Michael Jackson's Chimpanzee

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Bubbles, Jackson and one of Jackson's pet llamas, early 1980
Bubbles, Jackson and one of Jackson's pet llamas, early 1980

On the anniversary of his death, we remember Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles

Never one to shy away from eccentricity and extremes, Michael Jackson, who died four years ago today, owned a number of unusual pets throughout his lifetime. Many of these were kept in a private zoo on his Neverland ranch and included two tigers – Thriller and Sabu, who were adopted by Tippi Hedren after Jackson's death – as well as frogs, rabbits, snakes, ostriches, giraffes and llamas. But of all Jackson's pets, it was of course Bubbles the chimpanzee who made the biggest splash, for a time acccompanying Jackson almost everywhere he went.

The common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is a species of great ape, found predominantly in West and Central Africa, whose English name derives from a Bantu language of Angola. Chimps weigh between 88 and 140 pounds, measure around 4' 3" to 5' 3" from head to tail, and are covered in coarse black hair – although their face, fingers, toes, palms of hands and soles of feet remain bare. The species lives in groups of up to 150 members and is strictly male-dominated and hierarchical. Fossils and DNA sequencing show chimpanzees to be the sister group to the modern human lineage. Over the centuries, many have opted to keep primates as pets, among them queens Catherine de’ Medici and Henrietta Maria. Similarly, when the British first started exploring Africa, they captured monkeys and kept them on ships to entertain sailors, dubbing them Ship’s Monkeys. Meanwhile, monkeys frequently appear in popular culture, from Tarzan's beloved Cheeta to Marcel, the cheeky capuchin adopted by Ross in Friends.

"Jackson taught his precious primate how to moonwalk, invited him into the studio during the recording of Bad and gave him a cameo role in the music video for Liberian Girl"

Jackson purchased Bubbles from a Texas research facility in the early 1980s, and their burgeoning bond fanned the flames of hysteria among the media – it was around this time that the nickname "Wacko Jacko" was coined. In 1988, Bubbles was installed in Neverland Ranch, where he slept in a crib in Jackson's bedroom, used the singer's toilet, and ate candy in the Neverland cinema. Jackson taught his precious primate how to moonwalk; invited him into the studio during the recording of Bad; and gave him a cameo role in the music video for Liberian Girl. Bubbles was Jackson's companion on his Japanese Bad tour, during which they paid a visit to the Mayor of Osaka and politely sipped green tea. Indeed, Kenny Rogers – author of Your Friends and Mine, which featured the duo – said of the animal, "Bubbles was so human it was almost frightening. He would take Christopher [Rogers' son] by the hand, walk over to the refrigerator, open it, take out a banana, and hand it to him."

In 2003, however, despite the duo's close connection, Jackson announced that Bubbles had become overly pugnacious. Shortly afterwards, Bubbles was removed to an animal sanctuary over fears he might attack Jackson's newborn son, Prince Michael II. Now 27, Bubbles lives in the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, where he spends his days painting, listening to old MJ hits, as well as flute-and-guitar music, eating sweet potatoes (his favourite snack), and hanging out with fellow chimp, and best friend, Sam.

Text by Daisy Woodward