Remembering Bubbles the chimp and Michael Jackson's other exotic pets
Bubbles was, of course, part of Jackson's entourage -- and of his mystique -- in the 1980s. He accompanied Jackson to events and in the studio during the recording of his "Bad" album. When Jackson toured Japan, Bubbles was there. He even learned how to Moonwalk (sort of).
Of course, as with many elements of Jackson's life, it's hard to separate fact from fiction. The star reportedly rescued a young Bubbles from a cancer research center in Texas in 1985. The chimp eventually faded from public view, with few references made to him until Jackson's famous television interview with British journalist Martin Bashir, "Living with Michael Jackson," which aired in early 2003. In the interview, Jackson told Bashir that Bubbles had become aggressive as he aged, and had been sent away over fears that he would harm Jackson's youngest child, Prince Michael II.
Bubbles had apparently been living with his longtime trainer, Bob Dunn, since at least as early as 2002, when Dunn spoke with People Magazine. "Bubbles is an adult chimp and a wild animal," Dunn told the magazine. "We don't let him out to play."
The trainer did say, however, that Jackson and his children had been to his Sylmar ranch to visit the chimp. "The last time Michael visited, Bubbles definitely recognized and remembered him," he told the Telegraph.
In late 2003, a report surfaced that Bubbles had attempted suicide but "was rushed to the hospital in time." (No further details, or even confirmation that the attempt happened at all, were forthcoming.) And then, once again, the chimp returned to a life of relative obscurity.
In 2005, Dunn stopped working with great apes and sent the ones still living on his ranch, including Bubbles, to a the Center for Great Apes, a nonprofit sanctuary in southern-central Florida. The sanctuary's website describes the chimp, now 26, as charismatic and "able to throw sand with amazing accuracy." It sums up his character in three words: smart, distinctive and tender.
A representative for Jackson contacted the sanctuary after Bubbles arrived, suggesting that the star would like to visit his former pet. (The sanctuary is closed to the public, so special arrangements would have to be made for such a visit.) But, sanctuary director Patti Ragan told People in a recent interview, Jackson never made it to Florida. Bubbles doesn't seem to mind, though -- after all, chimps are ill-suited to life with humans, and his new home affords him the opportunity to interact with other chimps, notably his best friend, Sam.
Sanctuary staff haven't attempted to tell Bubbles about his former owner's death. "We haven't said anything to him yet," Ragan told People.
As for Jackson's other animals -- he kept tigers, giraffes, reptiles, birds and other exotics at his Neverland Ranch -- they seem to have been scattered to the four winds. The AFP reports:
While Bubbles remains high-profile, animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said it was hard to track down most of Jackson's former pets.
Lisa Wathne, PETA's specialist in captive exotic animals, voiced particular concern about two of Jackson's orangutans sent to a private owner in Connecticut and reptiles at a roadside zoo in Oklahoma.
She said Jackson's case showed why wild animals should not be kept as pets.
"All too often even people who start with good intentions, as Michael Jackson certainly did, don't have the ability to properly care for these animals," she said.
"And unfortunately in Michael Jackson's case he did apparently run into financial problems that ultimately led to his animals being disbursed to places all over the world. We don't know, frankly, where most of them ended up."
Two tigers, Thriller and Sabu, now reside at Tippi Hedren's Shambala sanctuary in Acton, north of L.A. Thirteen Chilean flamingos ended up at the Cape May County Zoo in New Jersey. Giraffes went to a sanctuary in Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, but faced eviction earlier this year.
As recently as a few months ago, Jackson's fascination with exotic animals was still causing controversy and making headlines. When reports suggested that the star's planned London concert series would include animals like elephants and panthers, PETA complained, telling music magazine NME that "exotic animals belong in Africa, not the O2 Arena among screaming fans, bright lights and stage explosions." The animal rights group later backed down when it said it had been told no animals would be used in the O2 concerts.
For a look backward at Jackson's exotic-pet history, check out Discovery's Born Animal blog.
-- Lindsay Barnett
Photo: Artist Jeff Koons' statue "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," which sold for $5.6 million at auction in 2001. Credit: Sotheby's