A Chance Meeting With a Chimp in a Mall

KIMBERLY gave my hand a quick tug and stopped abruptly. I looked down at my three-year-old daughter and saw her blue eyes staring straight ahead, her little mouth gaping. Then I saw him.

It took a minute for me to realize that this was not the ''organ-grinder's monkey'' of my own San Francisco childhood. It was a thick-chested, small-sized chimpanzee, walking toward us down the main aisle of the Sears store in a California shopping mall. As he neared us, his speed increased. With a final, quick leap, he grabbed me around the legs and hung on like a scared child.

Unaware of the crowd gathering or of the security guard from the mall office fidgeting nearby, I saw only a small, round, furry face with anxious eyes. Evidently, he saw something comforting, for he began to climb up my green slacks as if I were his favorite tree. Then he laid his head against my chest, wrapped his legs around my waist, and sighed.

Except for the length of his legs, he felt like a chubby one-year-old child. I'd never held a monkey before, but I knew about scared children. So I put my arms around him and patted him gently. That act seemed to loosen the tongues of the crowd around me.

''Is he yours?''

''Do you have a monkey?''

''Why did he come to you?''

''Does he know you?'' and so on.

Bouncing up and down, Kim shouted: ''Mommy's got a monkey! Mommy's got a monkey!''

Meanwhile, the security guard repeated hopefully: ''Is he yours?''

''No,'' I said.

''But he does seem to like you, and we don't want to upset him now, do we?'' The security guard's voice sounded a little high-pitched. ''So do you mind just holding him and coming with me?''

We left the crowd and went into the mall. Kimberly still bounced beside me, her short blonde hair flying up and down. The guard talked on his radio.

With the help of his office, we learned that the chimp had escaped from a pet shop on the outside of the mall. He had been brought in the day before by a woman who felt she could no longer handle him.

The pet-shop people, unaware of his Houdini-like abilities, had cuffed him by one ankle to a big perch. After he escaped, he had simply waited until someone entered the big glass doors of the mall and slipped in. Then, turning into the Sears store, he'd spotted me. Whether he mistook me for a big green palm tree or for his previous owner, I'll never know.

With the chimp still clinging tightly to my torso, we entered the pet shop. His eyes darted rapidly from my face to the cages and walls. I stepped up to the counter and began to unwrap his arms and legs. He reacted instantly. He leaped onto the counter and spun around to face me, baring his teeth and snarling. I took a quick step back.

He whirled again, reached out a long arm and grabbed a bird cage with one hand and tried to push the other hand through the narrow bars to reach the squawking parakeet.

The two employees in the shop donned heavy leather gloves and shouted orders at the chimp and each other. All the dogs started barking, and from the back of the shop a macaw shrieked.

''Get your child out of here,'' the security guard shouted into my ear. ''It's going to get wild.''

Five seconds later, Kim and I and the security guard were outside the shop with our noses pressed against the window, watching the confusion inside.

He was right. Before they captured the chimp, he had ripped open four large bags of dog food, ruined a display of budgie toys, and knocked over a stack of hamster cages.

Finally, one employee caught him and managed to shut him into a cage designed for puppies. The chimp shook the cage door, then searched the small space for another way to escape. He finally gave up and settled down to watch the employees frantically cleaning up the shop.

The next day, at my daughter's pleading, we went back to see the chimpanzee. We found him still sitting silently in the cage. He had only about two inches of head- room. He sat hunched over, slowly rocking back and forth, and pulling at his chest hairs with the long fingers of one hand. The other hand just rested beside him on the bars of the cage floor. He looked defeated. The lively spark of life that had animated his face the day before was gone.

Kim looked at me, puzzled.

I tried to explain to her that sometimes people like to own an animal their neighbors don't have. They lavish attention and affection on this exotic creature while it is young and cute, and finally discard it when it reaches maturity and behaves as nature intended. I wished I could explain this to the chimpanzee, he looked so sad and disheartened.

About a week later, we went back to the pet shop to see ''our chimp.'' A small beagle puppy stood in the cage. We looked around for the chimp, but he was gone.

When I asked one of the employees about him, I learned that a man had bought the chimp as a birthday present for his 10-year-old boys. They lived out in the country and had lots of room for animals. In fact, they already owned a lady chimpanzee!

We felt a bit more light-hearted as we drove home. It was good to know that this fascinating creature who entered our lives so abruptly would have a caring home to go to after all.

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