coco-chimpanzee

Away from the pulpit and piano, Dr. Richard Allen Farmer is a man of diverse and fascinating pursuits. He is an experienced, instrument-rated pilot; a certified SCUBA diver; a motorcyclist, Segway rider, world traveler and vintage automobile enthusiast. He is also a passionate animal lover, having owned at various times six monkeys, a chimpanzee, a ferret and a colony of 26 hamsters. In this section, “Farmer’s Follies,” Dr. Farmer will relate experiences from his various pastimes.

In the 1980s, somewhere around 1986, I was preaching a series of spiritual renewal services – “revival meetings,” if you will – at the Bethesda Baptist Church in Muskegon, Mich. I was serving a pastor named Charles Poole, who is still my friend today.

Now, I’ve always enjoyed a good fat Sunday paper when I travel. I don’t buy them as much as I used to because now I read the news on the Internet, but back then I would routinely buy a Sunday paper in whatever city I was in. I’m fascinated by the classifieds. If you see what people are buying and selling, you can get a feel for a whole city.

So I was reading the Detroit Free Press, which is the paper I bought in Muskegon. I had preached that morning, I’m in my hotel room and I’m cruising through the classifieds, just curious. Then, in the pets section, I see it:

“FOR SALE: Male Chimpanzee. Three years old.”

I thought, “Boy, I’ve never seen a chimp for sale. Monkeys, maybe, and even those are not terribly common.”

I had studied primates for many years. I’d already owned six monkeys before that time, over a period of years. So I called this guy in Detroit and asked, “Do you have a chimp for sale, or do you have a monkey?”

“No, I have a chimpanzee,” he replied.

“You have a chimpanzee, in your home? I would like to see it.”

Well, as it so happened, Charles Poole’s mother lived in Detroit. I asked him, “How would you like to drive to Detroit to visit your mother? I want to go and see a chimp this guy’s got in his house.”

I was preaching Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night, so we took a day trip across the state on Monday to get back in plenty of time for the evening service. Charles took me over to the chimp owner’s house. Sheldon. I still remember his name.

Sheldon took me down into his basement. There was a large cage on the floor, and inside it was the cutest little chimpanzee you ever saw. Sheldon took him out of the cage and he’s holding my hand, he’s hugging me. I’m in love.

I made Sheldon an offer, and he accepted it. I had flown to Michigan from Pittsburgh, where at the time I was senior pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, so I flew back to Pittsburgh after the revival, rented a van and drove back to Detroit to pick up my chimp and his cage.

Sheldon named him Sam. I called him Coco, which I thought was much more exotic.

I got a friend of mine in Pittsburgh to go in with me and we started a business called “Pittsburgh Rent-A-Chimp.” We went into schools, did parties and events. I remember we did a retirement party for a guy from Westinghouse. They introduced Coco by announcing, “We have one of your relatives here who came by to surprise you.”

I wouldn’t take a chimpanzee to a school again today. It’s just too dangerous. After all, it is a wild animal. But that was a kinder, more naïve time.

One time I took him to a public school event, gave a lecture about animals and then allowed the children to stroke Coco. As we’re going home, I’m driving and Coco is in the back seat of my car, in a seat belt and with a heavy chain around his neck. As I’m driving, he somehow got out of his seat belt, slid forward and covered my eyes with his hands! While we’re moving!

Apparently those kids had gotten him all hopped up, and now he wanted to play. Coco’s playing peek-a-boo, and I’m driving! Purely by the grace of God, I was able to pull the car safely to the curb and put it in park.

Now, the nerve endings of a chimpanzee are very dull. One authority I read said they probably are 20 times duller than those of a human being. So if you just smacked a chimp on the hand as you might to scold a petulant child…nothing. You have to really haul off and hit a chimp to let him know you mean business; otherwise Coco would have kept wanting to play and we might have never gotten home!

So while it deeply pained me to do it, there I was: sitting in my parked car on a Pittsburgh street, locked in mortal combat with my chimpanzee and shouting “SIT DOWN!” from the front seat of my car! I can’t begin to imagine what passers-by must have been thinking!

I remember laughing out loud at the time, reacting to the sheer absurdity of the situation. With the passage of years, the moment seems even funnier. But Coco did get back in his seat and remained there until we got home.

There’s a great deal of difference between chimpanzees and the monkeys I previously owned. Any chimp is much more intelligent than the average monkey.

The chimpanzee has reasoning skills that are very close to those of humans. In fact, many researchers maintain   that for the first two years of their lives, the chimp and the human are just about identical in development; then, after age two, the human takes off.

As Jane Goodall has documented, the chimp has tremendous reasoning capabilities. For example, Coco had his own room in the basement of our large home in Pittsburgh. There was a stake drilled into the floor in the middle of the room, a chain stretching from the stake, and a padlocked collar at the end of the chain that went around his neck. He had freedom within the room, but in theory was not able to get out of the room.

One day, I gave him a key ring. On it was the key that unlocked the padlock to his collar, mixed in with a number of other keys. As I sat there and watched, in about 15 minutes Coco had figured out which key belonged to the lock and had unlocked his collar. I was right there to lock it back in place, but the point is, he figured it out.

The difference between the two primates was like night and day. The chimp was very intelligent, while the monkeys, while bright, were not that humanlike.

So that’s how I wound up being the owner of a chimpanzee, which is a rare privilege. Many people have only seen a chimp in a zoo, or on television, but I actually owned one for nine months and there were never any accidents. He never hurt me, never went wild, never hurt anybody else.

But I wouldn’t do it again.

After nine months I created a newspaper ad to sell Coco, placing it in papers that went to high-income households. After all, I was selling him for several thousand dollars. I advertised in papers in Los Angeles, Chicago, the New York Times.

In short order, I was contacted by some animal rights people who said, “It’s really cruel to own a chimpanzee, and we would like to buy him from you.” So I sold Coco to them – for considerably below market value – so that he could go to a chimp sanctuary and live out the rest of his days there.

He was relocated to a place called Primarily Primates, in San Antonio, Texas. I get to San Antonio at least once a year, but I have never visited him.

It was a delightful time for me, owning Coco. I believe he enjoyed himself in my house. I was a very loving owner, and we had some great times together.

This prompts the question I’m sure you must be asking by now: If I enjoyed owning him so much, why did I sell him after only nine months?

My wife.

I was married back then, and the reason I didn’t keep Coco longer is because Rosemary told me, “I’m afraid of this animal.”

Remember what I said about his amazing reasoning skills? Well, despite the stake, the chain and the padlock, Coco broke out of his basement residence at least a couple of times, and once got out of our house altogether! A hairy, naked ape, running free down the streets of Pittsburgh!

Rosemary laid down an ultimatum. “I’m really afraid of him,” she said. “It’s either me or the chimpanzee.”

So I prayed about it.

And she’s still here.