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What became of Michael Jackson’s pet chimpanzee Bubbles

King of Pop’s primate toured the world with his owner, drank tea with the mayor of Osaka, befriended Elizabeth Taylor and annoyed Freddie Mercury

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 28 April 2022 12:00 BST
Related video: Trailer for National Geographic’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles documentary (2010)

At the height of his rise to pop superstardom in the 1980s, Michael Jackson was inseparable from his pet chimpanzee Bubbles.

The friendship did much to cement the singer’s reputation for deep eccentricity and attracted intense tabloid interest around the world.

Jackson – who died in 2009 and whose legacy has been tarnished by multiple allegations of sexual abuse, which he denied throughout his lifetime – would take his primate familiar with him everywhere he went, the duo often giving TV “interviews” together and sporting matching outfits.

But whatever happened to Bubbles and the other 124 wild animals Jackson kept at his theme park home, the Neverland Ranch, in Santa Barbara County, California?

The question is addressed in the new documentary Searching for Michael Jackson’s Zoo with Ross Kemp, now streaming on ITV Hub, in which the former EastEnders hardman interviews former keepers and animal trainers about the fate of the star’s former pets in the wake of his death.

Perhaps attempting to capitalise on the popularity of Netflix’s lockdown sensation Tiger King, Kemp’s programme seeks out the lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes and zebras that once made up Jackson’s menagerie.

But it is Bubbles, immortalised as an icon of pop cultural history in a series of sculptures by Jeffrey Koons in 1988, who remains the object of greatest fascination.

Jackson is understood to have first acquired the baby chimp from a biomedical research laboratory in Austin, Texas, in 1983, saving him from life as a test subject to live in luxury at the singer’s apartment home in Encino prior to the move to Neverland.

The pair quickly became close, with Bubbles said to have slept in his owner’s bedroom in a crib, eaten supper at Jackson’s dinner table, chewed popcorn at his side in the ranch’s private cinema and even learned to use the bathroom when he became too mature to wear nappies.

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When he was later invited to reflect on the ape and his other exotic pets in court in 2005, Jackson even claimed that they helped with the housework, explaining: “They run around, help me clean the room. They help me dust, clean the window.”

A 2010 TV documentary, Michael Jackson and Bubbles: The Untold Story, would later allege that the star had expressed interest in having the chimp’s vocal chords operated on in the hope of enabling him to talk and was fascinated with apes’ capactiy for learning, keeping a human brain in a jar for comparative study.

Bubbles joined Jackson on the Bad tour in 1987, appeared in the video for the accompanying album’s ninth single “Liberian Girl” and even visited City Hall in Osaka on the jaunt’s Japanese leg to drink green tea in the company of mayor Yasushi Oshima.

He appears to have been partial to tea, also sitting down for a cup with legendary Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor, a great friend of Jackson (sadly, rumours that the chimp acted as ring bearer at her 1991 wedding to construction worker Larry Fortensky at Neverland are untrue).

Bubbles pointing to a picture of himself with his world famous owner (Getty)

One famous name Bubbles reportedly alienated was Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, who became exasperated during the recording of a duet with Jackson in 1984 when the American repeatedly deferred to the ape’s opinion on the quality of takes, prompting Mercury to storm out in disgust.

Their collaboration, “There Must Be More to Life Than This”, did not appear, other than as a Mercury solo track, until it resurfaced on Brian May and Roger Taylor’s Queen Forever compilation in 2014.

Inevitably, Bubbles eventually became too large and aggressive to be kept as a domestic pet and was relocated to an animal sanctuary in Wauchula, Florida, the Center for Great Apes, in March 2005, where he still lives in retirement to this day and where his upkeep is still paid for by the Jackson estate.

According to his keepers, Bubbles is now “a physically imposing 185-pound, 4.5-foot adult male” who is”treated as the dominant male in his group of chimpanzees that includes his best friends, Ripley and Oopsie, as well as Boma and Jessie”.

One of Jeffrey Koons’s sculptures of Michael Jackson and Bubbles (PA)

They report that he “enjoys quiet moments and painting” but “gives the canvas back only when he is finished”.

Interestingly, they add that he is increasingly camera-shy in his old age, perhaps a reaction to his brush with worldwide fame and rampant paparazzi all those years ago.

Jackson is said to have visited Bubbles in Florida on a number of occasions before his death.

Bob Dunn, a celebrity animal wrangler, toldThe News of the World in 2009: “Bubbles definitely missed him when they parted and will miss him now. Chimpanzees are intelligent. They remember people and stuff.

“Bubbles and Michael were close friends and playmates. The last time Michael visited, Bubbles definitely recognised and remembered him.”

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