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A Surprisingly Deep History of Celebrities Being Attacked by Primates

As it turns out, Hayden Panettiere’s recent brush with a monkey was not an anomaly

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

I have some awful news. People reported on Thursday that Hayden Panettiere had been scratched by a monkey while on vacation with family in Barbados. Well—let’s not get ahead of ourselves: People is diligent enough to note that Hayden Panettiere was “reportedly” scratched by a monkey while on vacation with family in Barbados. The door is still open on the possibility of this monkey scratch being made up.

But to get further into the story: “Life was not exactly a beach for Hayden” when she attempted to feed a banana to a monkey she encountered near the Barbadian coastline. (The species of the offending monkey has not been identified, which first of all is, I’m sure, offensive to all monkeys, but it is kind of funny because technically there’s still a chance a massive baboon scratched Hayden Panettiere.) Now, don’t worry—Panettiere is OK. The quality of the banana must have been only slightly insulting to this monkey, because the actress was reportedly left with only a mild laceration that was then bandaged up. She may be feeling somewhat betrayed, however: People is keen to note in its report that in 2015, Panettiere fell in love with a gorilla named Tony during a trip to the Kiev Zoo and subsequently built him a new enclosure. Apparently Tony did not get the word out to all primates that Panettiere is “super cool.” Or maybe Tony was like, “Actually? Freedom would’ve been better than a new cage, girl from Nashville.”

Upon doing some critically important research, though, I’ve discovered that Hayden Panettiere is not alone in this. A staggering amount of celebrities have had run-ins with primates. In a study published in 2012, the Humane Society of the United States reported that about 275 people had been attacked by primates since 1990. By my count—and it’s important to note that most monkey attacks go unreported—eight famous people including Panettiere have been attacked by primates in a similar time frame. That accounts for 3 percent of attacks, which doesn’t sound like much—but, according to Wired, famous people make up only .041 percent of the population. Primates are getting into altercations with celebrities at a higher rate than the rest of civilization.

Why? Is it because famous people smell nice? Or perhaps because their outsize personalities cause them to not be as cautious as they should be around wild animals? Maybe they’ve become too comfortable because David Schwimmer had only good things to say about the monkey that played Marcel on Friends? Let’s break down each celebrity-primate attack to see if we can determine a cause for this odd phenomenon.

Bubbles Bit Me

Year: The Eighties
Victim: Rashida Jones

This is the only case I found in which a famous person was attacked by a famous primate. Bubbles, of course, was the chimpanzee owned by Michael Jackson from 1988 to 2005. He is an ape who slept in a crib in Jackson’s bedroom, ate candy, and used toilets. He is also an ape who once bit Rashida Jones, the actor from Parks & Recreation and the daughter of legendary producer Quincy Jones. (Why didn’t anyone ask Quincy about this when he was out there giving wild interviews?)

On Desus & Mero in 2016, Jones recalled how Bubbles lashed out at her after she punished him for throwing something at her. “I, like, hit him on the head—I was like, ‘No!’—because I had seen Michael punish him before. And he just grabbed my hand and looked me dead in the eye, [and bit me].”

“It was like pouring blood.”

That is terrifying; not the Bubbles I remember. The moral of the story, however, is that you should not hit chimpanzees on the head.

He Took a Big, Big Mouthful

Year: 1991
Victim: Danny DeVito

As DeVito told it on The Graham Norton Show in 2016, he was attacked by a monkey on the set of Batman Returns. The monkey in question was a capuchin dressed as a bellhop, and the attack occurred when filming a scene in which the capuchin was meant to deliver a note to DeVito’s character, the Penguin. As the actor tells it, “I’m just in this big suit, with the beak and the whole megillah, with the flipper hands … and I put this kind of black, dark green mouthwash in, so that when I talked it would kind of ooze out and drip down … and I go up to the edge and go [makes unintelligible grunt noises]. The monkey comes down, takes one look at me, and leaps at my balls.”

Here is a photo of Danny DeVito showing Ewan McGregor, Sam Neill, Miranda Hart, and John Bishop exactly where in the crotch he was bitten by a monkey:


Sam Neill is quite amused.

DeVito says he didn’t feel a thing because of the enormous Penguin costume he was wearing. The monkey, meanwhile, was not written out of the movie for this offense.

Which is good. It seems to me that the only thing this monkey was guilty of was not liking a Batman villain. Of course a little capuchin is going to defend its territory against a penguin-man-thing oozing black liquid from the mouth. This monkey is a hero with honor, at least on the same scale as Robin.

In the Wild

Year: 1992
Victim: Julia Roberts

Somewhere between playing Tinkerbell in Hook and Darby Shaw in The Pelican Brief, Julia Roberts decided to go to Asia to hang out with orangutans for a PBS documentary called In the Wild. It is a fascinating relic of the early ’90s. It literally begins with Julia Roberts saying, “The longer I live in New York, the less I notice the chaos around me. The faster life gets, the more it becomes a blur.” And then there’s this shot of the actress full of ennui on a Manhattan street:


The whole thing is on YouTube. You should definitely watch it.

Anyway, Roberts’s trip to Asia seems like it mostly went well. PBS got a lot of shots of her cuddling with little primates for the VHS covers, and Roberts learned to appreciate her fast-moving lifestyle again—generally, a success. But there is a part of the documentary in which it seems like things got a little violent:

This is a video of … Julia Roberts … subjecting herself to primate assault? She literally … lets a giant orangutan … wrap its hand around her throat? Why does she say, “It’s OK” when it’s clearly not? Also, did that orangutan steal Julia Roberts’s purse? WHY DID ANY OF THIS NEED TO HAPPEN?!

Afterward, Roberts says she feels like bursting into tears because of “the raw thrill of the experience.” I’m gonna go ahead and say once again that the orangutan in this situation was blameless, because apparently Julia Roberts is a deranged human who travels across the world to feel what it’s like to almost be murdered by an animal.

The Ape of Gibraltar

Year: 2009
Victim: Jason Biggs

The Rock of Gibraltar in Spain is notoriously oversaturated with macaque monkeys. They are practically a tourist attraction, and are known to climb onto visitors and also steal food from them. In 2009, the star of American Pie learned that it’s not all fun and games when it comes to Gibraltar macaques.

“Jason and Eddie [Kaye Thomas] decided to go on the trip to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of Pie,” The Telegraph reported at the time. (We don’t have time to fully address the shortening of American Pie to Pie, just know that I NOTICE AND DISPUTE IT.) “They were hiking in the woods when this monkey suddenly leapt on Jason from a tree and tried to bite his face off. Jason’s travelling companions managed to fend the beast off and Jason thankfully wasn’t seriously hurt, just shaken up.”

Is “beast” necessary? Sure, this monkey did allegedly try to bite Jason Biggs’s face off, but monkeys are humans’ closest ancestors—show some respect. To me, this sounds like a case of a rogue monkey. Biggs (as far as we know) did not do anything to provoke it—he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m sure he’s still pretty upset about it. Not because he almost lost his face, but because after the story became public the media more or less just said that Jason Biggs got the shit beat out of him by a small-ish monkey.

Bali Bite

Year: 2014
Victim: Nina Dobrev

Clearly, monkey bites make great fodder for late-night television. I almost think some of these celebrities are subjecting themselves to monkey attacks just so that they can have a good story to tell Jimmy Fallon.

This time, Nina Dobrev of The Vampire Diaries fame was in Bali when she offered her arm up to a caged primate. This little guy—perhaps annoyed at his incarceration and/or confused by a human so willfully abandoning her common sense—proceeded to bite that arm. And now Nina Dobrev can’t feel any sensation in her thumb.

This video is interesting because Dobrev’s scar from the attack is almost in the same location as where Bubbles bit Rashida Jones in the ’80s. And the photo of Dobrev’s bandaged arm looks identical to Hayden Panettiere’s. I take this as proof that monkeys prefer to bite famous female wrists, especially if the female in question presents said wrist in such appetizing fashion.

You Want a Peanut?

Year: 2016
Victim: Gina Rodriguez

The star of Jane the Virgin tweeted the above video in 2016. She elaborated on the story during a subsequent visit to Ellen. (Again, monkey bite stories—great for talk shows.) “It broke skin,” Rodriguez told Ellen DeGeneres. Here’s the rest of the story:

It was the most magical experience of my life. So I go and get peanuts. It’s an hour experience, there’s monkeys climbing all over me. I feel like I’m Pocahontas—I’m something, right? I’m like a Disney character. Because I’m singing—not really very well—and the monkeys are just hanging all over me. So it was the most magical experience. And I have one peanut left … and I pass the monkey a peanut and the monkey looks at me and he’s like [makes angry yanking motion], and I’m like, that was so strange. And then I turn my back and he latches onto my back. And I’m like, “That monkey just bit me!”

The facts of this case are plain: Gina Rodriguez allowed herself to be drowned in monkeys. Gina Rodriguez also fed these monkeys peanuts, and gave the impression that these peanuts were a never-ending resource. When the opposite proved true, one monkey became fed up. It is hard for me to blame this monkey for expressing frustration after he was wrongly led to believe that he had tapped into an endless supply of peanuts.

A Real Chance at a Monkey Attack

Year: 2017
Victim: Kamal Givens

If you know Kamal Givens at all, you probably know him better as Chance from I Love New York and several other shows from VH1’s late-2000s reality TV renaissance. Givens experienced his brush with monkey violence while in Thailand filming a documentary called N***** in Thailand. According to TMZ, Givens “started playing with a group of monkeys at a sanctuary. A baby viciously attacked Kamal.”

The footage of the incident obtained by TMZ doesn’t do a great job of illuminating why a baby monkey lashed out at a VH1 reality star, nor does the website’s written report. It merely says, “The baby goes to town on him,” along with the most profound four-word sentence I have ever read: “Monkeys and people freaked.”

This one is a mystery. Though having seen Givens once threaten another reality show contestant by saying “Bitch, give me your address,” I am skeptical that he was completely innocent in this situation. N***** in Thailand has not yet been released.

Aside from the case of Jason Biggs, star of Pie, it appears that the celebrities were responsible for their injuries in these monkey encounters. They provoked their respective monkeys to violence by either: (a) physically abusing them, (b) dressing up as a penguin, (c) asking to be assaulted, or (d) building up false hope regarding peanuts.

The lesson, one that should be heeded by all celebrities planning exotic vacations, is this: Please let the monkeys chill. Just because they kinda-sorta look like cute little baby humans does not mean they are not animals who will gladly take a bite of famous-person wrist.