Africa Fridays: a chance at a full life

Sometimes when chimps live in social isolation for a really long time they just want to be with humans for the rest of their lives – they truly, legitimately believe that they are people and should not have to live with other chimps.  Poco was like this.  He spent much of his day following people around, making faces at them, gazing into their eyes and, inevitably at the end of the day, becoming incredibly frustrated that he couldn’t be with people and resultingly beating the crap out of one of the other chimps.

IMG_3401Poco did occasionally make observations hard.

But other chimps seem to know, immediately when they meet their own species, that that is who they are supposed to be with.  Gashuehe was one of these.

I first met Gashuehe in 2011, when he had been living at the sanctuary for a little less than a year.  He was confiscated from an auto parts/destruction yard, where he had lived for the last 11 years in a small cage.  When he got to the sanctuary Gashuehe was nearly hairless, occasionally self-abusive (beating his own head or biting his arms, hands, or feet in frustration), but otherwise physically relatively healthy.  By which I mean that he wasn’t emaciated or terribly sick – but this was clearly not a healthy chimp.

IMG_7405Such a dork.

To the best of our knowledge, Gashuehe lived alone at the auto yard without any other chimpanzees.  Most likely, as is often the case with captive primates, Gashuehe was allowed to run loose and interact freely with people until he was six or seven (or even eight or nine years old).  But Gashuehe was a large, strong chimp, and nobody is willing to take the risk of an animal with the strength of a linebacker getting angry at them in free contact, so he was caged at some point.

Gashuehe proved himself to be a lovely chimp, despite his mental handicaps.  He integrated well into a small group of two adult females and a juvenile male, and happily accepted a young male into the group when he arrived.  He was easy to work with, rarely caused problems (beyond the standard “I’m a male chimp and sometimes that is the equivalent of being a giant asshole”), and even tried to play with the younger boys in his group.  He wasn’t so great at playing with the boys: he would easily become too rough or the play would get out of hand, and one of the kids would end up screaming.  In return, Gashuehe would scream and run away, contrite about his mistake.  He never did totally get over that tendency, but he always kept trying to play.

IMG_3496Not Gashuehe, but Jane looks hilarious here so I had to include it again

In 2012 it came time for all the chimps in Gashuehe’s small group to be integrated into the two larger groups at the sanctuary.  Gashuehe and the two younger males (Romeo and Roy) were slated to be integrated to the smaller existing group, and the two females to the larger existing group.  (They hadn’t been integrated previously as Roy was quite young and small, and introducing young chimps to adult males can be tricky.  This speaks to Gashuehe’s kindness, really.)  So Gashue, Romeo, and Roy moved over to the night house of the smaller group so they could start to get acquainted.

Gashuehe and the boys lived in a small enclosure adjacent to the main enclosure, so I saw a lot of them.  We would sit in the sun together, Gashuehe and I, watching the other chimps and listening to their unnecessary protests at our presence.  His eyes were dark and beautiful, and since his hair was always a little on the thin side I could watch the sweat beading up on his skin as we roasted together under the equatorial sun.  His hands were enormous – at least a foot long, and heavily calloused along the knuckles.  He would quietly stick a hand out of the raceway at the keepers, his wrist relaxed, palm outstretched, and they would groom him, pretending to pick over the skin and hair for nits and ticks that were never there.  If they let him, he would groom them back, but often became distracted by the wonderful human inventions of shoelaces or socks.  Once, I took my shoes off and showed him my toes from a safe distance, and he was mesmerized.  I will always remember him lying there in the sun, quiet and peaceful, sweating through a nap, one arm extended with the fingers gently curled up.

IMG_7351Akela is the queen

We talked a lot about how we should integrate the three of them, and long story short we decided to start with Akela, one of the cleverest and gentlest females.  Akela was a class act during the integration.  Gashuehe was scared and wary – prior to living in the small group he had briefly been integrated with some adult females who despised him – so he stayed away from Akela as much as possible.  For her part, Akela gently put just a tiny bit of pressure on him, a step at a time, slowly creeping closer and closer until the two of them were practically sitting next to one another.  A few days later the two of them were interacting amicably, and for each subsequent introduction Gashuehe was less scared and more, for lack of a better descriptor, normal.

Introducing an adult male chimpanzee to other adult male chimpanzees is not the easiest thing to accomplish.  It’s far from impossible (which is what many institutions believe), but you have to have a lot of patience and the right combination of personalities around.  After watching Gashuehe fumble his way through the integrations with the adult females I was definitely worried about how he would interact with adult males.

But I needn’t have worried about Gashuehe’s instinct when it came to male chimpanzees.  He loved them.  The first male Gashuehe met instantly turned him into a subordinate male chimpanzee who knew exactly what to do – he pant-grunted, hand-presented, and crouched, and in return Cumbo placated him, with an only slightly confused pat on the back.  We moved quickly through the one-on-one integrations with the other males in the group (just 5 of them), and I saw Gashuehe come out of his shell more and more with each integration.  Only one integration worried me at first, with the third-ranking male Kisa behaving kindly when he met Gashuehe in protected-contact (they could touch through the bars but could not reach a whole hand through), then immediately jumping on and pounding Gashuehe when the two came into full contact.  Gashuehe fought back, and when Kisa realized he was well-matched for weight and strength he changed his tune, screaming, kissing, and hugging Gashuehe fiercely.  Kisa never started anything with Gashuehe again that I saw, and Gashuehe readily forgave Kisa, since really the only chimp Gashuehe had eyes for was William (an up-and-comer from rank number 4 who looked eerily similar to his namesake, Prince William).  The caregivers worked on the integrations for weeks, and I resumed my behavioral observations.

IMG_4190I mean, he bears at least a passing resemblance…

On October 25th, Gashuehe went out in the big enclosure with the whole group for the first time.  It was, without a doubt, one of the happiest moments of my time working with chimps.  Here was this chimp, so thoroughly broken by what people had done to him, living in a social group once more.  And he wasn’t even having that tough of a time of it. Sure, one of the bitchy smaller females was giving him a hard time over nothing, but the other males seemed to enjoy his presence and didn’t even mind his occasional overly enthusiastic displays of affection.  Poor Romeo was having a much harder time – less personable and more anxious than the smaller, cuter Roy, he couldn’t find a niche with either the adult males or adult females.  The adult males had Gashuehe, and the adult females were busy gushing over Roy.  His only potential ally, Jane, played too roughly for Romeo and scared him.  (So Jane played by herself, since Roy, who she really wanted to play with was busy being carried around by the other females.)

IMG_5509Jane ripping out some piping because she just had to get the bottom of this mystery

On October 31st I ran away from the escaping chimps from the larger group, and Gashuehe did not return to the night house with the other chimps in his group.  Roy and the original fourteen all walked right in, but Gashuehe and Romeo remained in the forest.  Romeo had taken a lot of comfort in Gashuehe’s presence after the integrations, and the enclosure was secure, so the caregivers did not enter the enclosure to try to convince them to come to the night house.

On November 1st I worked in the lab.  Late at night I got an email blind copied to me about the post-mortem on Gashuehe’s body.  I think I read the entire document through before I realized what I was actually reading.

At some time in the afternoon of the 31st Gashuehe was killed by the other chimps in his group.  His body was retrieved on the night of November 1st when, after Gashuehe did not return to the night house for a second night in a row, the caregivers locked the rest of the chimps inside the night house and went to look for Gashuehe.  They found him face down, nearly buried in the mud in a swale by the river.

I don’t know who killed Gashuehe, though I have my suspicions.  Most realistically everyone had a hand in it, because chimps are far too happy to jump on an aggressive bandwagon.  He had mud in his lungs, broken bones, and massive blunt force trauma throughout his body.  Chimps are, it turns out, very good at using their momentum and mass against their competitors in a fight.  If they can get an opponent down on the ground that individual stands almost no chance, as the others will use their mass and momentum to pummel the victim into the ground, charging past him and jumping on him.  (And then wild chimps will revisit the location of the attack for several days afterward, investigating the body and the scene and, if the body is gone, carefully searching the underbrush… it is both as fascinating and as creepy as it sounds.)

This is one of the nightmares of the caregivers at chimp sanctuaries.  That somehow the chimps do not get along in such a catastrophic way.  But it is also the risk they take every day.  It is a choice better than the one these chimps had before, better than Gashuehe living along in a cage in an auto yard, better than him living in a social group that didn’t meet his needs, better than living within view of chimps who got to lead a full life.  In the months preceding his death Gashuehe was given something that all chimps deserve – a chance at a full life.

On November 2nd I helped the caregivers dig a hole that was rather deeper than you would think necessary.  We buried Gashuehe bush style, with thorny whistling acacia branches embedded in the top two feet of the soil and piled over the site to deter scavengers.  We marked the grave as the caregivers had done all the chimps who died before Gashuehe, with a single brick and a memory.


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