SAfrica: Chimps who attacked US student to live

July 3, 2012 - 2:39 PM
South Africa Chimp Attack

This undated photo provided by the Facebook group HelpAndrewOberle shows graduate student Andrew Oberle observing chimps. Doctors are reporting improvement in the condition of Oberle, who was attacked by chimps he was studying in South Africa. (AP Photo/HelpAndrewOberle)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Two adult chimpanzees that viciously attacked a U.S. student at a primate sanctuary in South Africa were defending their territory and will be allowed to live, the lead government investigator said Tuesday.

Conservationist Dries Pienaar blamed human error for Thursday's attack.

But one of the sanctuary managers, Eugene Cussons, said he did not blame Andrew F. Oberle for crossing between two safety fences to retrieve a rock that the chimps were in the habit of throwing at tourists.

Oberle was in critical condition and in a medically induced coma in the hospital by Monday night. On Tuesday, doctors refused to describe his condition saying the family, who had arrived from the United States, is asking for privacy.

Pienaar told The Associated Press that the chimps tore some fingers off one of Oberle's hands, among other injuries. This was "to my astonishment, I couldn't believe it because I know those chimps personally," he said.

He said he found no negligence on the part of the Jane Goodall Institute's Chimpanzee Eden SA in eastern South Africa.

"The only thing that happened is Andrew stepped over the small barrier fence and went right up to the electric fence," he said. "We all know that they are tame chimps, but he shouldn't have done that, he's a researcher, he's supposed to read the body language."

Oberle was leading a group of tourists at the time. The visitors were 10 meters (33 feet) from the second fence, as required by safety rules. After Oberle stepped over the first fence, the chimps dragged him under the electric fence and mauled him around the head and arm.

Cussons said he was happy that Pienaar's investigation found the chimps were involved in territorial defense and would not therefore be killed or punished.

He said he was forced to shoot one of the chimps, but not mortally, after he and a ranger failed to scare the animals into releasing Oberle, even when they drove a car at them.

Chimp Nikki, aged about 16, was injured in the abdomen and is being treated at the Johannesburg Zoo.

The other attacker, Amadeus, in its 20s, is on lockdown with his family at the sanctuary.

Pienaar, who has worked as a conservationist for 33 years, said he condoned the shooting, a last option under protocols that recommend first shock treatment or pepper sprays.

"Other than that I'm happy with things," Pienaar said. "I'm not having the chimps put down. I don't think there's reason for that."

Oberle is studying anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. It was his second trip to study at the South African institute, which takes in orphaned and abused chimpanzees.

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On the Net:

Photo of Nikki at The Jane Goodall Institute South Africa: http://www.janegoodall.co.za/images/Nikki_Photo_David_Devo_Oosthuizen_Al...

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Associated Press writer Emoke Bebiak contributed to this report from Johannesburg.