Today is a big day for me—it is my last day as a staff caregiver at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest. I am excited to say that I will be beginning a new position with an animal advocacy group where I can utilize all my skills I’ve learned while developing and working on the Eyes on Apes program and fighting for chimpanzees everywhere. It is not a goodbye for me, though—I will be working from home, which means I will remain very much apart of the lives of the Cle Elum Seven and their human friends, too! Sorry guys, you can’t get rid of me just yet 😉
Though I am not saying goodbye, I have been reflecting a lot lately on my time here at CSNW and the relationships I’ve built with the chimpanzees over the last seven years! I started as a volunteer just a couple months after the chimpanzees arrived and they stole my heart. At the time, I was a graduate student working with signing chimpanzees in Ellensburg (a similar background to many of the CSNW staff) but I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. Since chimpanzee caregiving jobs are few and far between, odds were that I would end up doing something completely unrelated. But as I spent more time at CSNW, seeing the chimpanzees change and grow in sanctuary, my career path became solidified. Words can truly never express how amazing it is to witness the incredible transformation and second chance that sanctuary can provide for chimpanzees.
Negra is a perfect example. She was stolen from her mother and captured from Africa as an infant, and then forced into research to be used in invasive vaccination testing for human diseases. She was also used a breeder, and had her three babies taken from her within days of birth. As if that wasn’t already bad enough, Negra was kept in complete isolation for nearly two years.
Negra has no grounds to trust humans. How could she? After everything that they had done to her—no one is surprised that she isn’t quick to trust someone. Negra’s changes in sanctuary have been very gradual, but we have seen a lot of growth. Negra from day one was (understandably) untrusting and preferred solitude. It became clear after a little while that Negra exhibited symptoms of someone with PTSD and depression. But as the years went by, we saw Negra playing—first with her chimpanzee friends, and then with humans! And she slowly became more trusting as well.
I learned very early on that Negra does not like to be touched. It is likely that she had several negative experiences in the lab, literally being poked and prodded, and so even a gentle knuckle rub would make her scream and run away. After some time, though, she would occasionally ask for a knuckle rub by offering her back to her caregivers. I remember the first time I gave Negra a knuckle rub I was almost in tears, just thinking about how long it took her to realize that she was safe here—and I would not hurt her.
Honestly, I’m not sure that she’s completely convinced of that fact. Just due to the sheer horror of her past, she has not fully moved on from those nightmares. Every once-in-a-while, something will startle Negra and the PTSD symptoms come through. As we started working on positive reinforcement training a little over a month ago, Negra was not thrilled with the sound of the clicker. Something about that sound associated with a bad memory for her, and she did not react very well at first. However, we were able to muffle the clicker sound by placing it in our pockets, and that seemed to work just fine. (And now she is fine without the muffle!) The next step was getting her comfortable with the target—the PVC tubes we use also were uncomfortable for her at first. After a few sessions though, she became more used to it, and realized that getting grapes and chow are totally worth touching that stupid stick. 😉
Ultimately, the positive reinforcement training is something that will be really incredible for Negra. We will be able to work up to a point where we can perform stress-free medical checks. And, if we ever needed to anesthetize her for any reason, we will be able to do so without any trauma, because she will have learned that presenting her shoulder for a poke results in a positive experience.
Since trust doesn’t come easy for her, and since she prefers routine over new things, I was worried that as her primary trainer, I would not be Negra’s biggest fan. However, I completely miscalculated how things would go. Instead of causing a strain on our relationship, training has made our friendship so much stronger. She has impressed me so much with her progress in our sessions, and I couldn’t be more proud of her. What I thought would take months, she has accomplished in just a few weeks. Negra not only confidently touches the target wherever I place it, but she also has started opening her mouth (a useful behavior for dental checks) and she is even presenting her shoulder.
Since this video was taken, she has become more reliable with the behaviors and is very comfortable with me touching her shoulder (even with a stick!)
Now that I’ve exhausted everyone with such a wordy post, here are a bunch of some of my favorite photos of Negra:
Tonight, we will be celebrating the last seven years of sanctuary at our annual HOOT! gala event in Seattle. We will be sharing stories of the gradual changes and new experiences that sanctuary has given Queen Negra and her chimpanzee family (or should I say the royal subjects under her reign?)
There really is no better send-off for me headed into my new adventure than joining everyone tonight in this celebration of sanctuary. I look forward to seeing you all there!