We’re sitting around a patio table at The Griddle, a remarkably inventive breakfast place on Winnemucca’s main drag. Ten feet from our table, a blue steel cage can be seen, strapped into the back of a white van that has its back doors propped open. Every few minutes, poker professional Lee Watkinson walks over and slides tasty portions of French toast, scrambled eggs or other tidbits into a thin slot at the bottom of the cage, food for the seemingly hungry creature inside.
A fellow diner is the first to approach us, sheepishly. A few minutes later, a waiter asks the same question: What kind of animal likes oatmeal and French toast but doesn’t like eggs or hash browns? The four people at our table all share quick glances at each other, then — under our breath — we tell the curious folks that the thing inside the cage is a chimpanzee.
The journey from an exotic cat compound in Las Vegas to a chimp sanctuary in Bend, Oregon, was supposed to be a quick turnaround. Considerable thought was given to the route we would take and to strategies for preventing a tag-along parade of media crews, animal-lovers and assorted knuckleheads. Everyone hoped it would be a fast and quiet transfer, which is why we did our best not to attract attention along the way, and why our location was not made public during what turned out to be way too many stops and detours.
Almost nothing went as planned. An expected two-day highway cruise degenerated into a five-day ordeal that tested the patience and mettle of the four humans and one chimp in our caravan. A combination of intense public scrutiny, skittish public officials and self-absorbed veterinarians who felt it was a tiresome bother for us to seek their help resulted in an unfortunate adventure — one that was not quite worthy of moviedom’s Bill and Ted, but par for the course for the Knappster. (I’ve been known to turn a two-block drive to the 7-Eleven into The Illiad.)
On top of all that, nature tossed us a blazing curveball. Hundreds of thousands of acres of timber and sagebrush along the Nevada-Oregon border were engulfed in flames during the time we hoped to cross the state line. Oceans of thick white smoke spilled into every valley we crossed, obscured every mountain we could (almost) see and fouled every lungful of air we breathed. As we pointed our vehicles toward the scorched earth and fume-drenched hills of the Oregon-Nevada line, a thought popped into my head: I imagined Sam and Frodo and the view they must have had as they approached Mordor.
OK, maybe that’s a stretch. The hobbits, after all, were traveling by foot and had to avoid being pin-cushioned by Orc arrows, whereas we were aboard an air-conditioned Shadowfax, and needed to dodge nothing more serious than rival news crews or an occasional Fish and Game inspection team.
The central focus of our odyssey was Calamity Jayne, better known as C.J., a 13-year-old chimpanzee of considerable notoriety. Her recent escapes from a backyard enclosure generated news coverage all over the world, kick-started discussions of a possible crackdown on exotic-animal owners and prompted local animal-control officials to declare that C.J. was no longer welcome in Clark County. Her expulsion was made inevitable when C.J. and her lifelong companion, Buddy, slipped out of their cage and took a stroll around their northwest valley neighborhood. Buddy was shot and killed during the escape, breaking the hearts of his co-owners and untold numbers of other folks who watched the sad episode on TV.
Co-owners Nikki Ridell, Lee Watkinson and Timmi Derosa already knew that a backyard enclosure — even one that cost $100,000 to build — was no place for two smart and powerful chimps, but for various reasons, including personality clashes and strong emotions, the owners were never on the same page at the same time. Years ticked by, and the two chimps grew bigger and more restless, though they were clearly loved by everyone around them and were much better off than most chimps in similar situations.
The stalemate among the three owners is the main reason I was able to finagle an exclusive deal to go along for the ride. I first met the two chimps back in 2002, when they were infants. Nikki Ridell was the sole owner at the time. My wife, Anne (the Viking), got to know Riddell, spent time with the chimps, and kept in contact over the years. When Watkinson and DeRosa decided that a sanctuary called Chimps Inc. was the best place for C.J., the Viking and I talked to Nikki about signing over her ownership rights so C.J. could go to Oregon. She signed the papers in our kitchen, without any arm-twisting, though it was clearly a tough, emotional decision.
The trip to Bend was supposed to start early Tuesday morning, Aug. 14, but there were problems almost immediately. The rental van was too small for the cage — by half an inch. A forklift needed to lift the cage containing C.J. into a larger van did not arrive until late afternoon. And at the last moment, there was a paperwork snafu — a single piece of paper that had not arrived. So we did not roll out into the desert until almost 5 p.m., with an eight-hour drive to Reno still ahead.
But we had to scratch Reno when Marla O’Donnell, the Chimp Inc. director who flew down to supervise the transfer, was informed that the state veterinarian who was supposed to examine C.J. and make sure she passed a test for tuberculosis, suddenly decided he would not be available after all.
We drove through rainstorms and darkness to reach Carson City by 2 a.m., grabbed a few hours sleep, then learned we were being re-routed to a vet clinic in Winnemucca. We drove across the state for a 4 p.m. appointment with the vet, Dr. Rolfe Schwartz of the Keystone Vet Hospital.
When we got there, hospital staffers said they knew nothing about any chimp exam. Schwartz eventually came to the van and determined C.J. was TB-free, but then he told us we could not leave the state until other test results came back from a lab in Las Vegas. Come back in 24 hours, he told us. We reluctantly went looking for hotel rooms but were rejected by the first five places we tried. (They were full because of all the firefighters in town to battle blazes further north.) We finally found a place to bunk, Lee parked the van under a shade tree and photographer Bill Roe and I went to buy groceries for a chimp — a first for me.
When we returned to the animal hospital the next afternoon, it was as if they had never heard of us — again. The manager said they were too busy to call for any test results and scolded us for “not planning better.” They told us to come back the next day and closed for the night.
A furious round of phone calls was made to Henderson vet Dr. Randy Ceballos, of Sunridge Animal Hospital, the folks who administered the tests for TB and other possible problems. His staffers told me they did not have any test results and did not have time to call for them, that we would simply have to wait until the next day, or the day after. When I placed two follow-up calls, I was put on permanent hold. Ditto when other TV news people tried to get info. Ceballos later issued a statement saying he couldn’t make the test results appear any faster — skipping right over the fact that his office didn’t even want to place a phone call to get them.
All of this was not merely a matter of inconvenience for a few humans who had been on the road for days and wanted to get home. C.J. had proven herself to be a real trouper on our road trip. She was in good spirits, seemed to enjoy the open road and proved to be a real charmer with those of us lucky enough to be her traveling companions. But she had every reason to be in a foul mood. She’d been stuck in that cramped cage for six days by that point. We’d been sitting around in triple-digit temperatures, breathing smoky air, and worst of all, C.J. could not get out for exercise or to use the bathroom. All of her business was done inside the cage.
Lee Watkinson probably deserves some kind of medal of honor for the extra mile he went to keep C.J. happy. He slept with her in the van for the entire trip, was at her side with food, water and conversation, and had the foresight to bring along a stack of blankets. Each day, he put a new blanket into the cage, and C.J. had the good sense to spread it out to cover the soiled blankets underneath. It was the only way to keep things reasonably clean for her, but after days on the road, the little cage was getting cramped and smelly, and so was the van.
Lee, Marla, Bill Roe and I all reached the same conclusion at the same time. Tests or no tests, there was no way that C.J. should be forced to endure another day in that cage, sitting atop those blankets. It was quickly becoming a serious health issue for her, and according to the oh-so-cooperative vets at both ends of the state, it might take until as late as the following Monday to get all of the test results (though we had been informed by a source that the tests were in and C.J. had passed.) Something needed to be done.
I’m not going to say much about the next sequence of events. At some point, under the cover of darkness, we crossed into Oregon, taking a route that was far removed from the burning wildfires and a long way from any possible encounters with animal inspectors, Orcs or any other problems. The drive from Winnemucca to Bend took 11 hours, about twice the normal time. We arrived at Chimps Inc. exhausted but relieved. When C.J. was finally released from the blue metal cage, she took to her new home as if she had lived there her entire life. Seven other chimps had been prepared for her arrival, and it sure felt like there was palpable excitement throughout the world-class facility. I am not exaggerating.
As a postscript, I should add that test results did arrive at Chimps Inc. and they confirmed what we had been told — C.J. is free of any diseases or health issues. Her three co-owners know they have done the right thing, and they intend to stay in touch with her. (Lee and Timmi have committed to providing financial support for the rest of C.J.’s life.) Back in Las Vegas, Nikki Riddell has shed many tears, both for the joy of C.J.’s new life, and in memory of her beloved Buddy.
For those few smart asses who have commented here and there that none of this is newsworthy and that they don’t care one whit about chimps or their owners, I have nothing but pity. They are amazing creatures, so much like humans that it is astonishing, so smart it is spooky. Most chimps end up in bad situations — beaten, starved, abused, poorly fed, stuck in backyards or roadside zoos or trailer parks — and it is entirely the fault of humans. They are our responsibility, whether we like it or not, and their well-being is a not only a moral obligation, but is in our best interests as well. As Lee said to me when we left the sanctuary, chimps have an amazing capacity to suffer, maybe greater than our own.
I happen to know one chimp who isn’t suffering, a road warrior of the highest caliber whose traveling days are now behind her.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at email@example.com