It’s not clear what this says about my masculinity, but the first time I met Buddy the chimp, he jumped into my arms and wouldn’t let go.
“That’s odd,” his owner and trainer, Nikki Riddell, said at the time. “He’s usually shy around guys and only likes girls.”
That meeting with Buddy and his lifelong companion, C.J., took place in 2002. I had been working on a story about how owners of exotic animals exploit endangered species. I had every intention of pounding the hell out of Riddell, who was a well-known trainer in her native England before coming here; she had purchased Buddy and C.J. with the intention of building a world-class sanctuary. Once I saw how she showered her chimps with affection, better than most mothers treat their kids, I didn’t have the heart to pummel her. (We aired a report that criticized owners of exotics, including her, but it wasn’t as harsh as it could have been.)
Buddy and C.J. were raised almost like human children. They lived in a nice home, learned to use the toilet, wore cute clothes and were adorable. Riddell knew even then that it was a mistake for anyone to own chimps if the animals had to live in a neighborhood. It’s bad for the chimps, and eventually a danger to humans who come into contact with them. She admitted it more than once, though she clearly loved the chimps. And it seemed to me that they loved her in return.
The Viking and I saw Nikki and her menagerie a few other times, and I fully admit we were seduced by the uniqueness of these amazing beings. We didn’t have to lecture Riddell about what a bad idea it was to have C.J. and Buddy living in her home. She knew it better than anyone. And over the next few years, it became even more obvious. After Riddell’s husband died, it became tougher to afford the extras that chimpanzees demand. They also got more challenging as they grew older, especially after Riddell’s own health declined.
It’s been said that people who devote their lives to animals often don’t get along as well with humans. Man, is that the truth. Riddell and her friend Dominique did their best to care for Buddy and C.J., but eventually they needed help. World-class poker pro Lee Watkinson rode to the rescue. He had a soft spot in his heart for chimps. He and his girlfriend, Timmi DeRosa, provided financial support to Riddell and her chimps, helped pay for the space she rented for her chimp enclosure at a property owned by the Potochan family, and eventually plopped down $100,000 to build a state-of-the-art chimp home with its own AC and individual TVs for Buddy and C.J. (Buddy enjoyed wrestling shows. C.J. was a fan of Lindsay Lohan.)
The various parties went to great lengths to enrich the lives of the chimps, but there were disagreements about how the chimps should be fed, whether the enclosure was secure enough, and personality conflicts so intense I can’t describe them. It was also clear that Buddy was becoming more of a problem as he entered sexual maturity. He became frustrated, and this manifested itself in his behavior. He didn’t abuse C.J. but was rough with her at times, and he was even rougher with the few humans who still dared to enter the cage, slamming or biting Nikki, Lee, Dominique and Timmi. He kept testing the enclosure, looking for a way out. (Riddell says he escaped a half-dozen times. Others say there was only one other such incident.) And while the co-owners and trainers battled among themselves, the Potochan family also felt the heat. Dave Potochan and his wife, Sheri, are now getting a divorce, according to those who know them. Dave has insisted that his children not be allowed on the property as long as a chimp lives there. His wife has told people she would oppose any effort to move the chimps because she counts on the $700 monthly rental income. One week before Buddy was killed, animal activist Linda Faso asked Sheri about moving the chimps to a sanctuary. Mrs. Potochan reportedly scoffed at the notion. But she has not invested a dime in the chimps and has no say in where they go.
We all know how the story ended. (A video of that heartbreaking shooting was recorded but had not yet been made public at the time I am writing this.) When I heard about two chimps on the loose in the northwest valley, I immediately thought of Buddy and C.J., and guessed it was going to end badly. The news about Buddy hit hard at my house. It felt like a friend had been shot. But now, at least, there are indications that Buddy’s death will result in positive changes. At long last, Lee and Timmi are on the same page with Nikki Riddell — they all want C.J. to spend the rest of her days in an accredited chimp sanctuary, living as a chimp with other chimps. It looks like that is finally going to happen. And although there was a spat brewing over the disposition of Buddy’s ashes, that, too, has calmed down and that an agreement is within reach. The people who loved Buddy have suspended their differences for the good of C.J.
Lawmakers are finally talking about outlawing private ownership of exotic animals, which is long overdue. But there also needs to be legislation at the federal level to crack down on these slimy bastards who breed and sell exotics. They rake in huge dollars but don’t give a rat’s ass what happens to the chimps or leopards or other species, or to the people who end up mauled or killed when those wild animals inevitably go off. Until authorities shut these evil grief-mongers down, one way or another, then it is only a matter of time until another “Buddy” goes on a rampage and gets cut down, just for being a chimp.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at email@example.com.