LOS ANGELES – A 42-year-old chimpanzee who is toilet-trained and can eat with a knife and fork is believed to be at large in a Southern California forest after escaping his cage.
The chimp called Moe disappeared Friday from Jungle Exotics, which trains animals for the entertainment industry. The chimp wandered into a house next door, surprising construction workers who saw him head for a nearby mountain.
A weekend search in the San Bernardino National Forest 50 miles east of Los Angeles came up empty.
"I yelled his name out for hours, for hours, with no one else around. Nothing. Not even a hoot," said LaDonna Davis, who owns Moe with husband St. James Davis.
The Davises, who raised Moe in suburban West Covina for more than three decades, contracted a helicopter to fly over the forest Saturday and Sunday, hoping the noise would flush Moe out of hiding, said Mike McCasland, who's serving as the couple's spokesman. "That's the one thing that does spook him," he said.
"We think he may be hunkered down near a water source," said McCasland. "We think he's in a contained area a quarter-mile away but he's probably disoriented and the brush is extremely heavy."
Searchers also were making noise and calling Moe's name as they scoured the forest. "His survival instincts would probably kick in, even though he's been in captivity for a long time," McCasland said. San Bernardino County officials were not involved in the search because the chimp did not pose an immediate threat to public safety, but Moe's escape will be investigated, said Brian Cronin, chief of the county's Department of Animal Control and Care Services. "It's our impression that this was just an error," he said. "Jungle Exotics has always had exemplary ratings."
State Department of Fish and Game officials were investigating whether there was any violation of the facility's permit, said spokesman Steve Martarano.
St. James Davis brought Moe home from Tanzania in 1967 after the baby primate lost his mother to poachers. He and his wife treated Moe as their surrogate son, toilet-training him, teaching him to eat with a knife and fork and letting him sleep in their bed and watch TV.
But local authorities didn't view Moe in the same light. For years, the Davises waged a legal battle to keep Moe in their home.
They finally lost in 1999 when Moe bit part of a woman's finger off when she inserted her hand in his cage. The Davises said he mistook her red-painted fingernail for his favorite licorice. The incident also came after Moe mauled a police officer's hand.
Over the Davises' protests, Moe was taken to an animal sanctuary. But in 2005, when they took a cake to celebrate Moe's birthday with him, the couple was viciously attacked by two other chimpanzees who had escaped their cages.
The chimps nearly killed St. James Davis, chewing off his nose, testicles and foot and biting off chunks of his buttocks and legs, before the sanctuary owner shot the animals to death.
Moe was transferred to Jungle Exotics, where the Davises built him a state-of-the-art cage, McCasland said.
"He's a very personable, sweet, nice chimp," McCasland said. "He's not going to be aggressive unless he's provoked."
The couple, who have no children, broke down in tears at a press conference in Los Angeles.
"What am I going to do?" sobbed LaDonna Davis.
"He meant the world to us," said St. James Davis. "He was the best man at my wedding."