Texas grad student mauled by chimps knew the risks

Associated Press Modified: July 2, 2012 at 4:48 pm •  Published: July 2, 2012
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DALLAS (AP) — An American anthropology student attacked by chimps he was studying in South Africa knew primate research was not without risks. But after having volunteered at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden in the past, he was eager to pursue graduate research with abused and orphaned chimpanzees.

He knew the people, the chimps, and it was a good opportunity.

"We all really encouraged him," said Lisa Corewyn, a primatology doctoral student at the University of Texas at San Antonio where Andrew Oberle is working on his master's degree. "Once we knew he wanted to work with chimps, we said 'Go for it!'"

Authorities say Oberle was giving a lecture to about a dozen tourists Thursday when two chimps pulled him under a security fence. He was bitten and dragged nearly a half-mile before the manager of the institute fired in the air, scaring the animals away. Efforts to pull the chimpanzees off Oberle had failed, and conservationist Eugene Cussons said he himself was attacked during the scuffle.

Cussons, a host of the Animal Planet show "Escape to Chimp Eden," said Oberle had apparently gone behind the first of two security fences while talking to the group. He said he wouldn't know what led to the attack until he spoke with him.

Oberle was in the intensive care unit at Mediclinic Nelspruit hospital in South Africa on Monday. He remained sedated after six hours of surgery Sunday, when doctors cleaned and stitched multiple wounds and attended to fractures and other injuries, the hospital said.

An uncle, Carl Oberle, of suburban St. Louis, said his nephew did not lose an arm in the attack but both limbs were "ripped up." He said Oberle had been placed in an induced coma "because he lost so much blood and his blood pressure was so low."

"I don't know if he is out of it yet," Carl Oberle said. "He has to get his strength back up so they can do more surgeries."

Oberle, 26, had been passionate about chimps since the seventh grade, when he saw a film about Goodall, said his mother, who spoke to The Associated Press before leaving Missouri for South Africa. Goodall, a famed primatologist, discovered that chimps were the first non-human animals to make and use tools, an area of research that also intrigued Oberle.

Before enrolling his master's program, he worked for several years as a camp counselor at the St. Louis Zoo, where he also did primate research, zoo spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said.

"He was enthusiastic, engaging and made children understand the need for conservation," Gallagher said. "He is very well-liked and respected at the zoo."