Africa Fridays: Blaboons

Baboons were omnipresent when I lived in Kenya.  They hung out around the research center, nibbled on grass and leaves on the soccer field and landing strip, filled the trees around the chimpanzee sanctuary, and foraged for scraps from human garbage and chimpanzee garbage.  If you want to read a really amazing book about baboons (also: research, growing up, biology, Kenya/Africa, and the amazingness of the field in general), try A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky. (10/10, have read multiple times, recommend without hesitation.)

img_3005lives dangerously

It’s a good thing too, since they were my early-warning system walking around.  Baboons are loud, gregarious, sassy, and pretty much always let you know what’s going on around you.  I loved walking “in” the group of baboons.  Sure, they gave me a wide, 10 foot berth, but I was still within their center of mass as we traveled from place to place.  If there were no baboons, I knew that I needed to be a little more cautious than if I was surrounded by a large group of romping, grunting, galloping fuzz balls.  On more than one occasion I saw baboons running panicked through the bush from my observation vantage point, and sure enough not far behind them would be a lion or hyena.

Baboons rank right up there in terms of the scariness of males.  An adult male is about 2′ tall, though much of that is a big mane of hair goes from his neck down past his shoulders.  The thing that’s really scary care the canines — long, 2″+ canines that he proudly displays whenever he smiles or yawns.  And those canines can do some serious damage given the opportunity. I mostly saw that opportunity exercised upon other baboons, though a few small mammals became the victims of those teeth.

img_4941like when lions casually visit the gate that I needed to get out of my car to open and then close behind me; this only happened like 10% of the days I needed to open this gate

Inevitably, male baboons are always the ones who get tangled up in human business.  Classic boys-are-young-and-dumb syndrome.  Big males would always be the ones that had to be, um, humanely relocated for breaking into houses to raid the kitchen.  The staff I worked with told me about male baboons that would plunge their hands into boiling pots of ugali (corn meal) in order to get the ugali before it was distributed to the chimpanzees when cooled.  One afternoon another researcher and I walked into the research center (a converted barn, we slept in the stalls, I know you’re jealous) and heard strange noises coming out of the kitchen.  We approached the kitchen door with trepidation only to have a HUGE male baboon explode out of the kitchen, shit all over the floor, and run out of the door with his hands and mouth full of our food.

That was obviously not the only time that happened. Because our windows didn’t close all the way (or lock, frankly).

One afternoon I climbed up the stairs to the roof to my regular observation point.  I always walked up to the wall that edged the perimeter of the roof to look down the wall to check for chimps sitting at the base of the wall.  The roof was about 18 feet up, and 15 feet up the wall (aka 3 feet below me) there was an overhang of electric fencing to prevent the chimps from using branches (aka tools) to climb the wall.  (I think that’s also called a kick in, but you know what I”m talking about. It’s the stuff that stops people from climbing over fencing because you have to go upside down.)

img_4931sassy baby baboon is sassy

As I leaned over the wall and looked down I found myself staring into the open-mouthed face of an adult male baboon at the exact moment that he leapt from the overhang wire back up towards the wall.  I can still see his face — his mouth was open, canines on display and flying toward my face.

I bolted.  Without thinking or looking, I ran anywhere but there.  Within about three steps I had tripped on a skylight grate and sprawled across the roof, winded, binocular strap snapped, camera grazed and lodged somewhere in my ribcage.  The big male baboon had, it seems, also looked into the face of terror and was sitting on the edge of the wall about 15 feet from where he started, panting and staring at me.

img_3354so tiny and new!

On the same roof, weeks later, I convinced one of the chimp caregivers to give me a 1′ piece of sugarcane to gnaw on.  The chimps got sugarcane to eat sometimes, and I’ve had sugarcane before — it’s delicious and sweet — and I figured I deserved a snack.  Turns out there are two kinds of sugarcane: soft and hard. I had previously consumed soft. The hard sugarcane tasted fine, but was essentially impossible for me to bite into.  I placed the piece on the wall next to me as I continued my observations.

A few minutes later something drew my attention to the right, and I looked over to see a subadult male baboon standing Right. Next. To. Me. He had adopted his sneakiest possible posture, one hand outstretched and reaching for the stick of sugarcane, eyes darting between me and the sugarcane.  I’m not going to pretend I didn’t scream.  The baboon grabbed the sugarcane and bolted.  I did not run away and trip over the skylight this time.  I may have soiled myself a little. (Look, live in the field for long enough, and you just accept these occurrences.)

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Baboons sleep high in the trees at night, snugged into forks in branches and piled up on their sisters and mamas when it’s cold.  Often they do this over water, and in the morning after they get up but before everyone comes down from the tree, they have morning ablutions.  By which I mean, they crap all over the place.  But over the water the plinking and tinkling is astonishingly musical, like nature’s first set of wind chimes.  I loved it.

Sometimes two groups would come together and fight on the rivers edge, all the males from each group getting growling, screaming, and barking at one another in a giant ball of bodies rolling and cascading down the riverbank.  It defied physics — it was like a cartoon of animals fighting with a lot of dust and way more limbs and size than seems possible.  But it happened more than once when i was watching, and from the sound of things happened at other times too.

img_5699let me nom you tiny baby

One afternoon I climbed into a bush Euclea to visit the facilities.  It was the same bush that an adult male baboon had climbed to the top of while looking for his friends.  When male baboons are lost they let out an alarmingly loud, barking contact call.  I did not know that Mr. Baboon was in the tree and a contact bark sounds a LOT like a carnivore.  A carnivore who is really close and really in the same bush as you.  And di I mention that it is REALLY loud?

Let’s just say it’s a good thing my pants were already down, because those pants would have been toast.

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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Africa Fridays: walk, don’t run

Because I haven’t been riding and therefore lack horse-oriented content, let’s talk about AFRICA again!

IMG_4990Sunrise at elephant dam

The conservancy where I lived/worked/researched in Kenya required that all patrons and visitors and researchers be contained in their vehicles at all times when not inside one of the human enclosures.  That is to say, if you weren’t inside one of the highly trafficked areas near the various tented camps or the research camp or offices, and within the meager electric fence that helped deter some animals from entering those areas, you were not to be on foot.  This was for both visitor and animal safety — they don’t want people accidentally being gored by a buffalo trying to take a selfie and they don’t want animals unnecessarily stressed out by humans walking around them (and also why Kristen Bell and Dax Shephard were recently fined on their safari, and why I don’t love their video a lot — I could have done without the giraffe chasing).  I can tell you for a fact that the wildlife in Kenya viewed vehicles as blase but a human walking within eyeshot was an immediate threat.  When visitors were caught out of their vehicles they were fined heavily (and I personally took great joy in reporting them as well as telling them to get the fuck back into their vehicles).

Researchers were allowed to work on foot but had to pay an armed guard to accompany them.  The guard operated more as an extra pair of eyes than any kind of defensive protection, but most of my friends had stories of when their guard had to tell them to skidaddle back to the car or had to fire their weapon.  I was the one exception.

IMG_6975foreshadowing

Because I needed to be on foot every day and would be in close proximity to the chimpanzee enclosure (20 feet of electrified fences to keep the chimps in), I was allowed to work alone on foot.  There were a few reasons for this.  The area around the chimp sanctuary was relatively heavily trafficked by conservancy staff, both humans and vehicles, therefore there were fewer animals in that area than in the more desolate areas of the conservancy.  Also, the gigantic fence on one side of me would mean that at least one of my sides was covered.  And the manpower needed for someone to attend me for a full day every day was ridiculous.  So I was given permission to walk alone — except for the chimps, of course.

Obviously my friends, the chimp keepers and other staff, took some time to teach me how to safely walk in the bush.  You always have to keep one eye and ear on the bush around you — no headphones and no napping!  Look out for buffalo most of all, of all the big five (grouped together because they were the most dangerous to hunt due to their predilection to attack humans: buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion, leopard) they were the most common and most likely to charge me on the ground.  Not too bad on their own, very bad in groups.  Climb a tree (not much use, I couldn’t get more than 10-12 feet into one of the acacia there, and they were covered in thorns) or hide in the middle of a bush and hope they forget about you.  If an elephant smells you, run downhill or into the bushes — their eyesight isn’t good.  Same for rhinos.  But otherwise?  Walk proudly, and never run.  Because when a lion or leopard sees you running, you are already prey.  (Actually, if you see the leopard, you are fucked already.)

IMG_6823angela playing with her (maybe) daddy

One day I was sitting near the building that the chimps had formerly slept in observing a few of the chimps.  The chimps had only recently moved to a newer building (about 400m down the fenceline), and this building was reserved as a quarantine.  It was just before lunch time, and I was just watching three chimps, so I’d be clocking off soon.  I was applying sunscreen.  And then one of the female chimps started to scream — no warning.  She went from grooming the alpha male to screaming a blood curdling scream, and standing bipedally.  She was staring behind me, and this was in no way normal, so I knew there was something there.

I stood up slowly and turned around.  And there she was, standing on the road about 40 meters behind me.  A lioness.

IMG_9540I’m so playful! Why don’t you play with me?!

When I stood up the lioness slipped into a nearby bush.  Humans are predators to lions too, after all.  My heart was pounding in my ears.

I discarded the things I had been holding and carried my backpack over to the outbuilding that serviced this house — it had previously been used to store food and medication, held a large radios and a small bathroom.  The building was about 12-14 feet high and had a tree next to it, so I could climb up onto the roof if I needed to.  I checked the doors to the radio room and food storage but they were firmly locked.  I stashed my backpack under one of the benches so that I wouldn’t be encumbered by it if I needed to climb.  I had a cell phone on me, and I had service — this is literally the first time in the telling of this story that I wonder why I didn’t call someone to pick me up.

sweetwatershelpful diagram of my situation

I waited on the patio of the outbuilding for fifteen minutes, or maybe 25.  The chimp who had alerted me to the lioness’s presence had stopped screaming after a few minutes, and now four chimps were sitting on the fenceline staring out into the bush curiously.  I had to do something — I couldn’t hide on the patio of this building all day.  I decided that it was time to walk to my car, which was parked at the new building about 400 meters away.

I picked up my backpack and secured it tightly to my body.  Usually I would carry my binoculars and camera slung across my body, but in this case I put everything into my backpack and made sure I didn’t have to worry about it.  I remember debating in my mind if I should bring the backpack or leave it, and I don’t remember exactly why I decided to bring it, but I think I rationalized that if I needed to I could drop the pack on my way.  I put my hat on and started walking slowly to my car.

this scene in Jurassic park

Looking down the fence line toward the new chimp house was like that scene in Jurassic Park where Dr. Ellie Sattler has to cross the velociraptor-infested forest to get back inside the safety of the main visitor’s center.  I knew there was a lioness out there — but I didn’t know where she had gone.

So I walked.  With my heart thundering in my ears and every nerve in my body screaming RUN or HIDE or SHIT YOURSELF.  I kept breathing really deeply, and I didn’t see a single animal as I walked to my car.  I ran the last ten feet and leaped in.

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The walk probably took me five minutes, and another few minutes to drive back to the place where I had been observing the chimps.  By the time I got back every chimp in the group had congregated there, and were all but one were watching the road carefully.  I drove back to the research center and promptly told all of my friends the story, and they appreciated the Jurassic Park analogy immensely.

So remember — always walk proudly.  And have some sympathy then your horse poops himself in fear — I have intimate knowledge of what it feels like to need to do that.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

Viva Carlos Blog Hop: My Cubicle

I’m fourteen days late to this party because I really hemmed and hawed about joining the hop.  For various reasons I didn’t really want people knowing exactly where I worked, but then I realised that I kinda shucked all anonymity already on this blog.  So I’m just going to do it… in a kindof cheater way.

I work 2.5 jobs at the momentIMG_20150626_172030, as long as you count my thesis as a job.  When I’m teaching, I guess I would up that to 3.5.  It’s funny, because until I wrote this down I never thought of myself as the type of person holding multiple jobs to make ends meet but… I guess I am.  For my most important job (thesis), I do a lot of work from the safety and comfort of my couch.  From there, my view tends to look a lot like this.

We’re either reading food blogs or looking at a Viva Carlos post. Not even sure.

As you can imagine, my office mates are rather useless for data analysis.  They are extremely useful at convincing me it is time to go to the barn.

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When I can escape their siren-like lure and heat into my office on campus, I live in one of those sea-of-cubes type setups.  It’s actually not even fully walled cubes either.  A quadrat of graduate students get four desks that face inwards, with half-walls separating us from the next quadrat.

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My desk is decorated prolifically with pictures from Africa and books about primates.  I use an ancient second monitor that is set up poorly, and thus I have to move my mouse off the right hand side of my screen for it to fly in on the left of the other monitor.  I make it work.  I keep food at my desk because I like to flaunt the rules of food safety, and I hate walking back and forth to the refrigerator.  And because I’m a coffee snob I bring my own in every day instead of drinking whatever is available at work, or buying any (because horses).

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There are slippers and more books stored under my desk (it gets cold in our office), and I keep a blanket on my chair.  The notecard held up by the red push pin on my bulletin board is a layout of dressage court letters.  One of my best friends and desk predecessor left me the poster that’s above my desk.  I helped collect her data and don’t have any posters of my own, so it seems fitting to leave it there.

I put up a super judgmental picture of one of my favourite chimps behind my computer so that I would be reminded to work hard and go back to see her.  I’m disappointed to say the tactic didn’t work, but I enjoy having my Janie stare down at me whenever I open or close my laptop.

4_IMG_4177Jane is watching you.  (She was actually way cuter than this picture demonstrates.  Unfortunately, she also hated having her picture taken so whenever I would try to she would shield her face or throw dirt at my camera.  This was about as good as I ever got.)

I should tell you guys some stories about Jane some time.  She was the best, man.

Now, none of these office views are particularly inspiring.  So to distract you all, here’s my all time favourite office view.  From when I lived in Congo.  Best office ever.

congo sunset 3a

Many and strong opinions: I hate loris tickling videos, and I always will.

The universe seems to be conspiring against me this week, filling my feeds and IV lines of internet with images I utterly hate seeing.  Images I have to pause, cancel, or report when I see them because, yes, I feel that strongly about them.  Loris tickling, elephant rides, swimming with dolphins, posing with tigers, and that goddamn Android commercial – they all make me cranky.

Why are these images so bad?  Well, they all depict wild animals with humans, either being abused, neglected, or poorly treated, or being treated as pets, which is only marginally better.  In no universe do I support wild animals being kept as pets – I believe there is always a better solution, though, I will admit, not necessarily a quick better solution.  And not only do I believe that wild animals are not pets, sharing and viewing these images contributes to the problem more than to the solution – regardless of how cute they are.  So here they are, my many and strong opinions regarding the adorableness that is lion and chimpanzee, bear and tiger, and any parrot in a cage.

IMG_2237Where baby animals should be: with their mamas.

A brief explanation of why wild animals should never be pets

I worked with mostly orphaned chimpanzees when I lived in Africa, all victims of human actions – the vast majority of whom lived with people for at least a few years before they made it to a sanctuary.  These chimps were, of course, duly thrown away once they became too large, unruly, willful, and generally chimpanzee-ish for their humans to appreciate or control any longer.  So there’s your reason number one – wild animals are just that: wild.  They don’t play by human rules, and their natural selves are not appropriate for any human setting both due to danger to the humans and to the animal in question.

Then, of course, there are the inferior nutritional, space, and cognitive needs of wild animals that almost all humans are in capable of providing – either due to a lack of appropriate education or the general lack of human structures to contain wild animals. These, obviously, contribute to the likelihood that someone – animal or human – will be hurt.  And finally, and most importantly to me personally, no human can adequately provide for the social needs of a wild animal.  It is pure arrogance to think you can.  No animal is completely, utterly, entirely solitary – they all need to interact with others at least a little – and without other animals in their species, they are missing out on important social and cognitive stimulation that is horrifically detrimental in the long run.

Of course, many others have written about this, so there’s no need for me to continue to beat the dead horse.

IMG_7861Mmm not in my house, thanks.

But lots of the animals in those videos aren’t pets! They are just hanging out on a lawn with a puppy!

This is true.  Much of the media showing wild animals in inappropriate settings doesn’t show them specifically as pets, but in settings where, at least to me, they are being housed extremely inappropriately.

IMG_5147The opposite of inappropriate housing: in a giant enclosure living with her new family.

So those adorable tigers at the sanctuary, they’re clearly not pets, right?  Definitely not.  They definitely wouldn’t have been separated from their mother at birth, replaced with piglets dressed in tiger skins so the mother doesn’t get mastitis.  Those cubs definitely wouldn’t have been bottle raised by humans, and then sedated for tourists to take pictures of them.  They definitely won’t be discarded when they are too big or rowdy for tourists to cuddle, or subjected to the same breeding schedule as their mother – who has, by the way, already had another litter that has been taken away from her.  (She may also have eaten a pig or two.)

Of course, not all of this media is of animals living in baaaaaaaaasically the worst case scenario.  Many of these animals live in facilities that provide at least a modicum of care, don’t breed them back to back, and yet somehow still fall short.  Sure, a lion cub and a puppy playing together are adorable.  But why is that lion cub playing with a puppy instead of other lions?  It’s not like there are no other lions anywhere in the country or continent for a lion to be appropriately socialized with.  Okay, so maybe other lions weren’t easy to get a hold of.  Obviously a little socialization with a puppy is better than nothing?  Sure it is, until that lion becomes too big and strong to play with said puppy, and then it’s into solitary or conspecific housing with him.  And you know what skills a lion (insert any other wild animal here) isn’t going to develop growing up with a puppy?  Social skills with his own species.  I cannot tell you the sadness I have witnessed in the chimps that were raised with humans for years – decades sometimes – and then dumped into a social group when their owners were sick of them.  It was emotionally devastating.

IMG_3401Poco — sweet, kind, and hated every minute of having to live with other chimps.

It’s a lot like an orphan colt that’s been raised in a house, watching TV with people, sitting on the couch, sleeping in the dog beds, and generally enjoying a lot of human company  When he grows up to be big, mouthy, and hurt people – and he will – what happens to him?  (I haven’t seen the documentary, but I’ve been told by many that Buck covers it.)  I would posit that it’s more than mere negligence or a poor choice for a colt to be raised this way – it is cruelty.

Those animals are already in captivity, so why shouldn’t I watch a video of them?

You’re right, in many cases the animals in those videos were taken out of the wild or bred many years ago, and the videos of them are really just soooo cute.  So why not watch the videos of them?  It’s not like you’re watching a video of a baby chimp being brutally ripped off of his mother and handed to a human as a pet – how much harm can watching those adorable loris tickling videos really do?

Well, studies on how images influence public opinion have shown that every time someone sees a picture of a primate in a non-wild setting, they are more likely to think both that a) primates make good pets and b) the primate in question is not endangered and populations are doing excellently in the wild.  Every book cover where some white lady is playing with a baby chimp, every video where a tourist bottle feeds a tiger, every selfie with a monkey, every elephant ride, every time someone sees one of these things, it tells their brain that doing those things with those animals is normal, acceptable, safe, and not harmful to the animals in question.  But what do you think happens to the elephants that refuse to carry passengers anymore?  To the macaques who steal too many cell phones, sunglasses, or the dignity of tourists?  To those baby tigers when they grow up and aren’t cute or compliant enough for people to bottle-feed them and take pictures with them?  I know, and I can tell you, it is nothing good.

Even images of animals with other animals can have a harmful effect on public opinion.  Every time I see that Android commercial I cry a little inside – why is that lion cub hanging out with a bulldog instead of its mother and brothers?  Why is that elephant hanging out with a black lab instead of her mother, sister, and daughters?  Why is Roscoe the orangutan playing with a dog instead of with other orangutans his age?  WHY ARE A BEAR AND A TIGER SO BONDED TO ONE ANOTHER?!

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So there you have them – a few of my many and strong opinions.  Now, this is not to say all captive institutions are bad, and I could talk your ear off about zoos, sanctuaries, accreditation, and the rest of it.  I hope that this gives you a little insight to why I don’t watch those videos, and I hope you won’t watch them in the future either.

The studies mentioned above, regarding images and public perception of apes, can be read below.  They are public-access and very well written!

Ross, Vreeman, Lonsdorf.  2011.  “Specific Image Characteristics Influence Attitudes about Chimpanzee Conservation and Use as Pets

Leighty et al. 2015. “Impact of Visual Context on Public Perceptions of Non-Human Primate Performers

 

Four Mares No Money Blog Hop: Fears

HollyBully over at Four Mares, No Money asks: What has been the most fearful moment you have ever experienced with a horse?

My most fearful moments with horses are pretty standard.  The first year I was riding with my trainer, she asked if I wanted to exercise Aught, another boarder’s 15 year old OTTB who needed to get out.  He was lovely the first time I rode, but the second time the other rider exercising him had changed his bit, and he decided all the puddles in the arena required LEAPING over!!  This turned into a bit of a flat out gallop, where every time I got him back under control we would come upon another puddle.  I made the choice to bail, and he immediately stopped and looked at me all “what are you doing on the ground?”

The other big scary one was this year when we were clipping Murray.  He was having a terrible day already, and after we got the twitch on him he went kinda catatonic (twitches work almost too well on him).  His right hindquarter was leaning against a corner, hoof propped up, and in his semi-catatonic state his front legs were starting to buckle — his balance was seriously off.  His knee finally bent properly and as his face dropped towards the ground he terrified himself, and reared so high.  Seriously, I didn’t know this horse was that tall.  He did nothing when he came back down, but the fraction of a second involving his “fall” and rear knocked the clipper to the side (fortunately) and left my heart pounding.

Both of these things were scary, there’s no doubt.  But I have to say, in terms of legitimate fear, my scary experiences with horses rank low.  This is in no way because I’m so experienced around horses or such a good rider that I have nothing left to fear (that would be really stupid), but simply because I’ve had way, way scarier experiences in my life.

Like in Kenya.  When I walked around on foot in Kenya.  On foot, in the bush, in a wildlife preserve. Where I saw lions at least twice a week.  Yet the lions were so not what scared me the most (though I did have one poop-your-pants moment with a lion).

IMG_8933Worth being scared of.

On Hallowe’en of 2012 I was doing my standard behavioral observation route walking in the visitor area of the chimpanzee sanctuary I worked at, though it was closed to visitors at the time and I was alone there.  The visitor area included a small “cutout” into the chimp enclosure that was fenced just for the visitors, imagine a small rectangle inside a really big (1 square kilometer) square enclosure.  Anyway, I was in this visitor area, and had walked down a fenceline that was about 150 meters long, and had gotten to the corner.  I hadn’t seen any chimps yet, but that wasn’t particularly surprising, it was warm and they were usually resting during the heat of the day.

I hit the inside corner, and looked into the enclosure to see two chimps meandering down towards me.  I stopped to take some data, and turned to the right after I did so.  What I saw there was what terrified me.  The rest of the group of chimps, all 21 of them, were sitting in the shade not 20 meters down the fence, and Alley, the escape artist extraordinaire was sitting on two logs that she had propped up against the electric fence and working on opening up a hole with a third stick.  The two logs were dragging some wires down, and Alley was using a stick to twist together the wires at her eye-level so that a hole was opening up in front of her.  As I watched, she twisted one more time and the hole got bigger.  Alley could easily have jumped through that hole, but her fear of the electricity (that fence was HOT, I accidentally touched it several times) must have compelled her to open it further.

IMG_6772This was a practice run.

I had two choices.  I could pass the chimps and their giant hole and jump in the river just 30 meters away — my first instinct given how open the fence was — or run back the way I came and try to make it to my car before the chimps did.  My car was half a mile away.  On the one hand, the chimps were guaranteed not to go into the river.  Of course, the river had hippos.  And someone saw a crocodile there once.  And there was always the possibility that seeing me pass the hole would compel the chimps to either jump out sooner, or make a grab at me.  And my equipment was NOT waterproof — and it was heavy.  There was zero chance I could run faster than a chimp, but running seemed like my best choice.  I decided to run.

I immediately called the head of the chimp sanctuary, and told the volunteer I had with me to go back the way we came.  Oh, yes, I had a volunteer with me.  A completely inexperienced twenty year old with zero common sense.  “Run” I told her, while the phone rang. “RUN!!” 

On the phone, I screamed at the head of the sanctuary when he answered. “The chimps are escaping right now.”

“What?” he responded, confused.

“ALLEY MADE A HOLE IN THE WALKWAY AND THE CHIMPS ARE ESCAPING RIGHT NOW.”

“Okay we are coming! You run away!”

“I AM RUNNING!” I yelled as I hauled ass.

IMG_7861Please don’t bite me with those.

I ran like I have never run before.  I was carrying close to 20 pounds of equipment and I didn’t drop any of it (though my water bottle did bounce out of the pocket of my backpack in my flight).  I ran past my lungs burning and my thighs screaming.  My assistant stopped running and started walking and looking behind her.  I screamed at her and kept running — damned if I would get caught.  Every rustle of a bush beside me was Ndaronse ready to leap on me.  Every creaking tree branch was Ali Kaka climbing above me.  Somehow I made it back to the door of the visitor area — only about 200 meters — and I slammed and latched the door behind me (once slowpoke was through).  That wouldn’t stop the chimps for long, but it would stop them for a second.  (This answers my age-old horror story conundrum: do you pause to close the doors when being chased? Apparently yes.)  Then I ran the rest of the way to my car, jumped in, and started it up, and drove over to where my stupid volunteer tail was barely jogging back up to me.

Instead of just driving away, I took a back road back to the chimps night house.  One of the caregivers was there unloading the week’s groceries that had been picked up that day, and the caregiver that had been on duty was walking up the fenceline to check the enclosure for safety before the visitors started to arrive in 20 minutes or so.  Through my binoculars you could clearly see the logs Alley had propped up on the fence, but it wasn’t clear if she was still there or not.  Stephen started yelling at the chimps to come back to the night house, calling “CHOKULA CHOKULA CHOKULA” (food!).  I phoned the caregiver walking up the fence to warn him, and by the time he arrived at the visitor area the rest of the caregivers had gotten there by car from their lunch break.

IMG_2237Probably the only chimp who WOULDN’T have beaten me up… and I mean the big one, not the little one. The baby was mean.

The caregivers swarmed the visitors area, and I was pretty sure I saw at least one chimp jump back through the hole (I wasn’t using my binos at the time).  They kept the visitor area closed for the afternoon, my water bottle and cap were retrieved unscathed, and I got several big hugs from the caregivers who were extremely glad to see me safe after the whole ordeal was done with.

I have since learned that it’s not really so terrifying to be faced with a few escaped chimps, though a large group is much more unpredictable and worthy of fear.  After the fact, there are a lot of what-ifs that run through my mind.  If the caregivers hadn’t been watching a football match at the time, they wouldn’t have all been right next to the company vehicle and probably all of the chimps would have been loose in the visitors area by the time they got there.  If I hadn’t gone there at that time, if I’d been just five minutes later, all of the chimps would have been loose in the visitors area and I would have found them.  If I had walked there instead of driving, which I usually did, I would have been there with 23 escaped chimps and no car.

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Sometime, I’ll tell you about the lion. That one is better, possibly, and much more like Jurassic Park.