Scott Gordon, NBC 5 News
A UTSA anthropology graduate student who was attacked by chimps is slowly improving in a South African hospital.
A Texas anthropology student attacked by chimps he was studying in South Africa knew primate research was not without risks. But after volunteering at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden in the past, he was eager to pursue his work with abused and orphaned chimpanzees.
"We all really encouraged him," said Lisa Corewyn, a primatology doctoral student at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where Andrew Oberle is working on his master's degree. "Once we knew he wanted to work with chimps, we said, 'Go for it!'"
"Andy is such a great guy, a whole-hearted person," said his former roommate, Anthony Reimherr, of San Antonio.
Reimherr said he was shocked when he learned of the attack.
"It's just so sad to hear it," he said.
Authorities say Oberle was giving a lecture to about a dozen tourists Thursday when two chimps pulled him under a security fence. He was bitten and dragged nearly a half-mile before the manager of the institute fired in the air, scaring the animals away. Efforts to pull the chimpanzees off Oberle had failed, and conservationist Eugene Cussons said he himself was attacked during the scuffle.
Cussons, a host of the Animal Planet show "Escape to Chimp Eden," said Oberle had apparently gone behind the first of two security fences while talking to the group. He said he wouldn't know what led to the attack until he spoke with him.
Oberle was in the intensive care unit at Mediclinic Nelspruit hospital in South Africa on Monday. He remained sedated after six hours of surgery Sunday, when doctors cleaned and stitched multiple wounds and attended to fractures and other injuries, the hospital said.
An uncle, Carl Oberle, of suburban St. Louis, said his nephew did not lose an arm in the attack but both limbs were "ripped up." He said Oberle had been placed in an induced coma "because he lost so much blood and his blood pressure was so low."
"I don't know if he is out of it yet," Carl Oberle said. "He has to get his strength back up so they can do more surgeries."
Andrew Oberle, 26, had been passionate about chimps since the seventh grade, when he saw a film about Goodall, said his mother, who spoke to The Associated Press before leaving Missouri for South Africa. Goodall, a famed primatologist, discovered that chimps were the first non-human animals to make and use tools, an area of research that also intrigued Oberle.
Before enrolling his master's program, he worked for several years as a camp counselor at the St. Louis Zoo, where he also did primate research, zoo spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said.
"He was enthusiastic, engaging and made children understand the need for conservation," Gallagher said. "He is very well-liked and respected at the zoo."
Corewyn, who met Oberle in 2008 or so when he was taking an undergraduate anthropology class she was teaching, also described him as positive and enthusiastic, particularly about the graduate program he eventually applied to. The program is unusual, she said, in that it has three primatologists in its anthropology department and a large contingent of primatology graduate students doing research around the world.
Oberle stood out in the group because his background was with captive animals, while most of his peers study primates in the wild, Corewyn said. He made an extended visit to the Goodall institute a year or so ago to observe the chimps and then returned last month for a follow-up visit, Cussons said. He had training to ensure he understood how chimpanzees might behave in captivity and knew to keep a safe distance. He also received additional training before speaking to the tour group.
"Chimps are notoriously difficult to work with; we all know that," said Corewyn, whose own research is with howler monkeys. "But people that love chimps, love their chimps."
Male chimps can stand up to 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weigh about 154 pounds, according to the Goodall institute. The two that attacked Oberle were male, though the sanctuary's website did not say how large they were. They have been isolated since the attack.
Corewyn said Oberle knew he wouldn't be able to go in with the chimps because they discussed the issue during meetings at the university. That was one of the challenges he had to figure out: how he was going to do his work given the barriers.
"We all know that there's risk in what we do," said Corewyn, whose own research assistant was shot and killed in the forests of Ecuador, where they were working a few years ago. "Some of us working in the wild, we have a high-risk field, so we have our share of horrible things happen just because of the nature of what we do and where we do it.
"But it's still shocking because, normally, for the most part, these things just don't happen," she said, adding, "Most of the time, (primates) are extremely caring and gentle."
Friends have started a Facebook page for Oberle, which includes a link for donations to his medical care.
"At this point all I want is for him to come back home and come home safely," Reimherr said.
NBC 5's Scott Gordon, Associated Press writer Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo., and Donna Bryson in Johannesburg contributed to this story.