When a local game ranger brought a malnourished and sickly chimpanzee to Shelia Siddle in Zambia in 1983, she never anticipated that one day her cattle ranch would become the largest chimp sanctuary in the world.
With only a copy of Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man to refer to, Shelia and her husband Dave committed to the daunting task of nursing “Pal” back to health, following parenting instincts more than anything else. After Pal came Liza Do Little, Girly, Junior and Charley, each with their own troubling story of abuse. When Shelia’s book In My Family Tree—A Life With Chimpanzees was published in 2002, her Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage had welcomed over 85 injured and abused chimps, dozens of monkeys, baboons, African grey parrots, bushbucks and a hippo named Billy.
For Shelia, who was ready to embrace a golden retirement on the Kafue River, Pal and those who followed forever changed the path of her life. Shelia had moved to Africa in 1947 with her wanderlust-driven parents and became a race-car driver, contrary to what her generation accepted as a traditional female role. She had five children and a cattle ranch, and never dreamed that her life would be dedicated to chimps.
Mac at Ngamba Island, Uganda
Chimps arrived at Chimfunshi addicted to cigarettes and beer from young lives spent as circus performers in local bars. Some chimpanzees didn’t recognize their own kind after being raised in human households. Others struggled for dominance, or sometimes just acceptance amongst the motley crew. Wide-eyed in their new territory, some of the youngsters had to watch the older chimps for lessons on how to build nests. The Siddles had built large enclosures so the chimps could sleep in the cages at night, or, in the open acreage in trees as they would in the wild.
Rita preferred the company of humans, and their shoes. She would remove the laces of every guest’s shoes, then carefully attempt to relace them, missing a few eyes, but would attempt to tie them up again. An artistic soul, Rita also used American scientist Mark Wright’s notepad and pen to draw. When other chimps were around though, they would annoy Rita by stealing her artwork. Eventually, Mark would wait until the other chimps were napping before he passed Rita the notepad. She would sometimes sit and draw for half an hour or more.
Pal was more concerned with Shelia’s complexion than doodling. Chimps love to groom one another, but Pal became consumed with the hairs on Shelia’s face. He would use his lips and teeth to pull out offending hairs and even squeeze pimples between his fingers!
The antics of Sandy had me laughing out loud. His natural reaction was to throw anything he could get his hands on at whoever might be in range. Oranges became perfect weapons, and Shelia finally realized she was perpetuating his behavior by returning the thrown objects back to him. When she held on to the thrown orange longer than usual, Sandy became sharply aware of the consequences. Shelia eventually returned the orange which Sandy immediately ate—quickly throwing the wadded-up orange peel at Shelia as she walked away.
Sunday at Ngamba Island
When the Siddles began offering sugarcane to the chimps to eat, Sandy found a dual purpose. He took great pleasure in thwacking unsuspecting chimps in the back of the head with the sugarcane stalks, creating instant chaos.
“It wasn’t long before mealtimes became a regular battlefield with Sandy around, as bits of fruits and vegetables filled the skies like V-2 rockets. Sandy eventually became a connoisseur of throwable food, preferring more solid bits like apple cores or apricot pits, or fruits that had peels that he could was into a tight ball. He clearly eschewed leafy foods like lettuce and cabbage though. The few times Sandy threw those, the leaves just fluttered harmlessly to the ground, and he trudged away disgusted.”
Sandy eventually found a partner in crime, Tara. The sanctuary was open to the public, and Sandy and Tara were known to pounce on visitors from their hiding spots on low branches. Other times they would pull back saplings like catapults and release them in perfect time to slap an unsuspecting visitor. Sandy also liked to race ahead and then quietly double back from which point he would dive on to the shoulders and heads of somebody. Many guests returned from the bush walks with bruises and torn clothing, but always full of smiles and stories.
Sandy was also dramatic—nearly convincing Shelia that he was near death one day. He had refused his morning milk and was incredibly mopey. He appeared too weak to stand and “spent the entire day on the verge of death.” The following morning Sandy showed Shelia the source of his moping– his tooth had fallen out and he showed her by pulling back his lips with his fingers.
Rita was known for her nursing sense. When she couldn’t remove a splinter from Tara’s foot, she thrust Tara’s foot through the bars of the cage to show Shelia. When Donna had a thorn in her foot, Rita was first on the scene, placing her hand on Donna for reassurance as she prodded the tender area.
In 1990, Jane Goodall contacted the Siddles, asking if they could take another chimp. Milla had been a barroom attraction at an Arusha hotel in Tanzania. They arrived in a single-engine plane with a UK vet. Jane and the vet rode in the back of the truck on a pile of sugarcane , wrapping blankets around Milla’s cage to keep her warm. Milla “went one better: She pulled the blankets through the bars and wrapped herself in them.”
Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary
Milla was discovered in a meat market in Cameroon when she was a very tiny baby, tethered alongside the body of her dead mother, and was bought by a very generous British couple, who brought Milla to Kenya and looked after her as their own child until she was about five years old. When the Brit couple had to leave the country, they left Milla with caretakers in Arusha, where she was introduced to the bar lifestyle, smoking and drinking.
Shelia’s description of Millla’s adjustment to Chimfunshi is tremendously emotional—she eventually integrates, retaining her curious habits of walking upright on two legs, and carrying her blanket with her everywhere. Milla found several uses for her blanket—once flicking it through the bars of the cage to hit a dog who had his nose in the chimps’ food. She would also flick peacocks or geese if they were out of reach. Once she filled her blanket with six sweet potatoes, two guavas and an orange. She neatly folded the corners up and made the blanket into a small parcel so she could pick up her meal and find a quiet place to eat away from the other chimps.
When Billy the hippo arrived, Shelia could no longer be surprised at the evolution of her life and purpose. Local hunters had killed the mother, and at 10 days old, survival in the wild would have been impossible. The crowd that had gathered has inflicted several wounds and severe gashes on the baby with sharp sticks. With little guidance on how to care for a hippo, Shelia and Dave bravely attempted to help her thrive. In three months she weighed 330 pounds and followed Shelia around like a dog, wagging her stubby tail. Most of the older chimps were terrified of Billy, but she grew incredibly fond of The Infants—Trixie, Diana, Doc, Zsabu and Violet. Billy adopted the chimps as her own and nap beside them or would be found “gazing happily at them through the wire mesh.” The chimps would slap her hide playfully, pull her ears, and jump down from the trees onto her back.
Billy also became attached to the dogs at the sanctuary. She would mimic their behavior and grab automobile tires like chew toys, flinging it around as the dogs did with their smaller toys. Her closest companion was Gretchen, a Rottweiler who she slept with at night. When Gretchen died in her sleep Billy was inconsolable. She kept nudging Shelia, begging her to do something to revive her friend, Gretchen. For two days Billy refused to eat or take milk and “kept a silent vigil near the kennel.” In her lonesome state, Billy broke into Shelia and Dave’s house three times looking for comfort.
Then there was Ole, a tiny barred owl who had fallen from his nest. For two months he’d swoop tentatively around the livingroom of Shelia’s house, test-driving his new found wings. Ole soon learned how to dive bomb their dinner plates as well, grabbing fried eggs and currant bread to eat from the safety of his curtain rod perch. Eager that he return to the wild, Shelia left all the house windows open, and Ole took short flights to neighbouring trees, always returning to the safety of the house. His longest sojourn was three nights, and then the days between his visits stretched even further with only rare appearances around their house.
Billy eventually discovered his wild instincts too, and when Shelia finally successfully coaxed him into the Kafue River she was like a porpoise. Shelia lured her further into the water while she sat in a boat (nervous of crocodiles, otherwise she would have been in the river herself). Billy soon established a pattern of roaming, joining other hippos in the Kafue, feeding and courting with them as she should.
Not all of the animals that arrived at Chimfunshi survived, and the stories of abuse are tragic. More often though, hope is renewed in chimps like Leben and Choco who arrived from the Tel Aviv Zoo. When they first arrived they were both sullen and unresponsive and “clung to each other like magnets. Only when a visitor from Israel spoke to them in Hebrew several months later did they spring to life and begin hugging one another and laughing out loud. It turned out that they spoke Hebrew, not English.”
In 1995, Sheila and Dave bought a neighbouring farm , a 13,000 acre property. The thick jungle, fruit groves and open grassland would allow the chimps to establish territory, and roam as they would in the wild. It would be the largest area ever set aside for captive primates. “It wasn’t freedom—we knew that—but in a world where chimpanzees are hunted for meat and forests are decimated daily, it was probably as close to freedom as any of our chimps might ever get.”
When it came time to release the chimps into the acreage, Sheila was only able to focus on one chimp, Pal. Nobody thought Pal would survive, and his scars and droopy lip reminded her of how he arrived 18 years before, desperate, with his face split open and broken teeth.
“My heart was in my throat as I placed a hand on the sliding metal door and peered into Pal’s cage. I leaned in close. “I promised you this,” I whispered. “Now off you go.”
Before Pal rushed off with the others, Tobar and Spencer, he turned to look back at Shelia. He was “staring straight into my eyes. And maybe it was my imagination, but for just that magical second, I believe he was thanking me.”
In My Family Tree is a remarkable book that reminds us of how moments that seem accidental can change the course of our lives. Thank you to the Shelia and Dave Siddle for their unswerving determination to provide a safe haven for orphaned and abused chimps (and even a darling hippo) to frolic and thrive.
David Siddle died in June 2006, at age 78. “We shall miss David terribly, of course, perhaps no one more than I,” said Sheila Siddle. “But we must keep working for the chimps. We must make sure they are well cared for. That’s what David would have wanted.”
More about Chimfunshi: http://www.chimfunshi.org.za/
Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary: http://www.ngambaisland.org/
Where I’ll be in July (J.A.C.K., Congo):
And, for more info about the woman who introduced the world to the plight of the chimpanzees: http://www.janegoodall.ca/