A 2000 story for my “Sidecar” column for New Times LA, an alternative weekly published from 1996 to 2002.
And there was another problem. The chimp had developed a suckling fixation for Davis. “I’ve always been embarrassed, with my shirt off that I’ve got bigger nipples than other guys got. But I couldn’t stop him, and it pacified him to some extent.
BY AL RIDENOUR
The Davis boy is spending his first birthday away from home. His mother will visit for a few minutes but must maintain a 15-foot distance from her only son. The chocolate heart she’s brought is contraband and will probably be eaten by the warden after she leaves. 34 years old on this wet, gray Valentine’s day, the birthday boy sits on a cement slab in a cage in the rain. His name is Moe, and he is a chimpanzee. It would be idiotic to call Moe a pet. It just causes confusion and misery, and misery’s already pouring from the skies today.
“I guess, probably next to nothing,” says Moe’s Dad, St. James Davis, when asked about what other festivities might mark the day. He’s speaking on the phone from under the drizzling eaves of his West Covina home where he’s holding his daily vigil for signatures on his petition to “BRING MOE HOME!” He’s been there since dawn, even though you don’t get a lot of pedestrians idling by in a downpour. “Usually,” he says, “we have a three-day party with all the neighbors and three cakes and ten gallons of ice cream.” The chocolate heart on a stick, he says, is all that’s left of this year’s aborted plans.
The thing is, Moe’s been a naughty monkey. Since September 3, 1999, he’s been exiled to the Wildlife Waystation in the Los Angeles National Forest as the result a sudden enforcement of city ordinances against simian houseguests (prompted by two hand-chomping incidents in the last two years and complaints by a few neighbors.)
“We got birthday cards here,” says Davis, “but they won’t let me hand Moe his own mail.” Cards sent to directly to the compound were opened by Waystation staffers despite Davis’ protestations that “it’s his personal mail; they shouldn’t be opening it.” But with today’s weather, Davis is more concerned with creature comforts. “I wanted to give him his house slippers so he don’t have to stand on the cold cement. But they don’t believe in slippers up there,” he moans.
The Waystation is not a retirement hotel. Limited space and funding pushes for euthanasia or reintroduction into native environments where slippers are uncommon. In this case the facility is faced with undoing 34 years of monkey-see-monkey-do as well as the decidedly human mothering of St. James’ wife LaDonna Davis. “Donna taught him manners and etiquette instead of a bunch of circus tricks,” Davis explains. “She always made him wear shorts and shirt in the house, and he had to walk upright. He knew that if you act like a monkey, then you go back outside.”
The result is an urbane creature wholly unsuited to the grub-munching lifestyle of his country cousins. Having spent more years in the company of humans than many New Times readers, he’s assimilated a wide repertoire of habits not accommodated by the facility. Davis says Moe prefers cooked meals and purified water over raw vegetables and garden hose, eats with knife and fork, makes his own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and occasionally indulges a taste for French toast or KFC drumsticks. He prefers dandified dress to the usual T-shirt and shorts, knowing that jacket and shoes promise a special event or outing. He sleeps in his own bed, makes proper use of bathroom amenities, showers daily, and even shaves — “so he doesn’t look like a hippie,” Davis says. (At one time, father and son even sported match-cut goatees).
Unfortunately Waystation personnel are sticklers for species-appropriate living. “It took three weeks and a board meeting just to get him a blanket and a ball!” Davis grumbles. The Davises have done their best to make things homier by financing and building a cage more ample than the standard Waystation model. More important, the cage is portable so that it can be reassembled in their own backyard one day. To that end, civil rights attorney/talk-radio personality Gloria Allred has stepped in to stage-mother the monkey through the legal circus. The prestigious Century City firm Richards and Chemerinski is also working for the chimp. Both are donating services pro bono.
But today Davis is worried about the Animal Defense League’s army of 700 lawyers enlisted by the city to prove that West Covina is indeed an awful place for apes to live. He’s talking gloomily about cutting back on those every-other day visits with Moe. The chimp doesn’t understand why his parents are suddenly unable to play or hug, he says, and the experience results in tears on both sides of the cage. “The Waystation’s a nice organization for an animal that ain’t wanted,” he says, “but not a little guy that’s used to humans — somebody who asks for a kiss to be excused from the table, somebody you’re used to holding hands and having prayer with.” The miserable weather of this broken-hearted Valentines Day seems to be getting to Davis. This is the first time he has mentioned sharing religious devotions with the ape.
Flashing back a little over a week ago, the mood is sunnier at a neighborhood garage sale held to benefit and publicize Moe’s predicament. Amidst hand-painted cardboard signs Davis is easy to find — the one with the vast chest full of Dayglo “Free Moe!” buttons waving the petition at anyone hovering for a moment over a musty paperback or bucket of rusted car guts. Ad a few pounds and years to Fred Flintstone, dress him up in sports jacket and jeans, and you get the idea. Among the monkey buttons, there’s also a tiny NASCAR pin. The 50-something Davis happens to be a race-car driver, and his wife LaDonna, an ashy blonde fielding shoppers’ questions across the yard, also comes from a racing family.
“That little girl over there,” Davis says, pointing out a wispy youngster next to a woman in a wheelchair selling buttons, “She and her dad had Moe by the hand, and walked him back up to our house till the police came. I had a soda pop. Moe had a soda pop. It wasn’t a big concern.”
He’s talking about August 16, 1998, the day a shock from power tools used to fix Moe’s cage somehow zapped the primate as he was re-entering his enclosure. “He did the right thing fleeing the cage,” Davis says. “That’s like walking back in a burning building; you don’t do it.”
The police beg to differ. When the electrified chimp shot over the fence and down the street, they responded with a visit to the home where the Davis boy chomped up $25000’s worth in tendons in one officer’s hand. A little over a year later, a woman sticking her fingers into the cage was also bitten. Her tantalizing red nail polish, Allred contends, reminded Moe of red licorice. The next day, September 3, 1999, Moe went up the river to the Waystation.
Still in the eye of a legal hurricane, Davis hesitates to discuss these incidents. He grabs a donut from a box of pastries for sale and soberly, silently chews off the icing. “You know, all animals bite,” he ruminates. “People bite — Mike Tyson bites!”
He chuckles and swipes at his ear as if swiping at a gnat. The habit could’ve been picked up from Moe, and his approach to donuts wouldn’t be unusual for a chimp. But more than anything, Davis resembles a big kid — the biggest on the playground — who by virtue of his size not only gets that pet monkey you always wanted but also gets the coolest, fastest things on wheels. The couple’s modest home is in fact crammed with antique bikes, and gas-powered model planes, and the backyard is jammed with half-rebuilt antique roadsters.
Davis’ love of hot rods indirectly bounced him off to Africa in the 1960s. Still unmarried after 12 years of dating LaDonna, Davis fled with bachelorhood intact to travel the seven seas as a deck hand. “All my friends were getting the girls pregnant and having to sell their hot rods,” he says. “I left to kinda get out of the marriage situation.”
Constant seasickness, however, ran him ashore in Tanzania. One day he was drawn from his cot by the sound of rifles. In a distant clearing, he found natives arguing with poachers who had just gun downed some chimps. “I saw a mother chimp that was shot,” Davis recalls. “She had her hands by her hips trying to walk backwards with her legs spread apart and the baby starting out of her.”
After trying to sleep off the gory scene, Davis returned the next day to find that the poachers had come back to hack off the animals’ head, hands, and feet for black-market souvenirs. The half-dead baby was still nursing on the headless mother. “I didn’t want to touch him. I mean when the head’s off somebody, there’s a tremendous amount of blood. But I thought, at least he’s got to be washed up.” After no success in calling other chimps out of the forest, he brought the animal back to camp. Davis’ shipmates, already sick of their puking comrade, refused to let him re-board.
“I would’ve left the baby there with missionaries, but everybody who looked at the potty all over me said, don’t leave him here!” And there was another problem. The chimp had developed a suckling fixation for Davis. “I’ve always been embarrassed, with my shirt off that I’ve got bigger nipples than other guys got. But I couldn’t stop him, and it pacified him to some extent. He would grab on my face, and this other little hand would fish for a nostril, an eyelid, a lip, an ear, a cheek — anything. When he grew fingernails, my whole face was nothing but scabs.”
Returning from Africa a single father, Davis was ready for marriage (once the scratches healed.) But Moe still had no birthday. Having lost track of the days while sick in the jungle, the exact date of that grisly scene was not one that Davis could fix. “We had to pick something, and Valentine’s Day was my wife’s idea. She thought, if I don’t remember because of her, maybe I’ll remember because of Moe.”
On this rainy Valentines’ Day decades later, Davis is complaining about the Animal Defense League’s 700 hand-wringing busybodies. And he’s angry that his town’s spent a fortune courting experts, flying them in for a recent conference to which neither he nor the simian in question was invited. Couching arguments in generalities, the city is passing laws, Davis says, “as if there’s going to be a flood of primates into West Covina.” But the implementation is clearly personal. (The latest move was to slap up two “No Honking” signs on either side of the Davis home.)
“If they’d just look at Moe,” he says, “they’d see how he’s an exception.” But the municipal machine stumbles over such distinctions, and it’s blundered along this way since the beginning of the ordeal. On that very first day, Davis says “the City paid $3000 just to dart Moe and haul him away in the back of a horse trailer unconscious. They darted him three times, and he screamed bloody murder. When I offered to put him on a leash or deliver him myself, they just refused.” It was by-the-book cruelty, following rules that Davis says his son doesn’t fit. And in the background, the intermittent honking of cars sloshing by those two signs says those rules are for idiots.