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.


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. 

throwback thursday: the tire incident

There are many reasons I wish I’d started my blog earlier, and sharing these old Murray stories are definitely some of them.  My first, oh, nine?, months with Murray were peppered with incidents so absurd that there was nothing to do but laugh about them.  And he had a heavy hand with the pepper.  On the other hand, it’s  good I didn’t write about this when it happened, because now I can flex my storytelling muscles and explain in gory detail the absolute ridiculousness that was the tire incident.

Back in February of 2014 Murray and I were in regular lessons with a friend, but for some reason found ourselves lessoning alone that morning.  After successfully coursing we approached a standard tire jump for one of our last fences.  Murray and I had jumped the tires successfully a few weeks earlier, but for some reason had not jumped them for a little while.  And for the first time, Murray stopped dead in front of the tires.  I was used to his noodly run outs and rider-error-glance-offs, but this was the first time Murray had ever really sat down and said “no way!” to a fence.  I let Murray get up close and personal with the tires, we re-approached, and he stopped hard again.

murraydonwannaPony’s got stops.

At this point B* was like “time for an extra defensive ride!” and so that’s what I did.  I jammed my seat down, kept my leg on, and ran Murray at the tires.  It wasn’t pretty, but we got over it.  Two refusals and one jump later and the tires were just not coming naturally to us.  Our last approach ended with Murray half jumping, then deciding not to at the last minute, and me crashing into the tires over his shoulder with his legs all around me, miraculously not crushing my body.  On the plus side, landing in a bunch of old tires is really not unpleasant.

After crashing spectacularly and only getting Murray over the tires twice in seven attempts, we decided it was time to resort to something that lacked the tired-and-out-of-shape-weakling-amateur element.  We slapped Murray on the lunge line, and F shooed him towards the fence which (we should have known) he said “no, thank you!” to quite handily.  And by said “no, thank you!” I mean that within about ten seconds he had ripped the lunge line out of B’s hands and galloped off to the opposite end of the arena.

I caught Murray (does it surprise any of you to know that he won’t let B catch him?) and brought him back over, and we pointed him at the tires again.  This time he had a much more civilized “no, thank you!” and just ran around the tires.  I mean, he’s an 1100 pound noodle with a great fondness for going sideways.  Of course he just ran around the tires.

14627101506_4b0c8518f2_oMurray’s “no, thank you” face

We propped a pole up on the outside edge of the tires so Murray would be channeled over the jump instead of around it, and he ran out towards the inside instead.  A placement pole on the inside simply encourage him to jump sideways over the outside pole.  At some point in this whole endeavour our barn manager showed up and offered to relieve B of her lunging duty (B had a weak collarbone from a recent break at the time), but B was like nope, gotta do this.  She lunged him away from the tires so he would remember what the whole “circling” deal was, and we got back to it.

The theatrics started.  Murray was doing absolutely everything in his power to avoid going near those tires at any speed greater than a walk.  We would lead him up to them, he would touch them, and then when he reapproached at the trot it was like we were asking him to jump the grand canyon.  Hi-ho Silver! antics were to follow.  And let me tell you, I have never seen a horse rear that high outside of the movies.  Murray went straight up and was striking the air, pawing like he was posing for the cover of a Walter Farley novel.  When he got back on the ground he would throw his head down and try to scrape the lunge line off his face.

We pulled tires out of the jump so it was more inviting for him.  We pulled out so many tires, in fact, that he could walk right through.  I walked back and forth through the gap and tried to lead Murray through and he was not having it.

And then Barn Manager said “do you have a cookie?”

And I was like “why yes, I always keep spare cookies in my jacket pocket.”  I ran over to the mounting block to get my cookies.

I stood in front of the gap between the tires and F led Murray right up to it.  And then I held out my hand and offered him a cookie.  I looked at Murray.  Murray looked at me.

And he went, “OHH COOKIES!!!!!!” and walked right through the gap between the tires.

And then he trotted through the gap between the tires.  And then he jumped over the gap between the tires.  We put the tires back in the gap one by one, and thirty seconds and four jumps later Murray had jumped the tires without any sign of stress or hesitation.

Forty minutes of lunging with absolutely no success, and all Murray needed to agree to what we were trying to get him to do was a cookie. A SINGLE COOKIE.


* After going back and forth I’ve decided to replace my trainer’s name with a single letter on here.  I want to preserve her privacy a little, even though probably nobody cares.