Thinking about Chimpanzees
Zach and Launa share a laugh
It's been over eight years since I first stepped onto African soil. In that time, many humans have come and gone in the lives of the chimps at Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre, yet their impressions on me remain unique and undiminished. Of all the projects where I've worked with primates, this one has dug itself most resolutely into my heart. Perhaps because it is in Africa, and I love Africa. When I left the continent the last time, in 2009, I knew it would be a while before I returned, but I didn't think it would be this long. In my mind, not much has changed at Sanaga-Yong since I've left. Baati, Sambe, and Gremlin are still babies. Tati and Amigo still roam as young boys instead of the alpha males they are now. And all those who have left us are still in the forest with their adopted families at Sanaga-Yong, laughing and climbing, hugging and kissing. Just as alive as you and I.
This is the way that things are. Death will not skip any of us, even those of us who are rescued. These chimpanzees -- and others who have been given second chances at rescue centers -- are living somewhere that is perhaps the next best place after the "wild," as we call it. By some accounts, maybe even better. Definitely safer. They have access to round-the-clock medical care (so that if some godawful tropical virus or bacteria surges through their familial group, there are medications to treat them -- the same medications available to you or me). They have a constant supply of food (whereas in the wild, there is always the bleak possibility of loss of access to food, due to competing groups or drought, for example). They will never really have to deal with the now well-known phenomenon of chimpanzee warfare (because if things really get so out of hand, the humans who care for them will find a way to manage the situation so that hopefully no life-threatening bloodshed occurs).
And yet, those of us who have worked with captive chimps know this -- our offerings, our attempts, noble though they may be, can never compete with what Mother Nature herself has given them.
But unfortunately, the poaching doesn't stop. This is why a place like Sanaga-Yong is necessary. This is why Nama, and Moon, and Arvid, and others lived at a rescue center instead of with their biological kin. Human beings killed their families. The reason? It's barbaric, to say the least. For their meat. For their skulls. For their hands.
Their fucking hands.
When a baby is found still alive on a dead mother, he or she is sold into the pet trade -- which is not legal. That baby can spend anywhere from weeks to months to years being someone's "pet" or mascot. This hugely messes with a great ape's complex psychology (ask yourself: would you like it?). So when an orphan is brought to a place like Sanaga-Yong, it's not as simple as throwing him or her into an enclosure with other chimps. A fair amount of rehabilitation has to occur.
And yet, even in a safe haven, death still finds some of them before their time. The causes can range from anything to meningitis to pneumonia to old age.
Nothing is guaranteed. Not your survival, not your sanity, not your limbs, not even your very first breath. All of it is more than you had before you started.
What's the trick, then? I heard once the following: "The trick is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
But when I pinpoint what qualifies a mystery -- to me, anyway -- it is not something like telepathy or telekinesis or the existence of a world that isn't visible to the naked eye. To me, more mysterious than these things are acts of blatant cruelty. But I cannot prevent cruelty or even mitigate it -- seeing as how we are all allowed our own journeys, I cannot make someone's choices for them. What I can do, instead, is this:
Speak the truth.
Right a wrong.
Adult male Jacky grooms and is groomed
Tati and Amigo are excited about their new enlarged enclosure
Johnny checks to see if Tic's carrots are better than his
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