1. If a chimp bites you, it is imperative that you bite back to show dominance.
2. Beware of Bashi—he likes to throw fistfuls of stones and dirt when you least expect it. And Shasha, she has shit in her hand most of the time, but there is no need to worry, she eats it. As she defecates she catches it in her hand as it’s best served warm.
3. Chimps are very curious about blemishes, moles and anything on human skin that shouldn’t be. Pasa has nearly picked a mole completely off my leg while the others distract me. Mwisho was more fixated on the veins in my hand. With great determination he tried with all his chimp might (which is a lot) to squeeze my veins between his fingers. Surely he thought I had a severe case of worms. Africa was also occupied with my freckles, scratching many of them to see if they were removable. Upon discovering my tattoos, she licked and sucked at the ink, desperate to remove them.
4. When first being introduced to a chimp, you offer the back of your hand, much like meeting Prince Charming. You will be well sniffed and stared at with gentle eyes the colour of hazelnuts.
5. Chimps are as particular as we are. The morning and afternoon milk must be at a consistently palatable temperature. Tall, no whip, full fat, shot of honey and propolis. If it is too hot or too cold they push the bottle away in utter disgust at the barista (me).
6. A morning in the baby enclosure with six young chimps will prove to be the ultimate test of Q-tips, Irish Spring and Tide. The settings of my Filth-o-Meter had to be altered to accommodate the dry season in the Congo—and the somersaulting antics of dusty chimps for several hours.
7. A one-year-old chimp is like a bowling ball with four arms. Nothing is safe—forget the Royal Doulton collection and bananas at waist-level.
8. Pockets provide ongoing scavenger hunts for chimps (as do nostrils and ears). Cell phones, keys, lip balm and ob tampons are always great discoveries that require exchanges of fruit, bread, or something better than their new-found treasure.
9. Beware of Kimo who enjoys flinging himself at the most unexpected moment on to your head. If a flying leap isn’t possible, watch out for the thwack of the branch that he has pulled to the ground to smack back in your face.
10. Your neck will become a reasonable facsimile for a tree trunk in no time.
So, you wonder—what is a typical day in the life at J.A.C.K. (Jeunes Animaux Confisques Au Katanga) chimp refuge?
Weekend mornings begin at 5:30 when the equatorial sky is still black with stars. Mornings can run as smooth as pudding as long as there is electricity, which, generally there isn’t. If there is no electricity, there is no running water. Even when the power is on, the stove top isn’t optimal—bringing a pot of water to a boiling point is exasperating–a task that takes over an hour and a half.
Like a Starbucks employee, I prep an order for 23 chimps. Fourteen one litre bottles with six scoops of milk powder, a big dollop of honey and a propolis capsule for each. Six 200ml bottles are prepped for the babies: Africa, Dian, Pasa, Santa and Kimo. Micah, the darling one-year-old still in a diaper gets her own special order of half homo, half hot water. During the day the chimps also hydrate with water mixed with a teaspoon of sugar and salt (Gatorade for chimps). Kimo gets a bottle of diluted raspberry grenadine as too much milk gives him the shits.
We actually share 98.7% of the same DNA as chimpanzees. I often wonder why some smarty-pants dietician hasn’t introduced a chimp knock-off diet that would rock our ever-fattening world. The chimp menu is actually quite appealing—hot milk, papaya, watermelon, mango, apples, pears, oranges, bananas (#1 pick), pumpkin, kale, radish, broccoli, cauliflower, turnip, carrots, leeks, bush onions (my taste-test results: vinegary, sour with a lime juice punch, with fiery seeds like peppercorns), peanuts and buns from Le Brioche bakery. The bukari balls made of manioc (similar appearance to a yam) are also a crowd pleaser—the chimps and Congolese alike eat them with the same zest as a North American near a bag of Doritos during Superbowl.
The chimps have their lattes around 8:15 am, followed by a bread toss into the enclosure around 9 am. It’s a mad scramble for the buns and many of the chimps end up walking around on two legs with their bread cache safe in their arms. At 11 am and 4:30 they are fed the fruit and vegetables. Medications are given as necessary while the chimps are preoccupied with the dinner entree. For runny noses they get a swipe of Vicks Vapo-Rub, for coughs—cherry flavoured human-grade syrup. Eucalyptus essential oil is applied externally, as curious chimps will inevitably taste and lick anything that is on their body. The eucalyptus has proven to be a successful remedy for the many bronchial infections and common colds that the chimps suffer during the colder months.
When the chimps are ill with snotty noses, it is a sad sight. Like a children’s daycare, the cold passes chimp to chimp like Hollywood gossip. They seem so helpless, unable to blow their noses into Kleenexes. Instead, they rub the back of their arm against their nose and watch as the snot sticks to their arm, still connected to their nose in a long string. Then they eat it. Micah is a nose-picker at the best of times, totally unaware of the social taboo. She picks, examines it and eats it. Or, sometimes she dips her booger-clad finger into Chantal’s coffee if it is within reach. And if you’re not paying attention, sometimes that same finger finds its way into your mouth.
Micah stays with us at home as she is too young to overnight at the refuge with the extreme temperature drops. During the day, temps can reach a favourable 28 degrees, but at night, there is a plummet to 15 teeth-chattering degrees. Chantal tells me now that I have arrived during the African winter. No kidding! I can see my breath most mornings, and not because I have eaten goat testicles the night before!
The J.A.C.K. refuge is a short drive from home, located within the Lubumbashi Zoo (which is ranked as the number one place to take your hot Congolese date). Micah joins the others in the baby enclosure during the day—losing her diaper and tiny t-shirt to become a member of the wild again. She climbs as high as the others, and walks in tandem with Santa on the ground–as though they are practicing for a three-legged race. Dian is the cry baby of the lot, she sticks to Africa like Saran Wrap and wails if they are separated. If she doesn’t get her bottle fast enough, or a banana is stolen from her hands, she is crying like a kid sister.
Pasa is easily picked out of the crowd. As soon as he is within your tickling reach, he is on his back, squirming, desperate for a good tickle. He laughs and pulls all his limbs into a tight ball—but begs for more.
I tell you, there is no greater feeling than holding a little chimp in your arms. If only they could talk for but a moment, and tell their story—all that they have seen and suffered. Like Santa who was the “lucky star” of the Congolese military, bringing them good luck and protection in battle in Kivu. She would be carried at the front of the line as they went into combat. Coco belonged to the Congolese President’s family and when the President learned that keeping a chimp was illegal, he brought Coco to J.A.C.K. (with a camera crew in tow). Wanza arrived at the refuge as an alcoholic who refused to accept milk for the first six months.
Each chimp has a history that makes my stomach turn in angry knots. The humans responsible for such atrocities may receive a week in jail, but this has only happened once since Chantal’s involvement with the refuge two years ago.
Timid Kala was owned by a Chinese copper mine big wig who carted her around to the bars as a circus act. She has a scarred, hairless patch on her right shoulder where cigarettes werebutted out on her skin. Other chimps have been caught and injured in wire snare traps. The traps are set on the ground, and because chimps walk on their knuckles, they easily step into the hidden wire loops and become dangerously and sometimes fatally entangled.
Many are victims of the pet trade, where up to 10 chimps can be violently killed in order to capture the infant to sell on the roadside for $600 U.S. in a wooden crate the size of a bread box. Driving home with Micah in the front seat of the Landcruiser doesn’t spark any reaction from locals who see her sitting on my lap. The lack of response indicates that owning a chimp is acceptable.
Unfortunately, the J.A.C.K. refuge doesn’t have the authority to seize a chimp off the streets, or from wealthy expats keeping them as pets. In the Congo, if you have money, anything can be bought—and if you illegally have chimps in your house, certain higher-up individuals can be paid off to ensure no further hassles or confrontations.
Unfortunately, agreeing to buy a chimp for sale (which might seem logical to ensure its immediate safety and future) only contributes to the exotic animal trade. Such a purchase would confirm that there is a demand for chimps, and locals would respond by finding more chimps to sell on the streets.
The Minister of the Environment must approve each seizure, and sometimes this involves bribe money to speed up the process. The media is contacted and the local (and only) vet assists in every new chimp’s arrival to identify any health concerns. The quarantine period for new chimps is usually two to three months, depending on their response to care, feeding and socialization.
The J.A.C.K. refuge, established in 2006 by Frank and Roxanne Chantereau (supported by six highly attentive Congolese staff and Chantal, co-director) is a unique haven for chimps that have fallen prey to human greed and ignorance. At the sanctuary, they orphaned chimps are introduced to a group that will provide companionship, stimulation and camaraderie.
Some of the chimps have arrived at the refuge with no knowledge of how to groom or make a nest because they were taken from their mothers at such a young age. They are provided with hay to make nests in their night enclosure where they sleep, but there are also tarpaulin hammocks available. Chantal has observed remarkable progression among the newly introduced chimps as they teach one another and mimic skills that their mothers would have taught them.
Tongo, the smallest and youngest of the adult group, is constantly being pulled between Seki and Mwisho. They fight over her, wanting to take care of the youngster. Mwisho, who doesn’t like bread at all, actually collects bread for Tongo and keeps it protected in his arms while the others prowl for pieces to steal from the younger ones.
Cheetah and Seki who arrived at the refuge together are attached at the hairy hip, and walk as though they are wearing a donkey costume. Cheetah is the head and Seki pulls up the rear. Two years ago there was a tragic fire in the night enclosure. An arsonist set fire to the dry hay in the cage and two of the chimps died—one of smoke inhalation, the other of severe burns to her entire body. When bush fires burn in Lubumbashi, Cheetah and Seki become extremely anxious. The smell of smoke terrifies them, a painful reminder of the night they escaped, and two of their family members perished.
Watching the chimps interact, there is reassurance that they are truly content. J.A.C.K. has recently obtained a parcel of land that will allow for future release of the chimps into a wild space. This is the ultimate goal. Because chimp groups are impenetrable by outsiders, it would be impossible for an individual chimp to be released and accepted into another group. The J.A.C.K. group will be released together and be slowly weaned off food rations. This will be a phenomenal success, if the chimps can resume an independent life in the wild, with their adopted family.
I am incredibly lucky to be part of this organization. The faces of the chimps, their comical antics and pant-hoots of excitement when we arrive with bottles of hot milk are unforgettable. Each morning, as I hold Micah, feeding her spoonfuls of strawberry yogurt, I feel the beginning of a terrible ache that will split my heart the day I have to leave.
The memories will remain solid in my mind. The way the sun sets in a hazy blur of smokey orange on the horizon. The wide-eyes of the five nocturnal bushbabies at the refuge as they crawl down to feed on cay eggs, tomatoes and papaya. Long after I go, I will hear Pasa calling out to us, wanting company as he falls asleep. I will feel Santa’s lips on my neck and her pot belly in my arms.
Yes, I am hooked on a feeling. Where this may lead, I don’t know. Does it have to lead somewhere? Can’t I just have this experience for the purely selfish exhilaration it brings? Maybe I’ll look into a zoology program, maybe I’ll write a book on the chimps that have found a home in J.A.C.K.—maybe I will simply tell stories for the rest of my life about the time in the Congo when time didn’t matter. When I spent my days with the chimps, absorbed and consumed by the fragility and beauty of life.
At night, when I close my eyes, the Congo will be there, alive and vivid. Kimo, Coco, Micah, Santa, Pasa—they will all be there too. The chimps who have made my heart beat so fast and hard will always be with me.
To learn more about J.A.C.K. and how you can help (like adopting a chimp for $150 US a month) visit:
And if you missed the post about Shelia and Dave Siddle and the Chimfunshi chimp sanctuary in Zambia: https://julestorti.wordpress.com/2009/06/22/an-unexpected-life/