Hanging out with chimps is fun. Watching them hang out with each other is even better.
For sanctuary personnel who are trained to engage in protected contact with the chimpanzees, developing close relationships with the individual chimps is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. I cannot think of another experience that comes close to having Missy approach the caging and ask to be massaged, or being prodded with a wooden tool by Jamie as she inspects your freckles, or stomping around the hallways with Burrito to begin the day. There is something surreal about greeting, grooming, and playing with beings who are not quite human but are definitely something similar. To call these exchanges “perks” would be an understatement.
These aren’t my favorite moments, though.
What brings me the most joy is to see the chimpanzees being independent and going about their activities as if I didn’t exist. A true sanctuary allows chimpanzees to do this, if and when they choose to do so. There are times when I see the chimps foraging way up on the hill, far from the bustle of the Chimp House, and I think that this is how our relationship with chimpanzees would be in a perfect world. Our interactions would be limited to fleeting glimpses in a forest, and chimps would not be kept in captivity or subjected to exploitation. They could go wherever they wanted to go and be whatever they wanted to be.
Today, Level II volunteer Dusty prepared a mixture of chopped vegetables and chow and we spread these items outside for the chimps to forage. As the chimpanzees fanned out across the grassy landscape and climbed over the maze of wooden structures, keeping them in our line of sight became a challenge. The chimps didn’t seem to notice the group of human visitors sitting at the bottom of the hill, and I felt irrelevant as I tried to observe them with binoculars and capture them with the camera lens.
Negra was more interested in exchanging an open-mouthed chimp kiss with her friend Missy, Annie was busy searching for food in the prairie grass, and Jody was determined to collect the rest of the cat-tails and bring them back to the Greenhouse. Missy eventually disappeared in the bamboo, only to reappear minutes later as a fuzzy speck perched high on a shaded platform. Dr. Jane Goodall’s first sightings of free-ranging chimpanzees in Tanzania came to mind. Missy, far off in the distance, didn’t seem too different from the wild apes that Dr. Goodall watched through binoculars from a distant hillside. In many ways, I think that’s the main point.
Even if these seven chimpanzees can never experience life in the wild as their ancestors did, at least they still get to be chimpanzees.