It was weird to join the CSNW staff in the middle of summer.
Although many features of the sanctuary felt familiar, there was one aspect of the return that felt foreign: warm, sunny weather. Strangely, I had never actually spent time at the sanctuary during the summer. I began to intern here in the fall of 2015, was away for the entire summer of 2016, and only volunteered during the following fall and winter before accepting an employment offer from another sanctuary in early 2017. Because of this patchwork timeline, my earlier experiences here were largely characterized by damp weather and cold temperatures. Until this year, I had never experienced the wonders of summer in the Pacific Northwest and witnessed the amazing opportunities that the season provides for the chimpanzees.
Those golden summer days are long gone, and they won’t be back for a long while. Winter is here. Without the ex machina heroism of Arya Stark, we have no reason to believe that it will end early.
Last night, the skies began their annual efforts to cover this half of the state in a blanket of snow and ice. As I trudged up the sanctuary driveway this morning, I saw that Young’s Hill, the chimpanzees’ outdoor enclosure, was covered in a film of white powder that gradually thickened over the course of the day. Within a few weeks, the structures and grass will be hidden under perhaps several feet of snow that won’t fully melt until the spring. Given that chimpanzees have evolved to live in tropical forests, one would think that this climate would be detrimental to their well-being. Indeed, it creates many challenges for us caregivers, such as keeping the building warm at night and finding other ways to occupy the chimps besides repeated walks around the Hill. Despite its hassles, however, winter also allows the chimpanzees to have novel and exciting experiences, adding to the overall quality of their sanctuary life. Just as the human residents of the Pacific Northwest make the most of each season, so do the chimps.
On one January morning a few years ago, the other interns and I were helping J.B. to move thick, wet snow in order to make paths for the chimps. J.B. was using the tractor to bulldoze through the snow around the perimeter of the Hill, thereby creating a route for Jamie to patrol. The rest of us had shovels and were tasked with creating trails up to the nearest structures and bamboo forest. Nobody had seen the chimpanzees out on Young’s Hill since the last snowfall, so our goal was to give them a way to access their favorite spots without wading through the deeper drifts. I was halfway up the Hill, slinging the snow aside, when I noticed an odd pattern cutting through the smooth white surface off to my right. There, winding their way up the slope, were a set of chimpanzee tracks. They were unmistakably chimpy; each foot-print featured a conspicuously large thumb and each hand-print was really just a set of four knuckle-prints. I was in complete awe that one of the chimpanzees had, without any coaxing, ventured out alone into the icy landscape in search of some bamboo shoots. I placed my fist in the snow next to one print, snapped a photo with my phone, and returned to my labor.
Although chimps are often afraid of new or unpleasant sensations, sometimes they can surprise us by being brave and adventurous. In this way, even the most experienced caregivers can occasionally underestimate their adaptability, audacity, and determination.
With winter now upon us, I am looking forward to spending more time observing the sanctuary’s residents making the most of it. The cattle seem to be frustrated that the green grasses of early summer have desiccated until next year, but they seem to enjoy the extra hay and alfalfa that we provision. They’ve certainly changed quite a bit since their arrival here last winter, and it seems like they have grown more adaptable and independent. They’re also looking fuzzy and warm in their dense winter coats, so perhaps they won’t mind hanging out in their lower pasture until spring comes. Perhaps they can even dream of grazing in bright green fields as they lay in their barn this winter.
I am also eager to see how Willy B, Honey B, and Mave adjust to the seasons. They just had their first CSNW Thanksgiving with us a few days ago, and they may be given buckets of snow to eat and play with before the end of the week. Although they’re not regularly getting access to Young’s Hill after their first attempts to venture outside weren’t very successful, they will have plenty of opportunities to experience the winter season from the security of the outdoor chute. We’re not sure if the “Californian” chimps have ever seen snow before, but I’m confident that, like the seven chimps before them, they will embrace the new experiences with gusto.
P.S. Burrito had another good day today. He’s definitely itchy and possibly a bit bored, but he’s healing nicely. Bubba spent the day eating normal foods, picking at his scabs, and playing with vigor. We’ll hopefully have more updates soon.