Four Chimps, Four Gorillas & One Girl Chained to a Fence.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi

I was two months into my 6-month stint in the Congo when we were told 4 of our chimps were being shipped off to a zoo in the capital of DRC.

‘C’, my supervisor, did everything she could to stop it from happening. It was maddening to witness, knowing there was absolutely nothing I could do to help and, ultimately, some greedy government officials were the ones to decide their fate…

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There is a zoo in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, that is privately-funded by a wealthy Chinese man who has decided he wants 4 endangered chimps and 4 critically endangered Grauer’s Gorillas displayed in his zoo.

It seems the Congolese government wildlife authorities- our “partner” in rescuing and protecting endangered primates- is now backing the transfer of these gorillas (from the GRACE Gorilla Sanctuary) and chimpanzees (from our sanctuary, CRPL).

Note: Grauer’s gorillas, which are found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are considered one of the 25 most-endangered primates in the world.

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Ironically, CRPL’s reputation as an established refuge for orphaned chimpanzees now makes it an easy target. There is substantial financial incentive for anyone who has access to these endangered animals to align with criminals or corrupt officials to capture the very ones they are entrusted to protect.

Most of these chimps and gorillas were abducted as infants. They have already seen their entire families murdered and then been stuffed into bags or tiny crates, chained to poles, starved, and abused- all for the economic benefit of their worst enemy…us.

Animals, especially chimpanzees- who share 99.9 percent of our genetic makeup- experience trauma the same way we do. Even if we can’t see their scars, they too, carry around the pain of past abuse, both physical and emotional.

In some cases, the trauma is visible. One of our girls, Maiko, arrived with a bullet fragment lodged in her head-most likely the remnants of what killed her mother.

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Even after being rescued, these traumatized souls still have to be kept in cages if the sanctuary doesn’t have the resources to build bigger enclosures. It was only last year that our sanctuary finally completed 4 large, natural enclosures to house most of our resident chimpanzees and monkeys.

So now, after years of confinement, these four chimps- finally free to roam, climb trees, swim and play with their new family- will be anesthetized, stuffed in a crate and forced to live in yet another cage.

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I will go ahead and step up on my soap box now and ask you to think about this the next time you go to a zoo or circus. Most of those animals staring back at you have experienced similar fates. Although the founders will deny it, and maybe they truly don’t know (or choose not to ask), animals rarely arrive at a zoo without experiencing extreme levels of abuse and trauma.

And do you really think a wild elephant would learn to balance some performer on it’s trunk or spin around on its hind legs without being beaten…without being broken?

Are they really better off, confined to cages or chained to a pole in a unnatural climate or environment and reduced to utter complacency? For what reason, for our entertainment? Or perhaps the more altruistic justification is that these animals are on the verge of extinction and can breed in captivity…so they can survive and flourish?

In my opinion, the concept of breeding animals so they can survive in cages is an oxymoron- akin to believing a dying man is better off living on a life-support machine.

Both scenarios require a decision to be made, one which usually benefits the one deciding. Even if it is well-intentioned- we don’t want to give up on a loved one who we think is still clinging to life. But do we really understand the quality of life we are imposing on the one without a voice?

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Of course, this issue is not black and white. As a sanctuary, we provide what we hope to be temporary protection from the threats these chimpanzees face- the insidious pet trade, illegal bushmeat market, increased forest degradation, and high levels of infectious disease transmission from humans- all of which are fueled by the ongoing political and civil unrest.

But if we release them back into the wild right now, they would most likely be recaptured. It is not ideal, and yes, they are still confined, but in the closest thing possible to their natural environment. And they are at least surrounded by their own kind.

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The reality is, if the Congolese officials allow these animals to be transferred to a zoo, they are undermining the credibility of our efforts to protect them. Qualifying for funding is already a constant battle. But if this happens, it could be a disaster. Will our present and potential funders really want to support a sanctuary that is subject to trafficking by its own founders?

There are too many political layers and players involved to get my head around at the moment, and I don’t know what the longterm solution is. But in the meantime, I have 4 chimps I have to help save.

Don’t worry, I will keep my wits about me. Just don’t be alarmed if you see a picture of me floating around the internet chained to a fence…with 54 chimps roaming about on the other side.

In the end, our chimps and the gorillas were not taken to the zoo. ‘C’ and a handful of leaders from neighboring sanctuaries banded together and fought for the their freedom.

And I suspect, our leading lady, Jane Goodall, might have had something to do with the final decision. 😉

You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support all the work that goes into protecting the chimps and other wildlife in danger of extinction. 

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SOS from the Jungles of Congo

For those of you who have been following my adventures in Congo (first one starts here), we are approaching the end. After reading the excerpt below, you might understand why, at that point, I was counting the days until my escape…literally.

For the last 2 months, the calendar on my wall served as an anchor to my sanity. I became obsessed with finding new ways to break down the months into weeks, the weeks into days, and the days into hours.

For example, every Wednesday for lunch, beans were served with cabbage instead of the usual plantains.

I only have to eat beans and cabbage 8 more times before I get to go home.

Besides my 24-hour excursion to Bukavu (read more about that lil’ adventure here) and when Eric swept me off to Uganda for 2 weeks (which literally saved my soul), I was pretty much confined to my house and the sanctuary.

I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere by myself due to safety restrictions, especially after dark. I also wasn’t supposed to wear skirts; women’s legs have to remain covered…although no one seems to know why.

So, as my tiny act of rebellion, every Saturday night after the sun went down, I would put on my only skirt and sneak over to the hotel next door and have a beer…exposed legs and all.

I’ll only sneak out in my skirt 7 more times before I get to go home. 

Another survival tactic was keeping a regimented workout schedule. Thankfully, my room was spacious enough that I could work out on the days I didn’t run with the boys (read about those lil’ adventures here)- So, running on Monday/Wednesday/Fridays, Bar Method video on Tuesday/Thursdays, circuit training every Saturday, Yoga on Sundays…

I’ll only do Downward Dog in this room 6 more times before I get to go home.

Yes, there were pockets of fun throughout the day. I loved the staff and, of course, the chimps. But the circumstances and treatment I had to endure had worn me down. And I missed my boys terribly (Eric and Biscuit)…and my freedom.

I was ready to go home.

I’ll only have to sit across from her and inhale her smoke for another month, 7 days and 10 hours…


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SOS

I never imagined that my biggest challenge in the Congo would be a tiny woman from Spain.

I have tried to spare you the details of trying to navigate one of the most tumultuous relationships I’ve ever experienced (which happens to involve the same person who dictates what and how much I get to eat; if I can leave the area I’m confined to; when I get to use the internet; how much second-hand smoke I will be inhaling a day; and whether or not I will serve as an outlet for her random bouts of anger originating from any number of sources on a given day).

Below is a glimpse of a weak moment, during an exceptionally trying day, at the end of a grueling week…that pretty much sums up six months of enduring an impossible situation.

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I often envision myself setting one off, seen from a birds-eye view, catapulting out of the trees like a frantic, directionally-challenged shooting star, alerting some sympathetic flyers-by that there is an overzealous crusader trapped in the forgotten trenches of the Congo, held prisoner by an abusive, parasitic woman who exists solely on souls and cigarettes, exhaling an endless stream of poison that slowly, methodically extinguishes the essence of those who have unknowingly landed in her web, kept alive just enough to quell her appetite as she whittles them down to an empty shell of their former selves, forcing them to resign the passion they once had for the cause they were fighting for, leaving them questioning whether anything is worth fighting for at all…

A side note:
This woman does, in fact, have some redeeming, even admirable qualities. Perhaps, on a day far removed from this one, I will remember what they are.

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What happens when you stay up past your bedtime… and you can’t speak Swahili

Okay friends, I know this is a repeat, but I just got back from vacation and the reality of what I have to pull off in the next 3 days. (Just minor things…roof over my head, money to pay for said roof…job to provide money to pay for roof over my head. Don’t worry, I’ll pull it off, I always do…but my creative juices are a bit stifled at the moment).

So, since this is, in fact, another Congo adventure, I thought I would recycle it for those who missed it the first time…or for those who just want to laugh again at the ridiculous shit I get myself into…

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Saving Lwiro

I was only one month into my 6-month stint working at the chimpanzee sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite the fact that everything I was seeing and doing on a daily basis was on the verge of surreal, I was confined to a very small area (given the whole ‘conflict/tail end of civil war’ thing) and my daily routine was already getting a bit monotonous.

Although I am an introvert through and through, my only options for companionship were my limited encounters with the chimps, awkward charade-like exchanges with the staff (French/Swahili speakers) and way too much time spent with my cantankerous Spanish-speaking supervisor. I was becoming increasingly desperate for civil, grammatically-correct, ‘I can actually crack a joke’ conversation.

I seriously started considering my exit strategy when I found out two women were coming to volunteer for a month. The thought of late-night talks, belly laughs and an occasional sounding board for said cantankerous boss quickly overrode all introverted tendencies, and I began counting the days. Not surprisingly, we were all close in age and cut from the same cloth (it’s a rare breed that decides up and moving to the Congo to save the chimps seems like a good idea), and it was immediately apparent that getting ourselves into trouble was not going to be a problem.

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No big deal…just taking a stroll with Jane Goodall.

Typically, our work day started at 6:30am and ended around 4:30pm. Dinner was served at 5, and we had all usually ‘showered’ (in a tub/bucket kind of way) and eaten by 5:30.

Since we weren’t supposed to leave our house after dinner, this left a good chunk of time to entertain ourselves with very limited options; there was no electricity, we were usually too exhausted to read by candlelight, and going to bed before 8pm was simply torture. So most evenings were spent sitting around a candle on the porch, chatting, sipping beer or tea and periodically challenging each other to guess how much longer we had until our self-imposed bedtime of 8:30…because come on, who goes to bed before 8:30?

It was 8:30 on the dot. We had just blown out the candle and headed inside to get ready for bed. The girls went to their room, then immediately came running back out saying there was a fire outside their window. They jetted outside while I fumbled around in the dark trying to find my lantern, which had conveniently disappeared, yet again.

By the time I emerged, the girls were nowhere to be seen. I proceeded to run up the stairs to the gate and ran into Valentine, one of the night staff. Usually, when I’m in panic mode, the only thing that comes out of my mouth is English (Spanish on a good day). But this time, the words flew out effortlessly (thanks to the trusty French podcast I listened to each morning while preparing the chimps’ breakfast.)

Tu sens ca? il y a un feu! (Do you smell that? There’s a fire!)

His eyes widened and he threw open the gate, taking off in a sprint. I silently congratulated myself for my mastery of the French language, translating his urgent response and subsequent actions to, Yes, Natalie, I do smell a fire. We should go immediately and put it out!

And with that, I was off to save Lwiro from its fiery fate.

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Everything up to this point seemed completely logical- there was a fire and we were running toward it to put it out. But when we got to the fire, Valentine stopped abruptly, took a sharp turn to the left and lept into the forest. So I did what any insane woman in the heart of Africa would do.

I dove in after him.

This is a good time to point out that I had seen Valentine on a daily basis since my arrival. He was a sweet, soft-spoken older man who always had a smile on his face.  And although our conversation never progressed beyond the usual ‘ca va?, Oui, ca va bien’, he was one of my favorites.

So as ludicrous as it sounds, I never questioned my safety when diving into the depths of the jungle to follow Valentine. I did, however, question my sanity when I realized that I was sprinting through the depths of the jungle with no lantern and no clue as to where we were going or why.  And all I could think about were the millions of hungry, venomous predators I was pissing off as I stomped on top of them trying to get to wherever we were going as quickly as possible.

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Before I knew it, Valentine was long gone, and I could see nothing other than thick, green vegetation closing in around me. The reality of being lost in the jungles of Congo with my extremely challenged sense of direction jolted me into survival mode. I screamed out at the top of my lungs… at the very moment that I ran smack into Valentine.

Completely disoriented and beyond traumatized, it took me a few seconds to gather myself and realize we were both staring straight at Susan… who was standing on my back porch.

She immediately burst out laughing, “Where the hell did you come from? We have been looking for you for the past fifteen minutes!”  

“Wait, what? Fifteen minutes? I don’t know what the hell you two have been doing, but Valentine and I have been chasing someone for hours! Athough I’m not sure who…or why.

And did anyone manage to put out the fucking fire?”

The light of day…

There was no fire. The neighbors were burning trash like they did almost every day. Although in our defense, we had never seen them do it at night, and it in no way resembled a harmless ‘we are just burning trash’ fire.

And as it turns out, my flawless execution of French was all for not. Most of the older workers communicate mainly in Swahili and know very little French if any. Valentine most likely saw the panicked white woman flailing about, pointing toward the forest, and assumed I’d seen some dangerous intruder.

And as for my near brush with death in the bush? I was actually in my own backyard, no further than a quarter of a mile from our back porch.

Lessons learned

Not a terrible idea to learn a few ‘could save your life’ phrases in the local language

Keep flashlight/lantern attached to your person at all times

No going out past bedtime

You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support all the work that goes into protecting the chimps and other wildlife in danger of extinction. 

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Down & dirty in the Congo…germs included.

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Be clear, I’m not a germaphobe.

In the states, I probably take more liberties than most with the various bacteria lurking on doorknobs, kitchen counters and community peanut bowls. I’m sure I’ve raised a few eyebrows when I fail to skip a beat before rescuing a precious morsel from the floor that fell off my plate.

Cringe if you must, but I’ve always had a resilient immune system, which I credit to the steady flow of all things vitamins and minerals I try to consume…and the threat of having to stay in bed all day if I do get sick, which I rarely do. So why dowse myself with copious amounts of anti-bacterial gel?

So off to the Congo I went, armed with my super-human immune system and a solid supply of vitamin supplements, fully prepared to embrace any unsavory bacteria strings I might encounter in the jungles of Africa.

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…Let’s just say, since my arrival, I’ve found myself a bit hesitant to ingest the contents on my plate…or breathe in, really.

The reality is, soap is a luxury item here (as is toilet paper). The only cleansing option available is a toxic-looking, soap-esque powder that’s locked up in the sanctuary office.

Each morning, Christophe scoops out a small portion on a scale, scribbles down the exact weight, and then distributes it to the workers for their daily shower. (It seems counter-intuitive to shower before you are going to do hard-core labor for 8 plus hours, but it’s to protect the chimps and monkeys from germs).

Beyond that, the only cleaning supplies I’ve spotted in the kitchen are an extremely weathered scrub brush and tap water.

That brings us to drinking water. A seemingly normal process, the water is boiled and stored in plastic bottles…that held their initial purified contents a very, very long time ago.

You know the smell- the water bottle you refilled a couple of times, left in your gym bag for too long, opened it back up, got a whiff…and decided against it. I’ve found it best just to shut off my senses and chug.

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Mama Bea…Love that woman.

And then there is the issue of electricity. There is none.

This means our refrigerator is now more of a bug and cat deterrent than a means to preserve perishable items. I’ve refrained from trying to explain my loss of appetite when Carmen offers me leftover chicken from two nights before…I just can’t do it.

My break from my carnivorous tendencies has proven timely at this point, placating my conscience and my stomach.

Or so I thought…

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I’ve just finished my first round of antibiotics. And yes, my bottle of anti-bacterial gel is my new constant companion.

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