Nibbling on peanuts foraged from the straw carpeting their den, I watched two female chimpanzees sit side by side in a Dorset ape sanctuary this week, slowly getting to know one another.
It was a touching scene, made all the more remarkable by their very different backgrounds.
One of the chimps, named Naree, had a badly disfigured face and only four teeth after being trapped by poachers, smuggled to Thailand, beaten, and paraded in a squalid circus.
Yet her new ‘sister’, Kalu, who arrived in Britain last month, had lived in luxury for most of her 37 years on a country estate in South Africa owned by an aristocratic English heiress, the Honourable Patricia Cavendish O’Neill.
Best friends: Patricia O’Neill with her very pampered pet Kalu
Indeed, some 20 years ago, the eccentric Mrs O’Neill wrote her serially unfaithful husband, Australian Olympic swimmer Frank O’Neill, out of her will and bequeathed her entire fortune, estimated at £40 million, to her adored chimp.
This extraordinary gesture gave rise to reports that Kalu was the world’s second richest pet (surpassed only by a dog that inherited £90 million from a German countess).
Around that time, I interviewed Mrs O’Neill —who died last year, aged 93 — for the Mail’s ‘Weekend’ magazine, and she introduced me to the celebrated Kalu.
Well-meaning though she undoubtedly was, it was obvious that her pampering had thoroughly spoilt the chimp, who acted like a delinquent teenager.
Road to recovery: David with a properly cared-for Kalu in Dorset
When the photographer and I approached her enclosure, she emitted a terrifying shriek, attempted to grab my notebook, and hurled rocks at us.
‘Oh, she’s just jealous because I’m with you, not her,’ said her owner, smiling at the chimp indulgently and smothering her with kisses.
If Mrs O’Neill were unperturbed by Kalu’s antics, perhaps it was because, having come to regard the chimp as the daughter she never had (they even slept on the same Louis XIV-era four-poster bed) she had witnessed far worse behaviour.
Angry at being scolded by Mrs O’Neill’s sister-in-law, for instance, the chimp had bitten the poor woman’s finger off. And she would steal glasses of wine from guests lunching on the patio and get drunk.
In fact, she developed such a taste for alcohol that she famously tunnelled her way from the estate grounds into the wine cellar, where she was found surrounded by empty champagne bottles and nursing a giant hangover.
Kalu also smoked cigarettes when she got half a chance. But her party-piece was to sneak up behind visitors and remove their clothing.
Much to the mirth of Mrs O’Neill’s gardeners, she once stripped the bikini off a young woman taking a dip in the pool, put it on, and pranced around the grounds as the naked bather grabbed a towel to hide her modesty.
This, then, was the seemingly incorrigible creature I met two decades ago, on an unnerving afternoon at Broadlands, the Western Cape stud-farm then owned by Mrs O’Neill.
Kalu the chimpanzee, above and below. When the photographer and I approached her enclosure, she emitted a terrifying shriek, attempted to grab my notebook, and hurled rocks at us
When we were reacquainted at the Monkey World sanctuary in Dorset, this week, the transformation in her behaviour was remarkable
When we were reacquainted at the Monkey World sanctuary in Dorset, this week, the transformation in her behaviour was remarkable.
Greying now, with a whiskery beard and distinctive hazel eyes, she seemed so sweet-natured, as she was gently integrated into a family of chimps for the first time, that she was quite unrecognisable as the same animal.
Though she is no longer a cossetted heiress with the free run of a vast estate, and lives in an altogether more modest new home, she also appeared happier, and certainly healthier than the Kalu of old.
In fact, Monkey World director Dr Alison Cronin believes she might not have lived if she and her team had not rescued her from South Africa.
For when they found her, she was dangerously diabetic as a result of her sugary diet and the sweet ‘treats’ Mrs O’Neill fed to her. Six of her teeth had rotted and needed to be removed, and she was chronically underweight.
Monkey World Owner, Dr Alison Cronin. We got to her in the nick of time,’ Dr Cronin told me. ‘I think she was going downhill, and would have died’
‘I have no doubt that Patricia loved this chimpanzee entirely — to the point of distraction. So I am not blaming her — I get it,’ Dr Cronin said
‘We got to her in the nick of time,’ Dr Cronin told me. ‘I think she was going downhill, and would have died.
‘I have no doubt that Patricia loved this chimpanzee entirely — to the point of distraction. So I am not blaming her — I get it.
‘But she lived in an era when people viewed animals and their welfare in a different way, and Pat kept her in an environment that was inappropriate for chimpanzees.
‘She may have provided entertainment for Pat’s friends, but was that good for the chimp? No. You wouldn’t feed children sweets and let them do what they wanted just to keep them as friends, and the same applies to chimpanzees.
‘We are giving Kalu the medical treatment she needs, we’ve put her on a healthy diet with lots of seeds, nuts, and pulses. So now she is doing very well indeed. She could live until she is 50 or 55.’
This is heartening news. But it begs an obvious question. Why has a chimp that once stood to inherit £40 million ended up in a rescue sanctuary, 8,500 miles from home?
The story behind Kalu’s journey to Britain — by turns gripping and farcical — is the stuff of Hollywood movies, and it nearly didn’t happen at all.
For at the 11th hour, after being tranquilised and settled in a box for the 12-hour flight from Cape Town to Heathrow, Kalu became the unwitting pawn in a battle over the late Mrs O’Neill’s estate.
Bizarrely, the chimp found herself being ‘held hostage’, as Dr Cronin puts it, by one of the wrangling parties.
The dispute became so heated that three police cars, and a band of angry animal rights campaigners, converged on the estate where she was kept.
This chaotic scene, to which we will return, was entirely in keeping with Patricia Cavendish O’Neill’s riotously eventful life.
Kalu the chimpanzee (right) pictured with her new family members Naree (left) and Bryan (centre)
She was the daughter of the Countess of Kenmare, a statuesque blonde member of the Lindeman wine family, once said to be among the world’s six most beautiful women.
Since the countess had four husbands, all of whom died suspiciously soon after marrying her, her friend Somerset Maugham gave her the soubriquet ‘Lady Kill-more’. Her husbands included two fabulously rich tycoons, Viscounts Furness and Kenmare, and she inherited their vast wealth.
Born and raised in Mayfair, her daughter Patricia lived for a time in one of Europe’s finest villas, on the French Riviera, where guests included Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo and various members of the Royal Family.
She later moved to a safari estate in Kenya, where the family owned many lodges and thousands of acres, and kept a pet lion called Tana. But in the late 1960s, she settled on the stud-farm her mother had bought in South Africa.
Along the way she led an exotic private life. In her twenties she married ‘Swimmer O’Neill’, whom she met on a steamer bound for Australia, but soon divorced him to wed a rakish tycoon who caught her eye when dancing (with a dachshund draped around his neck) in a Bahamas nightclub. Then they parted and she re-married O’Neill.
However, as Mrs O’Neill recounted in her memoir, A Chimpanzee In The Wine Cellar, he spent most weekends sleeping with the pretty house-guests, which may be why she developed such a passion for animals.
Kalu the chimpanzee pictured with Ryan in her new home
Kalu the chimpanzee pictured in her new home with Dr Alison Cronin
Kalu in her new home. Kalu, who arrived in Britain last month, had lived in luxury for most of her 37 years on a country estate in South Africa owned by an aristocratic English heiress, the Honourable Patricia Cavendish O’Neill
Then again, perhaps they became a substitute for the children she was not able to conceive.
Whatever the reason, she amassed a chaotic menagerie comprising dozens of baboons — rescued from Cape farmers who trapped and shot them as ‘vermin’ — innumerable dogs and cats, goats and chickens, flocks of macaws, parrots, peacocks, and hundreds of ducks and geese which shared her swimming pool.
By the time I met her, these animals had colonised the mansion, pecking at her valuable artefacts and treating the period French furniture as their own.
She didn’t care, for she adored them all as much as any human. However, the one she loved most was Kalu, who had been snatched from her family by Congolese poachers as a baby, and kept as a trophy by the Argentinian consul-general in Kinshasa.
When civil war broke out, the consular officials fled, leaving the chimp tied to a tree in the compound. Mrs O’Neill was asked by a friend to care for her, and was smitten the moment the tiny ape was put in her arms at Johannesburg airport.
Thus began The Honourable Patricia’s years of misguided devotion to Kalu.
Not only did the chimp replace Frank in her ‘mother’s’ bed, she would dine at the same table as Mrs O’Neill and accompany her on shopping trips, only moving into a fenced enclosure after the finger-biting incident.
Even then she was allowed to help build her own, comfortably furnished den (Kalu was adept with a hammer and saw) and she was given a TV. After watching a circus programme featuring trapeze artists, she taught herself to tightrope walk.
As age came upon Mrs O’Neill, and she realised that Kalu would outlive her, she changed her will to ensure the chimp’s comfortable lifestyle would continue after her death. Her other animals were also provided for.
Her husband, who by then spent much of his time in Australia (where he still lives, aged 93) accepted this without complaint.
By all accounts, however, she was utterly hopeless at managing money, frittering away countless sums on lavish parties and racehorses which cost a fortune to keep and rarely brought large returns. And, of course, on her menagerie.
In her memoir, she also described how she was fleeced by an unscrupulous accountant, only being alerted when most of her money had gone. The final straw came when she was advised to invest in a high-yield hedge fund.
Thus began The Honourable Patricia’s years of misguided devotion to Kalu
This turned out to be a Ponzi scheme — a fact that emerged when its huge losses were revealed, prompting one of the bosses to shoot his fellow director before turning the gun on himself.
In desperation Mrs O’Neill sold off jewellery to pay her bills, and survived on handouts from friends and family members. But in 2006 she was forced to sell Broadlands – for a paltry £500,000 — to a landowner, Willie van der Westhuizen.
However they struck a deal whereby she could live in the mansion with her dwindling number of baboons and dogs for the remainder of her life. Kalu could also stay in his paddock, but would be rehoused when she died.
This week, the executor of Mrs O’Neill’s will, Jenny du Toit, a nurse who was also her carer until 2018, described her sad final days.
‘She was in a wheelchair, living alone in a house that had been totally wrecked by her animals, with wood-beetle eating away at the French furniture,’ she told me.
‘Eventually she developed pneumonia, but she would wheel herself out to see Kalu until she had no more strength left.’
Virtually penniless, Mrs O’Neill died in June last year. Belatedly, however, friends in the racing world funded a trust set up to pay for Kalu’s upkeep, so, for a few months she remained on Mr Westhuizen’s land with her long-time keeper, Michael, and only a sickly old nanny-goat for company.
She was fed by a monkey sanctuary close to Broadlands, but it wasn’t able to give Kalu a home. So, clearly unwell and pining for her ‘mother’, she lolloped about in misery.
Then the local sanctuary contacted Monkey World, whose track-record in rescuing and rehabilitating primates is internationally renowned, and Dr Cronin agreed to bring Kalu to Dorset.
It was the start of a dramatic struggle for possession of the chimp. The rights and wrongs are too convoluted to unravel here.
Chimpanzee Kalu pictured in her new home in Britain
Chimpanzee Kalu pictured in her new home in Britain. Four weeks ago, therefore, when Dr Cronin arrived with Monkey World’s animal director and vet to sedate Kalu and place him in a transport box for the evening BA flight to London, they found the estate’s gates locked
Suffice it to say that Mr Van der Westhuizen claims the trust was obliged to pay severance money to Kalu’s keeper, Michael, and other members of Mrs O’Neill’s staff, but failed to do so.
Jenny du Toit says he is also claiming thousands to repair damage to the mansion, caused by the menagerie.
Four weeks ago, therefore, when Dr Cronin arrived with Monkey World’s animal director and vet to sedate Kalu and place him in a transport box for the evening BA flight to London, they found the estate’s gates locked.
Jenny says the landowner announced he was ‘holding the chimpanzee to ransom’ until he received the money he claimed to be owed, and as the police, protesters, and other townsfolk descended there was a stand-off.
It only ended when the trustee’s lawyer agreed to hand a coveted Cavendish family heirloom — known as the ‘Kenmare Ring’ because it displayed two big diamonds gifted to Countess Kenmare by two of her husbands — to an independent lawyer, as collateral pending settlement of the dispute.
Jenny says the landowner announced he was ‘holding the chimpanzee to ransom’ until he received the money he claimed to be owed, and as the police, protesters, and other townsfolk descended there was a stand-off
It hasn’t been valued recently, but was said, years ago, to be worth more than £30,000.
By the time matters were resolved the London-bound plane had gone. The following day, however, Kalu was on her way to a new life — as a proper chimpanzee rather than a humanised figure of amusement.
Since chimps can be aggressive with interlopers, sometimes fatally so, integrating her into a new family of five will be a slow, delicate process.
Already, though, she has struck up a friendship with Naree, and seems to have hit it off with the dominant male, Bryan, who is 20 years her junior and seems set to become her ‘toy-boy’.
The next step will be to introduce her to her new brother, Rodders, and Lulu and Ash, two potentially jealous female rivals for Bryan’s affections.
‘For Kalu it has all ended well,’ said Dr Cronin. ‘I’d like to think that Patricia would be very pleased that she has left that farm, which wasn’t a good and healthy place for her, and is finally going to have a family of her own kind.’
Uproarious though it might once have seemed to see her mischievous chimp quaffing wine and disrobing startled bathers, I feel sure that she would.