Someone once said to me upon hearing of some particularly stressful aspect of our work (I don’t even recall what, I think we were preparing for a medical intervention for one of the chimpanzees), that they were “surprised.” They thought we all “just stood around holding hands and singing Kumbaya.” Ah. A once soul felt call for divine intervention from oppression and suffering taken from its suspected origins of the enslaved ancestors of the Gullah Geechee people in Georgia, to its then soft-voiced folk appropriation in the name of peace and solidarity, now used more often as an eye-rolling, head-shaking, somewhat barbed reference to considered…naivety? Cockeyed optimism? For many reasons, I wasn’t sure whether to be curious or annoyed. I think I fell somewhere in the middle, which is where I suspect the comment was meant to land.
My thoughts have snagged on that barbed memory these weeks as we navigate the pure, undiluted stress, exhaustion, joy, fear, and well, reality, of introductions with the chimpanzees. I think we’ve all hinted to these expected and unexpected challenges in varying degrees in our blogs lately. Diana spoke beautifully and openly to this just the other day in her blog post. And I think one of the biggest personal challenges for most of us, certainly for me personally, is the aspect of personal responsibility. Knowing intellectually that we are making the best decisions we can for the chimpanzees doesn’t negate the weight on your heart for being one more human controlling their lives, putting them in situations that aren’t easy for them, that cause unavoidable stress, fear and discomfort, and probable injury.
Chimpanzees are loving, gentle, sensitive, joyful, nurturing, creative, highly emotional and intelligent beings. And they can also be violent and unpredictable faster.than.you.can.blink.an.eye. Literally. Even toward their friends. It’s the business of being a chimp. (Also a human, I might add). And as a side note, reason No. 189 chimps aren’t pets and never ever should be. But in the end, I envy chimpanzees and their nature of unapologetically expressing exactly what they feel at any given time, then promptly sorting it out and moving along. It’s also the business of being a chimp. (But not so much a human, I might add).
So while our chests clench and we hold our breath as we witness the chimps scream, fight and come up against their own comfort levels, fears and social skills, we also hold our hearts as we witness increasingly amazing moments. Like arriving in the morning to see Honey B and Negra playing a slow game of chase upstairs. Or watching Jamie and Mave become increasingly inseparable as we marvel at Jamie’s ability to finally forge a true bond with someone of her own species. Or seeing Honey B reach out to Missy for reassurance after a fight, watch Missy place her hands gently on Honey B’s arms as Honey B held her mouth to Missy’s brow and then, see Missy slowly take Honey’s arm and wrap it around her back in an embrace. My hand flew to my heart, I teared up over that one. Even though it meant something different to me than them, me knowing their mother-daughter connection, it was no less powerful or moving. Especially seeing the distance they’ve come going from avoiding one another completely to more often than not being seen playing chase or just sitting quietly with one another. Or to see dear Annie who spent the better part of the first week of introductions screaming at the top of her lungs, intensely breathy-panting and grunting at Willy B while grabbing his feet in some socially awkward over-the-top play and reassurance gestures while huge, massive Willy B sat quietly wiggling his feet, letting her be herself.
We have a long way to go and some more tough days ahead. But I am so proud and in awe of Mave, Willy B, Honey B, Jamie, Jody, Foxie, Burrito, Missy, Annie and Negra. And I’m proud and in awe of the far-reaching team of humans standing in the wings, doing everything we can think of for the chimps and holding the space, trusting they’ll figure it out. Trusting we will all figure it out.
The chimps spent the better part of this day quiet, lounging in the sun, grooming, resting and eating. Not a lot of which was done within camera range. But here’s Willy B enjoying the view from the top of the toasty greenhouse:
And Foxie peeking over her doll, nap interrupted: