I hope you experience the same vicarious joy that I do when watching the cows race to their spring pastures each year.
Today was the day. It happens each year around this time.
I would have placed a bet on it happening last week, but Negra, the Queen of the sanctuary, operates on her own timeline.
Jamie was grooming my boots in the greenhouse (me safely on the human side of the fencing, of course).
As Jamie was brushing and poking at the boots on my feet, I saw Negra go from the greenhouse through the raceway to Young’s Hill. There were no other chimpanzees out there and we hadn’t set out a forage, so something else was motivating Negra.
I politely excused myself from my grooming session with Jamie and went around the corner.
I found Negra, with her back to me, sitting just feet from the end of the raceway. She sat there for what seemed like five minutes, looking around silently. It was like she had just discovered it was spring. And maybe she had. Queen Negra is not one to savor the outdoors unless the conditions are just right. She prefers to lounge in her blanket nests and pass the time in leisure. But there was something about today that drew Negra outside.
Foxie was curious about Negra’s solo journey outside and watched from the greenhouse.
I realized at one point that I was holding my breath in anticipation, wondering if this was going to be the true day of emergence.
As she continued to just sit and look around, I thought to myself, “well, I guess this isn’t the day after all.”
And then it happened. She picked some grass, smelled it, and then began eating.
Then she walked further away from the greenhouse and sampled more:
Next she headed to the “cabin” we built just for her, where she tried some grass growing inside the structure:
Satisfied but still exploring, she wandered some more:
She found a little patch of dandelions and partook in a few.
That was apparently enough for day one, as she then headed back into the playroom to rest up until her next foray.
Happy Queen’s Emergence Day, everyone!
Actually, that is a good segue into a day for the queen that is in the works. June 13th is a very special day. It marks the 12-year anniversary of the arrival of the original seven chimpanzees to Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest and the day that we will be celebrating Negra’s 47th birthday. We were going to have our annual gala event in Seattle on that day, but the pandemic caused us to shift our plans.
We are still hoping to have the in-person event on September 18th (fingers crossed), but we didn’t want the significant June 13th party to pass by, so we will be doing our first ever virtual event!
We have a lot of fun things in store for you all. Below is a teaser.
The chimps are constantly snacking on grass this time of year. Despite having access to two acres of the stuff, the best grass seems to grow just outside the greenhouse, which means that the humans have to do all the work and the chimps don’t have to get up and walk anywhere.
Convenient, isn’t it?
Missy requested a couple of bunches this afternoon and proceeded to make a nest on the greenhouse platform. This is quite common – when the chimps receive something they know they will enjoy, like when Jamie gets a new book or pair of boots, they often choose to make a nest before settling down with their new treat.
Sometimes the chimps shove handfuls of grass into their mouths all at once, while other times they take a more delicate approach, carefully separating each blade from the stem and eating them one by one.
Using their lips and tongue, they fold the blade up like an accordion and swallow it with minimal chewing.
As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, this is very similar to the way some chimps in the wild ingest certain plants for medicinal purposes.
We do routine checks for parasites so it’s unlikely that they are self-medicating the way wild chimps do. But who knows? Maybe its preventive medicine. Or maybe it’s just a snack. Whatever the reason, the prescription is always the same: More of that grass, please.
This morning was stunningly beautiful.
The fall grass touched with fresh dew seemed to be a source of light unto itself. With the angle of the morning sun and the glowing grass, the chimpanzees also seemed to emanate sunshine.
Jody, as per usual, was acting as the sentry and crossing guard:
Jody was VERY excited to see Negra coming out to join the group:
Here is Jody greeting Negra. You can see her excitement in her pilo hair:
Negra climbed up to the first climbing structure, with Jody in tow:
Here they enjoyed the sights:
A little while later, Negra meandered back to the greenhouse, looking simply gorgeous against the backdrop of the golden grass:
Long, lazy walks around Young’s Hill.
Endless amounts of fresh, sweet grass and dandelions.
Drifting off to sleep to a chorus of songbirds.
I have the most amazing job in the world. I know so many people who would love to be in my place and help run a sanctuary for chimpanzees. There are stressful times though; a lot of stressful times, if I’m being honest.
But then there are the moments that bring me back to the mission of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest and the reason that I’m here, and probably the reason you are reading this.
Today, it was a simple moment.
I was finishing up a walk with Jamie (wearing a mismatched pair of boots, at Jamie’s request).
Burrito, Jody, Foxie, Annie, Missy, and Negra all came outside while Jamie and I walked the perimeter of the outdoor habitat. By the time I came to the end of the walk, everyone but Negra had gone into the green house.
Negra remained sitting by the “cabin” that we named after her, in a field of green, sampling the fresh grass, as content as any chimpanzee I’ve ever seen.
Thank you, Negra, for this reminder today. It’s all about these moments.
The chimps spend a lot of time looking for food on their own this time of year.
They love to eat grass, dandelion leaves, prickly lettuce, mustard, and many other wild plants, as well as the bamboo and fir trees that we have planted.
Sometimes they sit down and eat them outdoors; other times they collect them and return to the greenhouse.
Every once and a while they find something new that we haven’t seen them eat before, or that we didn’t even know was growing on the hill. And when they do, it sends us racing to the computer in a panic to figure out what they’re eating and to make sure it’s safe!
This morning, while the other chimps were munching on grass, Jody seems to have found herself some wild rose – a new one to us. She’s by far the most adventurous eater of the group and she will go to great lengths to eat small amounts of certain plants.
Wild chimps are known to self-medicate, a behavior known as zoopharmacognosy. Some swallow Aspilia leaves whole to treat parasites, others eat clay to ease an upset stomach. This type of behavior is most likely culturally acquired, and chimp culture is not something the Seven ever got to experience in the lab. And of course there is almost no overlap between the plants found across equatorial Africa and the plants found on Young’s Hill, so it’s doubtful that they have any type of innate knowledge of which particular plants to eat. But sometimes I’m struck not just by the type of plants they’re eating, but by the way in which they eat them. If you’re hungry and you want to eat grass, you might as well just stuff your face, as Burrito so happily demonstrates here:
But we occasionally see the chimps carefully swallowing a single blade of grass at a time, even carrying that single blade from the top of the hill back to the greenhouse. And sometimes, instead of chewing the grass first, they fold it up like an accordion and swallow it whole, like wild chimps do with Aspilia.
Is it possible for captive chimps to learn a basic form of self-medication on their own? The Seven are routinely screened for parasites, so it’s highly unlikely that they are knowingly treating a parasitic infection as their wild counterparts do. But as is the case with so much that fascinates us about chimps, where intelligence, instinct, curiosity, and culture are inextricably interwoven into complex patterns of behavior, it certainly leaves you wondering…