“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…
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.
Ironically, CRPL’s reputation as an established refuge for orphaned chimpanzees now makes it an easy target. There is a 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.
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.
I will go ahead and step up on my soapbox 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 its 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 an 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?
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.
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 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.