Africa Fridays: Captain Janeway

You asked, and so I deliver: some stories about Jane, my favourite chimp ever.  And I do not say that lightly.  Many chimps have surprised me with their shocking intelligence, made my heart melt with their kindness, and looked into my soul in a way no other animal has (sorry Jelly and boyfriend, but it’s true).  But Jane remains a favourite, in part for being the first, and in part because her personality spoke to me so strongly.

To tell you stories about Jane I need to start from the beginning, which isn’t necessarily the beginning for Jane but a beginning nonetheless.

Since time immemorial the forest-living tribes-people of Africa have hunted and eaten chimpanzees for meat.  This is a fact.  And starting in the late 19th century, white explorers have been obsessed with getting specimens of rare African animals to show either as museum taxidermies or to live in menageries, zoos, and more recently, circuses.  So it was quickly realised, for those tribes that had contact with white explorers, that baby chimpanzees — not great for meat because they are small — were worth much more when sold alive.  Probably young chimpanzees were kept as pets before this; West Africans are comfortable around young chimps, gorillas, and monkeys in a way that I never saw in East Africa (where their contact with primates is much different), so there’s that.

IMG_2237Eva and Angela break up the text

To make a long story short, as I’m already being quite verbose, chimps are bad pets, no matter what way you cut it, and that has created a huge demand of chimps that have had really shitty early lives that need sanctuary.  Across Africa there are close to 1500 chimps in sanctuaries, though fortunately fewer and fewer need sanctuary each year.  One hopes this is because of increasing success in educational and enforcement campaigns.

Jane began her life as all young chimps do, in the forest with her mother.  And then one day, through a series of unfortunate events, she found herself packed in a wooden crate with four other chimps headed for the Middle East.  Kenya, as it turns out, used to be one of the major hubs for trafficking illegal wildlife out of Africa, as the airport security were notoriously corrupt.  On this day, though, the crate was intercepted, and five little chimps ranging in age from 3-6 tumbled out when opened.  It’s unclear where in Africa Jane came from.  I’m not sure even the sanctuary knows where this crate was coming from originally.  And since the largest portion of chimpanzee range is also part of one of the biggest disasters of a country in Africa (sorry DRC, looking at you), it’s quite possible that each chimp in that crate came from a different place and had just accumulated in Kenya before shipment.  Or maybe they were all captured together.  We will likely never know.

When she arrived at the sanctuary, the management was trying a new strategy with little chimps.  Instead of raising them with humans, as had been standard practice in the past, the young chimps that would normally be riding around on their mothers were fostered on trustworthy females.  Ideally, this would mean that the little chimps would be raised more naturally, while also enriching the adult females’ lives, as all of them were on birth control implants to prevent breeding.  (Every chimp born in a sanctuary is one they can’t rescue, you know.)  Jane and the other littlest chimp in the crate, Victoria, were given to Akela.


Akela was in her early twenties at the time, calm, level-headed, and incredibly smart.  However, her overwhelming fear of electricity meant that she never had any incentive to test the fence.  She did, however, happily try to pick any and all locks she could see with sticks or pieces of straw.  One day she got a hold of my digital voice recorder and methodically took it apart piece by piece, licked them all, and then handed them back to me.  All the while — until it was too broken, of course — it played back my recordings of a previous day’s fight.

IMG_7253RIP voice recorder.

Akela dutifully carried her two babies around, one on top and one underneath — or sometimes both on top — until an unfortunate incident with one of the big males made it clear that two babies were too many for one chimp.  Victoria, slightly smaller and much less fierce than Jane, became separated from Akela during some commotion one day and one of the big males picked her up and threw her against the ground.  Jane and Akela made a clean getaway, but the staff decided that probably Victoria should get her own mother, and while she was separated for medical treatment they fostered her onto another incredibly smart chimp in the other group, Alley.  (Remember Alley, protagonist of this story? Yeah.  Victoria is fortunately too dumb to learn Alley’s ways.)  Jane remained with her genius mother, but is sadly not that much of a genius.

To me, Jane was the perfect example of how a chimp should feel about people.  She knew that people fed her, and that they could help her sometimes (one caregiver in particular would go out of his way to make sure Jane got plenty of good fruit, and so she would always keep an eye out for him), but for the most part she didn’t care for us unless we could directly impact her life.  Jane was a chimp’s chimp, always playing and fighting with her best friend Joy and climbing far higher in the trees than all but one other chimp I knew. If nobody wanted to play with her — and that was increasingly true as Joy, only a year Jane’s senior, took after her obese mother and did less playing and more resting — that was fine.  Jane was more than happy to entertain herself splashing around in the water trough or rolling around in the long grass.  On the days the staff would put orange cordial concentrate (ostensibly for added vitamin C but really because the chimps loved it) in the water trough, Jane would dip the top of her head in, and shake it around violently, and end up with a spiky afro for the rest of the day.

IMG_3496Drinking water from the hose

Jane was the first chimp I ever “touched”, though I would not recommend the experience.  After a whole summer of watching her play with Joy and learning all about chimps I thought I knew them sooooo well, and would often joke with the caregivers that if Jane were to escape the enclosure and I were around it would be fine, as we would just play all day and have a grand old time.  They, of course, thought this was fucking ridiculous but said nothing (if she had escaped and it were just me around, and she didn’t freak out and jump back in the enclosure, Jane probably would have beaten the crap out of me).  At the end of the summer, one in which I had carefully stayed a full arms-length away from the chimps at all times and had interacted with none of them, one caregiver asked if I wanted to give Jane a banana during the night feeding in the sleeping quarters.  Did I want to give Jane a banana?! No shit I wanted to give Jane a banana!!!  So the caregiver gave me one of the little forest bananas, and I held it out to Jane happily.  Jane looked me in the eye and snatch-slapped that banana out of my hand violently, the kind of movement that has you withdrawing before you even realise what you’re responding to.  The caregiver laughed at me while Jane ate her banana victoriously and self-righteously.  They both taught me a valuable lesson that day.

IMG_5519Let me just help you with the plumbing here.

In 2011 Jane tamed a small family of warthogs.  The warthogs would visit the chimps’ feeding area after every meal to clean up the leftovers.  Hell, I would have cleaned up the leftovers.  The chimps ate mostly tropical fruit and vegetables, and I ate terribly that year.  When the warthogs showed up with their babies after the long rains (no “spring” on the equator) Jane stealthily grabbed the babies by one leg and dragged them around or held them until they stopped screaming.  Sometimes they got away from her.  Sometimes they didn’t.  She never killed one with love as far as anyone saw.  Eventually the warthogs were so habituated to her that they would share her scraps from right next to her, though they were still very skittish about people.  Once, I saw her very slowly reach out her hand and, knuckles down, gently pet the top of a young warthog’s head the way one would with a shy dog.

This taming was, of course, to backfire on Jane.  In 2012 the warthogs she had tamed outweighed her by 50 pounds and were bolder, pushier, and hungrier than before.  They stopped at nothing, no longer happy to eat the chimps’ scraps, they walked right up to the chimps’ piles of food (typically kept between their legs/in their lap, but chimp legs are short and they don’t usually sit with them straight out so they kinda pile food between their knees) and started stealing food with wanton abandon.  This irritated the other chimps in Jane’s group, but for the most part they shooed the warthogs away with an angry wrist-shake or slap.  Jane was not so lucky.  The warthogs were so accustomed to her that no amount of wrist-shaking or yelling or slapping would get them to leave her alone.  She resorted to beating them with sticks, and still a few of them pestered her relentlessly for food.  In the story that has plagued so many humans, Jane was tricked by Nature.  I found it fitting (and laughed at her mercilessly, sorry kiddo).

IMG_5509Oh this is the second time you’ve laid pipe to that cement trough to deliver water? Let me help you with some employment security.

For all of her virtues that I’ve extolled, I often joked that Jane was the devil in a chimp suit, and not only because her eyes are practically red.  Before she got used to me observing every day she threw things at me frequently — small rocks, dirt, sticks, avocado pits, avocados — and I was only really saved by her abysmal aim.  Whenever I would try to take pictures of her up close she would always throw dirt at my camera lens.  Pretty much the only thing she didn’t throw was feces and mangoes, one of which I’m thankful for and the other a little sad about.  Jane played harder, pant-grunted louder, and gambolled more joyfully than any chimp I knew.  She would break trees swinging in the branches, risk falling into the river to dangle over the edge holding on to the grass just with her toes, and bothered all of her group-mates with her frequent requests for play time.  For all her pestering she knew how to stay out of trouble, and I don’t recall a single time she got in any kind of fight (except with Joy, and those two fought like sisters).

More than a single event, Jane won me over with her overbearingly cheerful approach toward life.  She started out with this absolutely shittacular infancy — ripped away from her real mother, alone for an unknowable amount of time, stuffed in a box and shipped off to anywhere — and yet she showed none of those scars.  Instead, she took what she had and ran with it.  No chimps to play with? No problem, she’d play with a bottle.  No trees to climb in? Not necessary when you can do somersaults.  Big Man in the group in a terrible mood?  Placate, get out of the way, and get on with life.

Jane will never live in the wild, and probably never get to experience the joys of raising her own little hellion.  But I’m glad she made it to a sanctuary, and even more glad I got to know her.  She was a good friend, and I can only hope to see more of her as she grows up and we both get on with our lives.


If you are interested in learning more about the wildlife trade in general, you can do so on the Wildlife Conservation Society Wildlife Trade program page or on the Jane Goodall Institute website.  In many countries WCS does fantastic work educating both citizens and law enforcement on why we should be motivated to keep wildlife wild.  If you are interested in donating to help protect Great Apes, you can do so at the WCS website and many other places.  One of my personal favourites is the Jane Goodall Institute.  JGI works tirelessly in Africa to both directly protect Great Ape habitat as well as provide support for displaced Apes. 

16 thoughts on “Africa Fridays: Captain Janeway”

  1. This is so incredibly cool! What a story! Please continue sharing posts about your adventures in Africa, they are really fascinating and enjoyable to read 🙂


  2. Oh, god, and we have so much in common with them. I don’t think I could handle looking directly into their eyes (aside from getting my face smashed in for the potential threat), just because of the intelligence. So similar and yet so wild and so strong – like if they had the greed factor, we’d be a little lower on the food chain. So amazing that you got to study them!


    1. That was such an awesome show! I am glad they’re not doing it any more only because now organisations are focused on saving chimps within range countries (whereas Chimp Eden was located outside of the chimpanzee range, in South Africa). I thought they did an AWESOME job!


  3. Wow, what a cool story! And so interesting. I know almost nothing about chimps and I loved hearing your descriptions of Jane and how she interacted with life.


  4. I hope Africa Fridays are now a thing! I know next to nothing about all this so it’s totally fascinating. I may or may not mob you for more stories next time we see each other.


  5. Chimps (well, all great apes really) scare the heck out of me. Especially that picture of her drinking out of the hose, holy canines!

    Super cool pictures and story, even if it does have a sad beginning.


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