Negra’s favorite spot is typically her nest which she builds every day up on the catwalk in the playroom. This is a narrow walkway around the upstairs perimeter of the playroom. Negra builds a big, fluffy nest next to the window that overlooks the neighboring fields and valley. From this vantage point she also can easily see the comings and going from the kitchen to the chimp area and I always look up and greet her as I pass by. Negra will often throw out her arm toward us or nod her head in greeting and seems content to keep her interaction at that (unless you are dancing for her, but that’s another story). The other day I passed by and glanced up to greet Negra, but she wasn’t there. All of a sudden, she came running (well, running Negra style) across the playroom toward me and stuck her lips outside the caging to ask for a kiss. (We offer the back of our hands to the chimpanzees if they want to kiss or tickle us, but for safety never cross the caging).
Now sometimes Negra offers us kisses, but sometimes Negra also feigns offering kisses and pokes and threat barks at us instead. Yes, Negra. It can be hard to tell when Negra is happy. Just like us, sometimes she’s just grumpy and sometimes it understandably might be something more. Negra was captured in the wild, we believe in 1973, but possibly earlier, and then spent over three decades in biomedical research. She has also been part of a study of post-traumatic stress disorder in former laboratory chimpanzees. So in short, even though Negra sometimes initiates interactions with her caregivers, you never know what response you may get in return.
But on this occasion, much to my delight, Negra not only offered me several kisses, she also presented her back for a knuckle rub. Now this is even dicier territory. Negra is particularly sensitive to touch and sometimes it triggers reactions that appear to be PTSD related. And even though she asks for you to rub her back, she sometimes responds by screaming or threat barking at you as soon as you touch her. These incidents are truly heartbreaking. Especially when you think about what life traumas she has experienced to evoke these responses, and even more so when you feel responsible for having triggered them. So holding my breath, I very slowly and gently knuckle rubbed her back as I spoke to her. Not only did she remain calm, but continued to ask for more!
And so it went between Negra and I for several minutes. Negra asking for kisses, back rubs, and even head rubs. And then…….Negra reached out to tickle the back of my hand and LAUGHED! Complete with a play face and droopy lip! I will tell you right now I got tears in my eyes. Not because I was so honored to experience this rare moment with Negra (though of course, I was), but because it seemed to be one more step toward healing for her. One more step toward peace and her confident chimpanzee self.