Jane Goodall's Terrifying Encounter With A Murderous Chimp

Without a doubt, Jane Goodall is the most famed and respected primate researcher to ever crouch in a jungle and observe our little hominid siblings. Ever since heading off to Gombe, Tanzania at 26 years old to dwell amongst chimpanzee populations, no one has done more to help us understand great apes, and in so doing understand ourselves. Perhaps the reader has seen videos of her such as 2013's release of the chimp Wounda into an animal sanctuary on Tchindzoulou Island in the Congo Basin. Wounda gives Goodall a long goodbye hug before heading off into the forest, showcasing the kindness, tenderness, and gratitude that our closest animal cousins are capable of demonstrating.

However, peering into the mirror of chimp behavior also reveals every other aspect of human nature, down to its most vile, cruel, and monstrous tendencies (as Ronald Reagan found out). Prominent cases like that of 2009's much-recounted chimp attack of house-dwelling Travis against his caretaker Charla Nash — described on The New York Times — made headlines and stuck in the mind of the public. Such violence, though, was an aberrant, snap action when Travis was placed under unusual duress, not a calculated attack.   

That being said, 1974 to 1978 saw a four-year chimp war in Gombe resulting in planned, brutal assaults that made even Goodall question her conclusions about our closest genetic relatives, per Big Think. Chimps systemically slaughtered other chimps, and cannibalized them — and in one case a mother-daughter chimp duo committed acts of serial infanticide against one baby after another.  

The disturbed psyche of Passion

The case of the serial-killing chimp happened in 1976 in Gombe, Tanzania, in the middle of the aforementioned  — yet unrelated — four-year "chimp war." In a nutshell, as a 2007 article from Current Biology on Science Direct explains, Jane Goodall observed a mother-daughter duo, Passion and Pom respectively, yank a three-week-old chimp infant directly from its mother's arms, bite through its skull, and proceed to cannibalize the corpse. In her 1990 book "Through a Window" Goodall reflected on the incident with horror, saying, "The carcass was consumed in the way that normal prey is consumed, slowly and with relish, each mouthful of meat chewed up with a few green leaves." After this first incident, Passion and Pom killed another two times. In one instance, Goodall intervened to stop an attack by "shouting and throwing sticks and stones," as Live Science recounts.

Primate researcher Peter Buirski had the opportunity to observe Passion in 1973 three years prior to these murders and evaluate her according to the Emotions Profile Index (EPI). As Buirski wrote in 1991 in the journal Primates on Springer Link, Passion was a "a disturbed, isolated, aggressive individual" in comparison to other female chimps in Gombe. At some point after this evaluation, Passion got pregnant, had Pom, and either taught or passed along to her daughter her own, savage tendencies. In either case, Passion instigated the attacks and not her daughter, and so the EPI proved accurate and "useful in detecting social deviance."

Slaughter and infanticide

The case of Passion and Pom was especially disturbing because both the chimps were female. In general, it's male chimps that demonstrate violent inclinations — particularly related to territory and resources — as studies from Peter Buirski in 1978 show, in the journal Animal Behaviour and published on Science Direct. As The Washington Post cites, Jane Goodall in the 1970s witnessed a group of five males maraud a single male from a splinter group for 20 minutes, a group of 11 males slaughter a different group of seven males, another group of males hunt and murder a single female, and more.

But amongst females, as the 2007 Current Biology article on Science Direct says, "... submissive signals and aggressive interactions" are rare, even between dominant and less dominant females. Once a chimp tribe settles into an area and gets familiar with their surroundings, their foraging becomes more efficient and the need to employ violence to survive diminishes. Whether or not Passion and Pom in 1976 felt that murder was their only recourse for survival is unknown, although this seems unlikely given Passion's psychological instability. 

And yet, as Live Science explains, Passion and Pom aren't the only murderous female chimps that researchers have encountered. Psychologist Simon Townsend cataloged female chimps heading out in murder squad-like "coalitions" to butcher infants. Ironically, Townsend pinned such behavior down to the widespread death of males in one group, and the subsequent influx of those females to a different, established group.