The Hominidae, or great apes, consist of seven members—two species each of gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees, along with human beings. Like humans, the apes seem to have the ability to communicate through language, to use tools, and to form societal groups. But the apes also share our vices, from violent streaks to sexual obsessions. Below are 10 of the most infamous apes we have encountered, from an orangutan escape artist to a chimpanzee who mutilated a woman so badly that she needed face transplant surgery.
Note: One ape conspicuously absent from this list is the bonobo, which resembles a miniature chimpanzee. While their larger cousins are known for acts of demonic violence, the bonobo has never been observed killing a member of its own species. They are remarkably peaceful creatures, living in a society based on near-constant sex.
10Frodo The Baby Killer
There are few things cuter than a young chimpanzee. With its expressive eyes and sweet nature, it is quite like a human infant. But as chimps grow and reach puberty, they often undergo a dramatic change in attitude. The more we have observed chimps, the more we have seen them as capable of the most savage acts of violence. In the wild, they have been observed tearing each other apart and even indulging in acts of cannibalism.
One of the most notorious such individuals was Frodo. Born in 1976, Frodo lived in Gombe National Park in Tanzania, among the several families of chimps studied by Dr. Jane Goodall. Frodo was extremely aggressive from a young age, often clashing with others. He was a storied hunter of red colobus monkeys and was known to hurl rocks at humans.
In 1998, Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson had a brush with Frodo, luckily emerging with just cuts and scratches. Others were less fortunate. The following year, he battered Goodall so badly that he nearly broke her neck. And in 2002, he abducted the 14-month-old daughter of a park worker. By the time he could be driven off, he’d already begun feasting on the child’s corpse.
There was talk of euthanizing Frodo, but he escaped that fate. Frodo lived by the sword, and he also died by it—in 2013, he perished from an infected bite wound close to his groin.
9Fu Manchu The Escape Artist
In the late 1960s, the Omaha Zoo experienced a strange series of jailbreaks. Their orangutans, led by patriarch Fu Manchu, seemed capable of escaping their enclosure at will. A door that connected the orangutan enclosure to a furnace room was found open. At first, head zookeeper Jerry Stones blamed his staff for improperly securing the apes, saying he “was getting ready to fire someone.” Fearing for their jobs, the keepers kept a closer eye on Fu, and what they saw astonished them.
The young orangutan climbed down some air vents into a dry moat, pulled back the furnace room door, and slid a piece of wire through, much like a thief might disengage a lock with a credit card. Once again, the clan was rounded up, but no one could figure out where Fu Manchu was hiding the wire that he used in his escapes. Then one day, Stones was with the orangutan, and he noticed something shiny in its mouth—he’d been secreting the wire between his cheek and gum.
Later, Fu was moved to a zoo in Brownsville, Texas, where he lived out the rest of his days as a successful breeder.
8Lucy Loves Playgirl Magazine
Lucy was born in captivity, the property of the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma. She was brought up like a human child in the suburban home of Dr. Maurice Temerlin, a psychotherapist and professor at the University of Oklahoma. Lucy was taught sign language by primatologist Roger Fouts and lived a life of luxury, eating at the table with the family, learning to use tools, and even making her own tea on the stove. But Lucy had a mischievous side to be certain. One time, she lied about defecating on the floor, claiming that a human had done it. She was also highly sexual, fixating on the penises in Playgirl magazine and using a vacuum cleaner to pleasure herself.
By age 12, Lucy had become increasingly aggressive, with several instances of biting people. The Temerlins were at a loss how to take care of her, and it was eventually decided that she would be returned to the wild. The Temerlins brought her to Gambia along with University of Oklahoma graduate student Janis Carter. Helping Lucy and other chimpanzees transition to the wild would become Carter’s life’s work.
7Koko’s Breast Fetish
Koko is undoubtedly the most famous gorilla in the world. Born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971, she learned American Sign Language from another gorilla named Michael, eventually becoming far more proficient than her teacher. Koko has had pet cats and met with late comedian Robin Williams in 2001, the two spending the day playing and tickling each other. When Koko was informed of Williams’s death, she grew somber, her lip quivering with grief.
But despite her prodigious intelligence, there is some indication that Koko has a naughty side. In 2005, two former employees of the Gorilla Foundation, which houses Koko, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit alleging some pretty strange things were going on around the resident ape. Nancy Alperin and Kendra Keller asserted that Francine Patterson, Koko’s trainer, told the women that they should bare their breasts to the gorilla.
The lawsuit, which sought over $1 million in damages, claimed in part that if the women “did not indulge Koko’s nipple fetish, their employment with the Gorilla Foundation would suffer.” The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
6Santino Hurls Rocks At Zoo Visitors
It might seem natural that animals locked away in zoos might build up some resentment toward those who gawk at them. However, few have the means or wherewithal to stage any kind of retaliation. But a chimpanzee at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden has changed all that. Santino, the zoo’s dominant male, throws rocks at visitors.
This in and of itself is not unusual; apes have been observed hurling projectiles before. What makes Santino unique is that he actually stockpiles his arsenal ahead of time. Such behavior has challenged everything humans have believed about animal intelligence for centuries. It was previously understood that only people could make plans.
Santino took things even further. When his scheme was discovered, he tried to conceal his weapons caches, indicating not only an ability to think in advance but a capacity for deceit.
While chimps are enormously strong, Santino won’t be taking the mound for the New York Yankees any time soon. His accuracy leaves much to be desired, and he never actually hits anyone.
5Sibu Lusts After Tattooed Blondes
As seen with Lucy, several great apes have developed romantic predilections toward human beings. Male orangutans in particular have shown a lust for the ladies; there have even been reported instances of interspecies rape.
In 2007, headlines emerged out of Apenheul Primate Park in the Netherlands that their resident male orangutan, 31-year-old Sibu, refused to make time with their females, foiling their breeding plans. Instead, Sibu liked human women. He even had a type, preferring the sort of girl you wouldn’t want to bring home to Mom—tattooed blondes. This predilection hearkened back to his youth, when he was reared by a heavily tattooed woman.
Born at the Los Angeles Botanical Gardens, Sibu has been all over the world. In 2008, after his failed experiment in the Netherlands, he was sent to the Dublin Zoo to be reunited with his old mate Leonie, in hopes that they might rekindle their spark and have further offspring.
4Pony The Orangutan Prostitute
Humans have exploited nearly every species on the planet to their benefit, but the fate of one poor orangutan can only leave the decent among us shaking our heads in disgust. According to Michelle Desilets, the Director of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS), an orangutan named Pony was being kept in a village and used as a prostitute for human clients.
The madam of the house shaved her every other day, producing pimples and countless mosquito bites, her skin becoming horribly infected. When the BOS learned of Pony’s awful predicament, they tried to rescue her, but she’d become something of a local favorite. Villagers threatened them with guns and knives tainted with poison. Eventually, a regiment of 35 police armed with AK-47s were able to liberate the orangutan.
Rehabilitation has been difficult for Pony. After being so hideously treated over the years, she lacked the skills to live independently in the wild. However, the BOS has worked closely with her to help her transition back into the forest. She can now build her own nest and shows dominance toward other females.
Gorillas are by far the largest and most powerful primates in the world, but they are usually peaceful animals, more gentle giant than King Kong. The roaring and beating of chests might appear fearsome, but this is typically just posturing, done to avoid actual violence. That is not to say that a gorilla isn’t perfectly capable of defending itself when pushed. There have been several incidents of zoo gorillas going after guests after being taunted, including Jabari, who scaled a 5-meter (16 ft) wall, going on a rampage which proved fatal for the animal.
Another such attack occurred at the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands. Petronella Yvonne de Horde and her husband visited the zoo nearly every day, stopping at the gorilla enclosure to visit a silverback named Bokito, with whom she claimed to have a “special relationship.” De Horde would stand at the glass, making eye contact and smiling at Bokito, two gestures gorillas read as signs of aggression.
Finally, on May 18, 2007, the silverback had had quite enough. He escaped and launched a vicious attack on the woman. Her injuries included a broken arm and wrist, a crushed hand, and dozens upon dozens of bite wounds.
Before he could kill her outright, Bokito was subdued with tranquilizer darts. Despite her grievous injuries, the woman bore no ill will toward the gorilla, later saying, “He is and remains my darling.”
Of course, not all stories of zoo gorillas encountering humans have ended in tragedy. On at least two occasions, they have aided children who have fallen into their enclosures.
2Zhora The Addict Chimp
Perhaps the most enduring stereotype of the Russian people is their affinity for vodka. This habit even extends to its resident apes.
Zhora the chimp was originally part of a circus, but like many of his species, he began to grow aggressive in maturity. He was transferred to the Rostov Zoo, where he proved a successful breeder, fathering several babies. Although the chimpanzee was kept behind three rows of fences, zoo visitors still managed to smuggle Zhora cigarettes and bottles of liquor.
According to zoo deputy head Nadezhda Yeutushenko, “We asked visitors not to give him [alcohol and cigarettes], but it was all in vain. People laugh when they see an animal drinking and smoking, but vicious habits damage health, and many do not understand this.” Zhora slipped into addiction, and in March 2010, he was sent off to rehab in Kazan, Russia.
1Travis Mutilates A Woman
It was one of the most horrifying headlines in recent history. On February 16, 2009, a chimpanzee named Travis went on a rampage, savaging Charla Nash, friend of owner Sandra Herold.
Travis was a minor celebrity. He’d appeared in commercials for products like Coca Cola and Old Navy, and he’d been featured on several television shows. His owners treated him like a child, and he’d learned to surf the Internet, feed his owner’s horses, and eat at the table with the rest of the family.
On that fateful day, Herold had dosed the rambunctious teenage Travis with Xanax. Travis proceeded outside and refused to come back in the house, so Sandra called her friend Charla to come help. Despite knowing Nash well, Travis attacked her on sight.
Sandra Herold immediately called for help. The 911 call is chilling, Herold screaming that Travis was ripping her friend apart and eating her.
She stabbed her beloved pet with a butcher knife and beat him with a shovel, but the rampage continued. Police eventually arrived, and Travis approached the car, smashing off the passenger-side mirror before going around and opening the driver-side door, where he was met with a hail of gunfire. The chimp fled and was later found dead beside his cage.
The injuries Nash received in the attack were gruesome. Her hands had been torn off, and she was missing her eyes, lips, nose, and much of her facial bone structure. Her jaw had also been ripped off, but doctors were able to reattach it. The attack was so brutal that hospital staff who attended to her were provided counseling.
Later, Nash appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, displaying her face publicly for the first time. In 2011, she received transplant surgeries for her hands and face. Although the hands had to be removed, the face slowly began molding to her own bone structure.
Sandra Herold died in 2010 of an aortic aneurysm. Nash won $4 million in a lawsuit against the Herold estate, but her attempt to sue the state of Connecticut was denied.