IT'S A JUNGLE UP THEREBUSINESSMAN SMUGGLES APE INTO AIRLINER, PUTS THE WILD IN WILD BLUE YONDER
Q: Where does a 500-pound gorilla sit?
A: Anywhere he wants.
If, however, you happen to own a far more lightweight simian, your primate's seating opportunities are considerably more limited.
Or so Phoenix businessman Ric Adams discovered when he disguised his pet ape as a baby and smuggled the animal aboard a Minneapolis-bound Northwest Airlines flight.
"He only weighs about 22 pounds," says Adams of the 8-year-old gibbon, whose highflying antics made front-page headlines upon his arrival in Minneapolis. "But when you're carrying him around, by the end of the day it seems like he weighs 222."
A salesman for an auto-polishing system, Adams claims that Alex is worth his weight in gold as a sales tool. "This little guy can get me in to see anyone," boasts Adams, who frequently takes the ape on sales calls in the Valley. "We call on auto dealers and a lot of times they'll just blow you off. But everyone wants to see Alex, so I've gotten to see almost any dealer I've ever wanted to see."
If an ape could get his hand in the door of a Phoenix car dealership, why wouldn't it work in Minneapolis, too? Using that reasoning, Adams purchased a plane ticket for the ape under the name Alex Adams.
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Clad in diapers and shorts, then wrapped in a blanket, Alex was strictly dead weight when his owner carried the sedated animal through Terminal Three at Sky Harbor International Airport on June 29.
"We injected him with a drug that knocks him out for a while," explains the 60ish Adams, who was also accompanied on the trip by a business associate. "This little guy is strong and if he doesn't want to be wrapped up in a blanket--and he doesn't--there's no way you're going to keep him there."
The charade worked--so well, in fact, that in typical airport fashion Adams was allowed to board the plane before other passengers because he was carrying a "baby."
Luck was with Adams--no one on the plane requested a peek at the baby. But during the flight, the slumbering bundle of joy in the seat next to Adams' woke up.
"When I realized the sedative was wearing off, I simply removed the blanket and strapped Alex into his seat," says Adams, who explains that unlike monkeys, apes--and Alex in particular--are docile. "Alex was just sitting there looking straight ahead," recalls Adams, whose at-home menagerie also includes five far-less flier-friendly primates. "He's so well-behaved that when a flight attendant walked past us she just smiled; I assume she thought he was just a stuffed animal."
That attendant learned otherwise while serving lunch--Alex reached over and casually grabbed some food off Adams' tray.
"My God, he's alive!'" the startled stew stammered.
The ensuing chaos attracted the plane's captain, who, while reportedly impressed with Alex's behavior, was not impressed when Adams produced the $431 round-trip ticket he'd purchased for the ape. Although policy regarding transport of pets varies among airlines, none allows undomesticated pets such as an ape to ride in the cabin.
"You'd think that with all the financial problems the airlines are having, Northwest would have been happy getting Alex's business," comments Adams, noting that the gibbon's ticket was the only full-fare ticket in his party. (Adams and his associate were flying free on frequent-flyer ducats.)
While passengers in the air were reportedly enchanted by Alex, Northwest officials held their ground, making it clear they didn't appreciate Adams' airborne petting zoo. And though Adams was not officially charged with any crime, Alex's return ticket was flagged with a warning, effectively preventing Adams from using the baby-in-the-blanket routine during the return flight to Phoenix.
"I realized I was really in a jam," says Adams, admittedly none too happy about having to eat Alex's $200 return ticket. "How the heck was I going to get Alex back to Phoenix?" Adams briefly considered trying the baby-blanket ruse on another airline but abandoned that idea when he couldn't find a nonstop flight that met his schedule. Reluctantly coming to the conclusion that his only option was to fly Alex back in cargo, he was stonewalled again upon learning that because of the extreme heat, all domestic airlines refuse to fly any cargo animals into Phoenix during summer months.
The son of the late Cedric Adams, a veteran Minneapolis Star columnist, Ric Adams took his dilemma to the press. The result was an unhuman interest story that took Minneapolis by storm, eventually generating media calls from as far away as Australia--though oddly enough, not one word from Phoenix.
Perhaps bowing to public pressure (Northwest Airlines did not respond to New Times' inquiries about the incident), the airline agreed to make an exception, allowing Alex to return to Phoenix if Adams could fit the animal into a cage that would slide under a seat in the cabin.
On July 4, the well-traveled gibbon finally returned to Sky Harbor International Airport.
Amazingly, the convoluted journey marked the fourth time that the ape has ridden on jets.
"We've done this a number of times and never had any problems at all," says Adams' wife, Lee, who theorizes that the Northwest fiasco could have been avoided if her husband had purchased Alex's return ticket after arriving in Minneapolis.
"If it's a one-way ticket, you're off the plane and there's not much they can do," she continues. "The main thing is that you don't want him to wake up before the plane takes off. If he does, they can take him off the plane. But once you're airborne, there's very little the airline can do. Sure, everybody's a little startled when we unwrap him and strap him into his seat, but once they see how well-behaved he is, there's no problem."
Not that there haven't been some close calls.
The Adamses recall the time that because of a late arriving plane, Alex's sedative wore off after they were seated on the plane but long before takeoff. Unhappy about being restrained, the ape thrashed around so violently that another passenger glared in horror until Adams retreated to the rest room to administer another sedative. When the plane finally got off the ground and the woman realized the tormented baby was actually an ape, she reportedly heaved a sigh of relief. According to Adams, the woman thought he was oblivious to the fact that his infant was having a seizure.
Realizing that the baby-blanket disguise had its drawbacks, the Adamses tried another tack during their next trip. Accompanied by a friend, the group raided the Adamses' massive collection of stuffed toy monkeys before heading for the airport. Lee and the friend carried a stuffed monkey under each arm, while Ric hauled a stuffed monkey and Alex.
"Alex blended right in with the toys" says Adams. "I thought we were home free." Unfortunately, no one had considered that all carry-on items--including stuffed monkeys--had to be run through the x-ray machine. The jig was up. "Here, you try running him through that machine,'" Ric Adams recalls telling the guard, who reportedly screamed when Adams handed him the live ape. Trip aborted and back to the baby blanket.
Asked whether the Northwest fiasco means that Alex's flying days are over, Ric and Lee Adams look at one another and smile slyly.
That's still up in the air.