I really had no idea what to expect when they told me I would be helping out in the sanctuary… and I can’t say that I came away from my first day feeling satisfied and encouraged. Christophe, who is in charge of overseeing the workers, has so much on his plate. When I asked him what time the feedings were and when I should be there, he pretty much told me: 6:30-9, 10:30-3:30. I almost laughed, but refrained and tried to explain that I was here primarily to write grants and to ask for money. He shook his head, looking just as confused as I was. Herein lies the problem; I’ve lost the little bit of French that I had learned in Paris; Carmen, my supervisor, is Spanish, so most of my training has been in Spanish (which I assure you, mine is not perfect!); and I’m reading and researching all day in English…and Swahili is clearly not my go-to at this point. With all the different languages flying around, trying to learn the very regimented procedures in the sanctuary was a bit of a disaster! We worked mainly in the food prep room, and the breadth of my knowledge regarding kitchen utensils and appliances is limited in English, so pretty much non-existent in French. The animals get fed three times a day, and each piece of fruit and vegetable (usually around 8-10 different types) has to be weighed and portioned out for 128 animals! You can imagine the scenario: Christophe asks me (in French) to grab the bowl on the table filled with ‘choux’ (cabbage), cut it into 5 pieces and place each piece in the bowl that corresponds to the specific animal or group of animals outlined on a piece of paper taped to the wall. Complete deer in the headlights moment and then all I could do was laugh…then panic! Christophe was mildly patient, but my insecurities took over and I translated every encounter between him and the other workers as, “Wow boys, we got a real gem this time; she can’t speak, understand or chop an ear of corn into 6 pieces with a dull knife!
But, I wanted an adventure…
Top Photo: Kongo arrives at CRPL after being chained to a post by child soldiers
Bottom Photo: Kongo hangin’ with his buddy in the sanctuary
My first experience with the chimps was intimidating, to say the least. Despite the 6 meter electrical fence between us, when 20 or so full-grown chimpanzees start dropping out of trees, jumping over bushes and hurling themselves toward you…well, I had to repress my urge to scream and took a BIG step back. They stopped in their tracks, gave me a good look over and then the show started- some watched, while the others fought for attention, beating on their chests, stomping their feet, tackling each other to solidify their position in the spotlight. Despite the brilliant spectacle, I could not help but notice his slow, calm approach to the scene. Kongo, the obvious leader of the group, arrived at center stage with an undeniable air of authority. The other chimps honored his arrival with screams of delight, gentle nudges and an occasional kiss on the cheek, each competing for the chance to snuggle up close to him and commence their essential grooming ritual. But Kongo brushed them aside, his gaze fixated on the new visitor. Like the other chimps, I was immediately enamored. He looked at me intently, his commanding presence curbed by his kind, wise face and gentle demeanor. He looked me straight in the eyes, but more as a question, rather than a statement or dare. I couldn’t help but wonder, did he like me? Did I exude whatever it was that one should to elicit acceptance from an ape? I began to walk slowly along the length of the fence. Kongo immediately stood up, trailing me by a few steps until I stopped. He would then catch up, turn to face me and sit down emphatically. I would walk, he would follow, I would stop, he would sit. This continued along the entire 5 acres of the fence. I took it as a sign…I think he likes me.
Kongo arrived to the sanctuary on October 16th, 2007 from the region, Beni. He was rescued from a rehabilitation center for former child soldiers and was most likely captured as a baby by one of the soldiers. They found him chained to a post in the hot sun with no food or water. Carmen said when she removed the chain, he just embraced her and would not let go. She believes that he spent most of his life in captivity; as he seemed very humanized and did not exhibit the normal behaviors of a chimpanzee. Now, the leader of the group and loved by both the staff and other chimps, Kongo spends his days exploring the forest enclosure, lounging in the shaded grass and basking in the devoted attention of his adopted family.