The Body of Joy

May 22, 2017  •  Leave a Comment



I've been giving laughter some thought lately. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, to overanalyze such a usually instinctive vocalization. But if you do think about it, you'll recall that laughter is more than what we do when we think something is funny. There's nervous laughter, for instance. Or you might laugh (or smile) while trying to ingratiate yourself back into someone's good graces after a conflict, especially when you know that you're the one who was wrong.


As a culture, we believe that laughter is cathartic. Laughter is the best medicine, we say. Indeed, if we have the means to explore the planet, we might even acknowledge that laughter's ability to heal is so powerful that it should be nothing short of a universal medicine. After all, if a smile is just unerupted laughter, then it's the same thing all over the world, is it not? In Cameroon, or Cambodia, or Cleveland?


Here's something I'd like to share if you didn't already know: chimpanzees laugh. That may surprise you, but bear in mind that this is the species that has surprised humans over and over again for the last six decades. You're in good company, shoulder to shoulder with naturalist giants (grown-ups who never quit wanting to play outside), if you're in awe. 


So let me, if you're still with me, introduce you to Akim. She's seven-years-old, still probably at least a year from her first cycle. Had she been raised by her mother, she might have only completely ceased nursing as recently as two years ago. Like many chimpanzees who end up in captivity in central Africa, her mother was killed by a hunter who sold her corpse for meat. That is the likeliest scenario.


(On a side note, I feel it's important to add that chimpanzee meat is primarily no longer a sustenance food for people who have little wealth or material possessions; on the contrary, it's a delicacy that is reserved for the select elite. I make this point because often times in the conservation paradigm, the needs of impoverished people are pitted against environmental endeavors. This is not always the the case.)


After her mother was killed, Akim somehow ended up in the possession of a long-distance truck driver who kept her as a pet. She would have still been nursing, still close to her mother, sleeping in her nest at night, riding atop her back during the day, spending her free time exploring the trees or playing on the forest floor with other infants.


Presumably for the sake of convenience, Akim's owner kept her in a 3x3 foot box. For three years, she lived in this box while the man went on long hauls in his truck and came back every few days to feed her. I can only imagine that her moments were without end. For three years, she lived alone inside this box without knowing that she would one day be rescued, without knowing that caregivers awaited her with fruits and greens, that other chimps awaited her to play, that trees awaited her to be climbed. For three years, she could only reach out and touch the edges of her muted world, sit in the company of her own feces, underfed, without the knowledge that a light would one day come. For three years.


That is Akim's past. She was rescued by the team at Sanaga-Yong and came to the sanctuary near the end of 2016. She arrived scared and underdeveloped and a bit of a feral child, which is an interesting reverse kind of comparison considering she was wild first and then humanized, but the metaphor works. Both a humanized chimp and a feral child are stuck in a frenetic, uneven kind of world, where one's context does not match one's behavioral inclinations. It's a lonely, confounding place.


Today Akim lives with Muna, an older female who seems so far to be the perfect companion. She's older-sisterly and will let Akim ride her for very short bouts. She's almost always a willing playmate. Muna and Akim spend their afternoons tickling one another atop a platform of their climbing structure or chasing each other around the enclosure. One day, they will be integrated into a larger group of chimps, but until that day, they continue to cement their bond. 


Knowing how cerebrally and emotionally dynamic chimpanzees are, I understand that the damning repercussions of trauma can cut quite deep into the psyche of our closest living relatives. I have met chimpanzees and gorillas with deadened eyes, and I remember the details of those eyes -- their shape, their hue, their emptiness -- to this day. Like humans, apes can be damaged. But they are also resilient in a way that always inspires me to meet my own boundaries with renewed strength.


Today, Akim laughs a lot. I've included a video of a Muna/Akim play session. Their play may look rough, but remember this is the species that can bound up a three-story tree in less than ten seconds. They can handle. These are the ones who have surprised us for six decades. Good thing. They make us better.


Akim coming out from the bush, just after a noise started her







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