Can a 90-lb. chimp clobber a full-grown man?

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Dear Cecil: The other day I told some friends a story about how when I was 14 and living near Washington, D.C., I saw this 90-pound monkey at a carnival who could literally pick a grown man up and toss him out of a boxing ring. A crowd of people listened to a man (probably the trainer) dare anyone to stay three minutes in the ring with what appeared to be a large chimp. There was a fee to try your luck and a $100 reward if you stayed in the three minutes. Well, I’ll tell you, I saw these big guys get in there with this monkey and get tossed right out. It seems the trainer had this whistle and whenever he felt inclined he would blow it, which was the signal for the chimp to do his thing. It was a delightful experience (to watch, at least). Anyway, I don’t think my friends believed me. So you have to back me up, Cece: isn’t it true that a 90-pound chimpanzee can throw a full-grown man through the air? P.S.: Their great strength notwithstanding, is it possible to keep chimps as pets? Tom M., Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Chimpanzees look mighty cute trucking around on their roller skates, wearing funny hats, and going “ook, ook,” but when roused they are vicious little bastards and not to be trifled with. Blessed with a muscle structure considerably superior to that of Homo sapiens (if not nearly as fetching in a bathing suit), chimpanzees can handle almost anything that comes along. Three drunks at a carnival would be no sweat.

It’s a lot easier to get a chimp in roller skates than it is to get him to pump iron — hence, most of the data on chimp strength is anecdotal and decidedly unscientific. In tests at the Bronx Zoo in 1924, a dynamometer — a scale that measures the mechanical force of a pull on a spring — was erected in the monkey house. A 165-pound male chimpanzee named “Boma” registered a pull of 847 pounds, using only his right hand (although he did have his feet braced against the wall, being somewhat hip, in his simian way, to the principles of leverage). A 165-pound man, by comparison, could manage a one-handed pull of about 210 pounds. Even more frightening, a female chimp, weighing a mere 135 pounds and going by the name of Suzette, checked in with a one-handed pull of 1,260 pounds. (She was in a fit of passion at the time; one shudders to think what her boyfriend must have looked like next morning.) In dead lifts, chimps have been known to manage weights of 600 pounds without even breaking into a sweat. A male gorilla could probably heft an 1,800-pound weight and not think twice about it.

As you might deduce, therefore, the word on keeping chimps as pets is a big negatory. Chimpanzees can never be fully domesticated; they’re aggressive by nature and sooner or later they’ll start to threaten their keepers in subtle ape ways that the untrained eye won’t recognize, until one day — blammo.

But maybe you’re thinking, I’ll just keep the little beast until it starts to act tough, and then toss it back into the jungle. Wrong. A chimpanzee brought up in captivity won’t be accepted by its brothers in the wild. Shunned, the citified chimp will either starve to death or be set upon by a simian hit squad. No matter how you look at it, keeping a chimp as a pet is dangerous and inhumane.

Cecil Adams

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