(May 6) -- You might expect to see chimpanzees in a zoo or animal sanctuary, but at an indoor swap meet? Local animal activists are upset about at one Las Vegas swap meet. They say a shopping mall is no place for an endangered species.
C.J. and Buddy are the names of two baby chimps who are put on display each weekend at a local swap meet. No one is saying they are mistreated or abused; they aren't. But is this any sort of life for man's closest genetic relative?
The owner of the chimps says her exhibit helps to educate the public about the plight of these animals. Critics say she's making things worse.
To say that chimpanzees have had a rough time at the hands of man would be a masterstroke of understatement. In captivity, they are often dressed in silly costumes and paraded around for laughs, as in a video from a Las Vegas hotel.
In Africa, their habitat has been destroyed and chimps are still hunted for meat, to the point of near extinction. The U.S. used chimps as pioneers in the space program, then sent hundreds of unused space chimps and their descendants to medical labs where they were injected with poisons, carcinogens and AIDS, sprayed with pesticides, had their teeth bashed out with hammers, were cooked alive, even driven insane. So it's not hard to understand why the animal welfare crowd might be sensitive to how chimps are treated.
At the Fantastic Indoor Swap Meet, there, just beyond the rows of costume jewelry and assorted knick knacks, is an exhibit titled Animal Antics. The stars of the exhibit are a pair of baby chimps -- Buddy and C.J. -- who clown around, wear little outfits, and pose for an occasional photo with families and kids who seem delighted to see them.
But the presence of chimps behind glass at a swap meet drives others up the wall.
"They're darling to look at, but I've seen the other side of the coin, which most people do not. And that's, where do they go? Where do they end up and how do they end up?" said animal activist Linda Faso.
Animal activist Valerie Buchanan said: "They have diapers on; they're getting baby bottles. They have a little wagon. She's giving them enrichment, but not the right kind of enrichment. They're not human beings."
The critics say the problem isn't that the chimps are mistreated -- they aren't -- or that it's a swap meet instead of a fancy hotel showroom. It's that displaying baby chimps in such a setting will most likely make people want their own -- as pets, which would encourage more poaching and more suffering.
"You're only perpetuating the myth and someone else may go get them and try them at the next swap meet. Where does it end?" Faso asked.
"I think they have a sad future ahead of them. Two little babies in a few years will be uncontrollable. They will end up in social isolation somewhere, in a medical lab, a zoo even," Buchanan said.
Nikki Riddell, who owns the chimps, asks: "What did you do?"
Buddy and C.J. have a better life than a lot of people, living in a beautiful home along with a menagerie of other exotic animals. Riddell hopes to one day have her own exotic sanctuary, perhaps in a hotel, and she says the primary message she gives to swap meet fans is that chimps do not make good pets.
"I've never earned, personally, any money from these animals. In the first five months of the swap meet, it's about educating people not to have these animals," she said.
And Riddell should know. Caring for the chimps is like motherhood, a 24-7 job that she says means no days off, no vacations, no social life. It's rewarding, but it's a handful, even with her 20 years of experience working with exotics.
Riddell says she hammers that message home to everyone who will listen.
"I spend a lot of time on one-on-one explaining. By the time I finish, they say, 'Really?'" she said.
Even animal activists think Riddell's heart is in the right place and that she truly cares for her animals, but they say staging an exhibit at a swap meet, with baby chimps in human clothing, is no way to convince people they make bad pets. What's more, they say, the chimps will likely outlive their owner. What happens to them then? It's not one of those stories with a clear good guy or bad guy.
To contact George Knapp, click here.
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