Remember when those pet chimpanzees joined the Little Rock Zoo?

Mikey (left) and Louie were reluctant and uncertain Nov. 20, 2008, while outdoors with the zoo's chimpanzees hooting and calling to them from afar. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Mikey (left) and Louie were reluctant and uncertain Nov. 20, 2008, while outdoors with the zoo's chimpanzees hooting and calling to them from afar. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

In 2008, the Little Rock Zoo acquired two chimpanzees raised as pets in a human home. Mikey, 6, and Louie, 5, came from a Maryland woman who had dreamed of becoming a primate researcher like Jane Goodall.

Judie Harrison and her husband raised the chimps in their home with their three human children, an arrangement fraught with discord and hazards.

Adult chimpanzees can grow to 180 pounds and be five to seven times stronger than an adult man. Even as youngsters Louie and Mikey were dangerously strong. When Louie was 2, he pulled a tooth out of Harrison's mouth while grooming her (cleaning one another's coats and faces being an affectionate service related chimps do for one another).

"They don't even realize their own strength," she said.

Harrison's human children, who had to share a bedroom so Louie could sleep alone, became alienated. The growing chimps could not be taken outdoors unless on leashes. And after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for six years, Harrison and her husband were in financial ruin.

"The guilt just grew stronger and stronger in me," she said. "I could see Mikey changing. His personality was changing. He was moping a lot. He wasn't as happy. I just knew that it was time. I just couldn't do anything else for them, and I knew that what I had done was wrong."

The Little Rock Zoo had space after the deaths of two elderly chimps, in 2007 and in 2008; but it was a "miracle" the zoo could accept such humanized animals, the chairman of the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums told the Democrat-Gazette at the time. Steve Ross said chimpanzees that grow up as pets "turn out different. They can't speak the language, for example. They can't speak chimp. They're more used to human culture, and it's often difficult to integrate them into chimp populations."

Before the zoo, Mikey and Louie had never played off-leash outside and had no idea how to relate to other chimps. They wouldn't eat normal chimp fare, like raw fruit and vegetables.

Chimpanzees live in territorial family groups, and it was likely the zoo's dominant male, Bahati, would attack the new arrivals. So he was separated out, and the new arrivals were allowed to interact with the zoo chimps through cages that let them see, smell and hear one another without touching for months.

But before they were ready to integrate, Louie developed symptoms of an autoimmune disorder, and he died in 2011. While he was sick and he and Mikey were separated, Mikey began sleeping next to the chimp group on the other side of the barrier.

Mikey was able to join the group and remains a member of it today. In 2015, he made news again when an ear, nose and throat doctor at Little Rock Children's Hospital, Ann Nolder, removed a large polyp from his sinus cavity, saving him from frequent headaches.

  photo  After a few weeks at the Little Rock Zoo, former house pets Mikey (left) and Louie tenatively experience being outdoors off-leash, still a new thing for them on Nov. 20, 2008. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
 
 


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