It’s amazing how much influence one individual can have.
Years ago, Diana and I both worked as caregivers at the Fauna Foundation in Quebec, where we had the privilege of getting to know a chimpanzee named Billy Jo. Billy was unbelievably charismatic. He was physically imposing, but behind all that size and strength was an extremely tender, insecure, and emotionally fragile guy. He loved his human friends, and in many ways he seemed to feel more at home with humans than with his fellow chimps.
After Diana and I moved back to the U.S., we would return frequently to visit our human and chimp friends in Quebec. And each time we pulled up the driveway to the chimp house, Billy Jo would lead the loudest cheering section you’ve ever heard. It felt like returning to a ticker tape parade in downtown Manhattan. All of the chimps would be pant hooting and jumping up and down, and as we walked in, Billy would be waiting with his big, toothless grin. He would always insist on grooming, but his excitement made it hard for him to sit still. Even as his entire body convulsed with intense breathy panting (a rapid inhale/exhale that chimps sometimes use as a greeting), he managed to have the most delicate touch. I remember trying to breathy pant along with him as he gently groomed my wrist, only to give up when I felt myself starting to pass out from hyperventilation.
Billy passed away in 2006, and during our next visit to see our Canadian chimp friends, we pulled up the driveway expecting the usual cheers from the welcoming committee. But that time there was nothing. No pant hoots. No screaming. No one perched at the window waiting for us to come in. Just a friendly hello. It’s not that the rest of our old friends weren’t happy to see us, but without Billy Jo’s cheerleading, it was a more subdued, and in many ways more appropriate, greeting. We weren’t rock stars after all. But Billy Jo could make you feel that way, and his enthusiasm was contagious.
Billy Jo showed us how a single chimpanzee can transform an entire sanctuary. Here at CSNW, the award for most influential chimp would have to go to Jamie.
About a hundred times each day, we all find ourselves thinking: Where is Jamie? Will Jamie get jealous if I play with Foxie? How can we keep Jamie from getting bored today? How can we stop Jamie from taking apart the facility today? Does Jamie need to go on another walk around the hill? Do you think she will come in tonight after dinner? Are these the boots she wants? What is that in her hand? Uh oh…
Caring for Jamie is an incredible challenge. She has to be in control at all times. She controls the other chimps in her family through brute force as well as psychological manipulation. I’ll never forget the way she would steal food from the other chimps when they first arrived at the sanctuary. Instead of taking food out of their hands, she would let out a completely spontaneous and utterly gratuitous scream. The others chimps would drop their food and run around in a state of panic and confusion. Burrito, in typical guy fasion, would begin to display and the girls would try desperately to stay out of his way. Just as the situation reached peak chaos, Jamie would calmly begin to pick up all the food that the others had dropped. She made it look so easy.
Jamie keeps the staff and volunteers under her thumb by spitting and throwing sand or feces when she is displeased. And it doesn’t take much to elicit her displeasure. We usually try to extinguish a chimp’s spitting behavior by ignoring it. Being spit on is not that bad really – a mouthful of water can even be refreshing on a hot day – so it’s not hard to stifle a reaction. But you can’t ignore having feces thrown at you, as Jamie knows all too well. Feces is a chimpanzee’s trump card. Despite their reputation, very few chimps actually throw feces, and the few that do aren’t stupid or belligerent – just the opposite, in fact. They’ve got us figured out.
At the heart of Jamie’s desire for control of her surroundings is her unwillingness to submit to captivity. She knows that she doesn’t deserve to be imprisoned, no matter how nice the jail or how noble the intentions of the wardens. Jamie has never seen the forests of equatorial Africa. And due to her upbringing in the entertainment industry, she exhibits an uncanny understanding of and affinity for human behavior. But she remains wild in the deepest sense of the word. Untamed. Uninhibited.
It’s hard to imagine what this sanctuary would have been like without Jamie, because she’s the reason for almost everything we do. Life would be easier, I’m sure. There would probably be fewer fights. And I think that the staff would love being able to go home on time each night. But I know we would all be worse off for never having known her. Because Jamie is the embodiment of the fighting spirit. She rules her two-acre empire, but that’s not enough for her, so she’s found a way to extend her influence beyond the bounds of her enclosure. The staff, volunteers, and visitors all submit to her authority. She occupies our thoughts day and night, and commands a combination of fear, respect, awe, and, of course, love from everyone she meets.
That is the power of personality.