Many Michael Jackson fans might recall his iconic pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, with whom he was inseparable back in the late 1980s. Bubbles was never far from Jackson’s side, and often dressed similarly to the King of Pop himself, boasting tailored red suits and hats embroidered with golden thread. Bubbles took first class flights, got front row seating at Jackson’s concerts, and allegedly even slept in a cot next to Jackson’s bed. That was Bubbles, the adorable pale-faced infant at age 3 and 4.
What has happened to Bubbles since has attracted a great deal of media attention, especially since Jackson’s death in 2009. The latest resurgence occurred this past Friday, with the Daily Mail publishing an update that admonishes the Jackson family’s neglect of their former “family member”. It appears to be true that the only visit Bubbles has received from all the Jackson family members was one by La Toya Jackson, 10 months after Michael’s death, as part of Animal Planet’s wonderful documentary, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles: The Untold Story”. It is also true that despite the wealth of the Jackson family, the financial burden of Bubbles’ care has fallen to the organization that took him in and will permanently provide for him.
Despite the very best intentions, including saving Bubbles as a baby from a biomedical facility, Michael Jackson’s attempt to keep and care for a chimpanzee was a resounding failure. After the age of 7, Bubbles gained body mass and muscle, became mischievous and hierarchical, and was deemed unfit to continue living in the Jackson house. He lived several years in a cage, managed by Hollywood trainer Bob Dunn. He was never a long-term resident of Michael’s crowning property, Neverland Ranch. Michael sent for him with decreasing regularity until 2005, when Bob Dunn retired and Bubbles, along with several other chimpanzees from the entertainment industry, were sent to the Center for Great Apes (CGA) in Wauchula, Florida.
Arguably, this was Bubbles’ largest break. Since joining the CGA, Bubbles has integrated into a family group of chimpanzees where he is dominant male. Stripped of his overalls and offered a permanent residence, Bubbles has learned how to be a chimpanzee again. The most recent pictures of 27-year old Bubbles depict a handsome, pepper-faced male, and the CGA reports that Bubbles is surprisingly tender. Bubbles psychological well-being has likely improved tremendously since his arrival at the CGA – chimps, like humans, are highly social and require interaction with their own species to continue normal behavior. As a pet, lack of interaction with his own kind would have increased stress and led to sporadic and unpredictable outbursts, the likely reason for his removal from the Jackson house in the first place. At the sanctuary, however, nobody wants anything more from him than to carry out the best life he can live, with all the dignity nature intended.
While the infamy of Bubbles’ story might be unique, the outcome is not. Too often, baby chimpanzees are taken in as pets by individuals without consideration for their future. With their human-like faces and large eyes, their uncanny intelligence and boundless affection, baby chimps are often treated like children, and are integrated as such into the family. They seem to be the ideal pet. That is, until they reach 7 or 8, gain an immense about of muscle and weight, and start challenging their owners for dominance, just as they would in the wild. At this point, most owners, rightfully feeling threatened by the new persona emerging in their household, will cut their losses and “get rid” of the chimp. But sanctuaries are full, and many are stretching their capacity to accommodate the increasing burden of the chimpanzee pet trade. Given their longevity, a chimpanzee surrendered at age 7 might have 40 or 50 years left to live. Bubbles reportedly costs about $13,000 a year in care, which is a shocking $520,000 over his probable lifetime. That is an expense that can only be avoided by informed customer decisions. Wild animals, especially chimpanzees, cannot be tamed. They often enter into households as cuddly youngsters, but the wild begins to emerge in their later years. Many, if not all, will be forced into confinement (for their own protection, as well as their owners). Despite their appeal, in the long term, they will never be able to humanely survive in an urban environment.
Many readers might not be aware that Michael Jackson purchased no less than two additional baby chimpanzees after Bubbles had been transferred to a cage dwelling. These chimpanzees were also called Bubbles publicly, to maintain the image that infant Bubbles continued to thrive at Michael’s side. Both were later sold to facilities and zoos, and have since become fairly untraceable. The removal of chimpanzees from their wild habitat and their subsequent fate is a direct result of our actions as consumers desiring exotic pets. We can help to prevent additional removal of animals from their natural habitat, but the animals that have already been extricated are most often never able to return. The best we can hope for is that those taken from their homes can lead a peaceful life in captivity.