Louis Theroux gets to grips with America’s most dangerous pets

The documentary-maker talks about his encounters with a volatile chimp and an amorous baboon

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You’d have thought that Louis Theroux would have had enough of cells. Last time we spoke, he’d recently been visiting the high-security inmates at Miami’s mega-jail who stood accused of murder and rape. And now he’s back among cages and pens – only ones that hold tigers, bears and primates. Which experience did he find the most daunting?

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“I’d much rather be behind bars with a dangerous rapist or a man who’s killed three people than with a chimpanzee,” he admits. “At least I can communicate with the rapist, but I don’t speak chimp. And you just don’t know what they’re going to do.

“I’m afraid that whatever reputation I have for being intrepid will be shattered. I behave like a total wimp around these wild animals.”

In America’s Most Dangerous Pets (airing tonight on BBC2 at 9pm), the non-humans are, thanks to their unpredictable nature, very much the stars of the show. Theroux is once again stateside, this time meeting the owners of animals that you’d normally expect to find in the wilds of Africa. One such encounter involves Cooper, a 120lb chimpanzee who’s on the cusp of sexual maturity at the volatile age of seven.

When Cooper’s owners, Jill and Brad James, guide their pet into the garden, Theroux and his crew observe from indoors. It’s a smart move as Cooper immediately bounds over and smashes a window with his paws: “I don’t think he was trying to attack,” says Theroux. “He also spat at me and the cameraman and threw a barrel at us. But I believe he was trying to say, ‘look, this is my territory. I’m the king here.’

“I felt a bit bad for Cooper, really. I think if you caught him on a good day, he’d be very sweet. We just weren’t willing to take the risk. On the one hand, we could have got a really good sequence if we’d been outside. On the other, he might have bitten off my testicles. So I thought we’d skip it.”

Up close and personal

But is the documentary-maker in danger of downplaying his pluck? After all, on another occasion, Theroux’s suburban safari leads him into the arms of Tatiana, a three-year-old baboon housed at Indiana’s Wildlife In Need & In Deed preserve. “We got along well,” he says.

‘Getting along’ in this case means being pawed, sniffed and screeched at in quite a disconcerting manner, but Theroux has his reasons for thinking that he and Tatiana hit it off:

“Tim Stark, who runs the business, had introduced her as his baboon daughter, so he’d established her in my mind as being a very feminine creature. When she was hugging me quite close and grooming me, it almost felt like a primate-to-primate interaction. The feeling of being understood up to a point was very odd. Having said that, the boom microphone made her go nuts and she’d freak out and climb on it. That was one of my more nerve-racking moments.”

There is, of course, a reason for all this monkeying around. In shedding light on the eccentricities of the country’s private zookeepers and owners of exotic pets, Theroux learns that there are, for example, more tigers in captivity in the US than can be found roaming wild in the whole of Asia.

I wonder what this says about the mentality of people who choose to keep animals that are too volatile and powerful to ever leave their cages for long periods.

“It’s a generalisation, but the men are looking for large, dangerous animals that represent raw physical power and aggression. Controlling and disciplining something ferocious like a tiger gives them a status. With women – and again it’s a generalisation – you notice that they’ve got the chimps and capuchin monkeys, who’re like surrogate children.”

Animal instincts

The problem is that all children mature and owners often reach the conclusion that they don’t have the necessary skills to deal with their fast-growing playmates.

“No one is going out there thinking, ‘what I want is a fully-grown chimp that I can only feed through the bars’. They’re after ones like Bubbles that they can cuddle and fool around with. And then six or seven years later, when they aren’t as frisky and fun, people realise that they’ve taken on more than they can handle.”

These unmanageable pets often end up at self-styled “sanctuaries” like the one Theroux spends time at in Oklahoma or at the home of Connie Casey, a breeder and dealer with a colony of 20 chimpanzees. Theroux visits her compound in Missouri after learning that one former resident, a male chimp named Travis, earned notoriety following a 2009 attack on his owner’s friend that left the victim with a lacerated face and severed nose.

“Those accounts really stick in your head and the primates do seem like they’d be happier in larger cages. That’s just my personal view because the atmosphere in Connie’s basement pens was quite prison-like. In fact, one of the strange things is that some of the traits of caged-up chimpanzees are exactly the same as those of caged-up humans.

“At San Quentin [Theroux spent time at the notorious prison for a documentary in 2008], I’d hear a lot about ‘gassing’, which is when prisoners take faeces and urine and fling them at the guards they don’t like. And on one of the last days at the GW Animal Park in Oklahoma, we saw a monkey that had learned to hide faeces in his mouth and if a keeper he didn’t like went near him, he’d spit poop at him.”

Incidents such as these raise an obvious question about whether a “wild” animal can ever truly settle to a life in captivity and it’s one that Theroux asks with his usual quiet tenacity. But, of course, the obvious attraction for the viewer is witnessing how he handles the more physical confrontations.

Whether he’s dodging excretions (human or otherwise) or fending off the advances of amorous baboons, it seems that these days Theroux is now constantly in search of increasingly perilous situations. Is he trying to up the ante with each outing?

“Well, it’s always been a case of pursuing stories that I’m interested in. Here, I actually wanted to reintroduce a humour and lightness that has been absent from some of my more recent projects.” And then he adds finally, “I really don’t consider myself to be a danger freak.”

Tatiana and Cooper, however, may well have a different opinion on the matter.

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Louis Theroux: America’s Most Dangerous Pets is on tonight at 9pm on BBC2