Brewer
Founder and chair
Rehabilitation Trust
P.O. Box 2208
Serrekunda, Gambia
Phone: 220 497554
Editor’s note:

Lucy was born in 1964 at Noell’s Ark
Chimp Farm in Palm Harbor, Florida, founded in
1940 by carnival performers Bob and Mae Noell.
Lucy was either leased or sold as an infant to
language researcher William Lemmon, and was
fostered by Maurice and Jane Temerlin. Maurice
Temerlin recalled her childhood in Growing Up
Human (1975). She learned American sign language
from Roger Fouts, who later founded the Washoe
Project to house his retired research chimps.
The Temerlins took her to Gambia in September
1977 for introduction to the wild by Janis
Carter. Carter lived on the island refuge
herself where Lucy was released, along with
other chimpanzees who were much less habituated
to humans. For almost a decade the
reintroduction was heralded as a success.
Dale Peterson interviewed numerous
sources, including both Janis Carter and Stella
Brewer, in producing the accounts of Lucy’s
death that appear in Chimpanzee Travels (1995),
Visions of Caliban (2000), and Eating Apes
(2003). The latter was further informed by
wildlife photographer Karl Amman’s independent
interview of Carter.
“Her entire skeleton, minus hands and
feet, was found intact at Janis Carter’s old
campsite on the island,” Peterson summarized in
Visions of Caliban. “There was no evidence of
injury from a fall, no signs of attack by other
animals. Death by snakebite or a sudden viral
illness seemed unlikely; Lucy would have
possessed the strength to return to a
provisioning area where project workers regularly
checked on the apes. Perhaps, it was thought,
Lucy had been shot by human intruders.”
Wrote Roger Fouts in Next of Kin, 1997,
affirming Peterson’s account, “Janis Carter
found Lucy’s skeleton by their old campsite. It
appeared that Lucy had been shot and skinned by
human poachersŠWhoever had killed her had cut off
her hands and feet. They were probably sold as
trophies in one of the African markets that also
offer gorilla skulls and elephant feet.”
The Eating Apes version synthesized the same details.
Only one previously published account
coming to the awareness of ANIMAL PEOPLE did not
attribute Lucy’s death to poachers. This was a
single sentence by Eugene Linden, who profiled
Lucy in his 1986 book Silent Partners. Linden
wrote in The Octopus & The Orangutan (2002),
that “despite extraordinary commitment and
sacrifice on the part of Janis Carter, poor Lucy
never did achieve full independence before she
died,” not mentioning any cause of death.

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