Chimpanzees at a sanctuary founded by famed primatologist Jane Goodall pulled a Texas graduate student into their fenced-off enclosure, dragging him nearly 800m while biting his ear and hands.
Andrew Oberle was giving a lecture to a group of tourists at the Chimp Eden sanctuary on Thursday when two chimpanzees grabbed his feet and pulled him under a fence into their enclosure, said Jeffrey Wicks of the Netcare911 emergency services company.
The 26-year-old anthropology student from the University of Texas at San Antonio suffered “multiple and severe bite wounds,” Wicks said.
He was in a critical condition on Friday after undergoing surgery at the Mediclinic hospital in Nelspruit, 300km from Johannesburg, hospital officials said.
Oberle, who was doing research at the sanctuary, had crossed the first of two fences separating the chimpanzees from visitors and was standing close to the second fence, which is electrified, at the time of the attack, Jane Goodall Institute South Africa chairman Edwin Jay said.
The sanctuary was temporarily closed after the attack, the institute’s executive director David Oosthuizen said.
Oberle lost part of an ear and parts of his fingers in the attack, according to the South African newspaper Beeld.
Oberle’s mother, Mary Flint, said her son had been in South Africa since May working with chimpanzees, which have been “his passion” since seventh grade, when he watched a film about Jane Goodall. She said her son knew the risks of working with chimps and would not want them blamed for the attack.
The two chimpanzees were placed in their night enclosure after the attack and will be held there pending the investigation, Jay said.
The Goodall institute opened the Chimpanzee Eden sanctuary in 2006 as a haven for chimpanzees, which are not native to South Africa, rescued from elsewhere in Africa. Some lost their parents to poachers in countries where they are hunted for their meat or to be sold as pets, and others were held in captivity in cruel conditions.
According to the sanctuary’s Web site, one of the animals involved in the attack, a chimp named Amadeus, was orphaned in Angola and brought to South Africa in 1996, where he was kept at the Johannesburg Zoo until the sanctuary opened. The other, named Nikki, came from Liberia in 1996 and was among the first chimps at the sanctuary. Before arriving, he had been treated like a son by his owners, who dressed him in clothes, shaved his body and taught him to eat at a table using cutlery, the Web site said.
In the US, a Connecticut woman, Charla Nash, was attacked in 2009 by a friend’s chimpanzee that ripped off her nose, lips, eyelids and hands before being killed by police. The woman was blinded and has had a face transplant. Lawyers for Nash filed papers this week accusing state officials of failing to seize the animal before the mauling despite a warning that it was dangerous.
Jane Goodall Institute spokeswoman Claire Jones said in an e-mail that Goodall would have no comment “out of respect for the young man and his family.”