Posts Tagged With: Chimp sanctuaries

Up in the Air, Elephants and Entebbe

By now all the rabid George Clooney fans have oooh-ed and ahhhh-ed over his schmoozy Ryan Bingham persona in Up In the Air. The Golden Globes are always a convincing force, pushing everyone else into the theatres to see the greedy award-grabbers like Avatar, The Hangover and Up in the Air for themselves.

So I went, because I like to be pop-culturally informed. If you are holding out for the rental so you don’t have to pay $12 for popcorn, there’s no spoiler here. Ryan Bingham’s life revolves around flying. In fact, being grounded leaves him unbalanced and twitchy. However, when love tempts him, he begins to reconsider his whole life. Maybe everyone else has it right. Maybe love, permanency and a home with a full fridge and drawers is attractive and natural. Bingham’s solace had long been the routine and simplicity of airline travel.  He had no baggage other than what he checked in at the airport. Or did he?

His motivational speeches on the absurd weight of the physical and emotional baggage that we carry turns as flat as an open Coke left on the counter overnight. His sister’s impending marriage reveals his estranged relationship with his entire family. When he meets his match in Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), Bingham re-evaluates his life spent in the sky, travelling 320 days of the year.

The movie should have convinced the audience that baggage is good. It represents a life well-lived, friends and partners well-loved, dogs, cats, the whole sloppy and gorgeous mess. 

So, why did I find myself in the travel section of Indigo Books minutes after the movie ended? Up in the Air reminded me of the anticipation that pulsates in airports. I wondered where I would/should go next. I pulled a guide book from the shelf on volunteer opportunities abroad and decided to play a game with myself. I let the book fall open to a random page, and decided that would be my next destination. I averted my gaze (to avoid cheating myself). I looked at the page that fate had opened to:  Thailand’s Elephant Sanctuary.

Because I’m a Switzerland when it comes to making decisions, I’ve decided this will be my new tactic. The 100-acre sanctuary is located 50km from Chiang Mai in the Mai Taman Valley. Many of the elephants are rescued in an injured state from poaching activity, as seen with one individual who arrived with only one tusk. Once rehabilitated the elephants are released into “Elephant Haven,” a 2,000-acre natural forest where they can live safely with the herd of 25 that has already found a forever home in the Haven.

Volunteers stay in bamboo chalets, collect fodder with machetes during the dry season and can accompany a vet on the “Jumbo Express.” Working elephants kept by remote hill tribes receive veterinary care during such missions. Mornings begin with car-washing the elephants in the river. Because they are prone to parasites and other skin conditions, they require a daily squeegee job. At noon, when the pick-up truck rolls in with papayas, pineapples and bananas, “you are covered in fruit pulp and elephant snot” in minutes. Awesome!

J.A.C.K. Lubumbashi, Congo

I walked home from Indigo in the spitting rain, inspired and imagining elephant snot. I went online and read more. I checked out the Tennessee elephant sanctuary again and made notes in my not-so-official Five Year Plan book. Then I saw a Facebook posting from PASA Primates in need of volunteers at the Drill Ranch in Nigeria, working with orphaned chimps and mandrills. I jetted off an email immediately for more details.  Then I received news that the J.A.C.K. sanctuary in the Congo (where I volunteered in July) has three more chimps arriving after being found at an abandoned captive facility in DR Congo. That made me want to fly back to Lubumbashi tomorrow.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I will probably volunteer more than I will work in my life.

It was just over a year ago that I watched Entebbe, Uganda disappear below me. The tears in my eyes made the few lights of the ‘city’ double. Landing at Schipol and taking the train into Amsterdam was a rude slap. Winter! That hospitable African sun no longer warmed my skin. I immediately forgot about the nuisance red dust that came with that lovely sunshine.

I rented Out of Africa the very next day. I looked at all 800 of my pictures on a regular basis and cried for the dogs and pals that I left behind. I missed the frenetic pace of the Tuesday night market. Having a warm Nile beer with a bowl of salty grasshoppers as the sun dropped into Lake Victoria. I wanted a Stoney Tangawizi (fiery ginger beer) and a rolex (an omelette with chopped cabbage and tomoato rolled into a greasy chapatti) from a shifty street vendor. As I ran in the sopping BC rain along McKee creek, I wanted to feel that stupid dust in my eyes and ears. I was sad to not be dodging scrawny goats and fleet-footed chickens and ‘boda-bodas’ (mopeds) with 400-pound Nile perch flapping on the back.  I missed Africa in an almost pathetic way. Like a heart-broken lover.

And then my friend Heidi reminded me of all the things I had casually forgotten about when living in Africa. Travelling as a videographer with World Vision, she spent the last two weeks in Entebbe, Gulu and Kampala. I was thrilled to tell her about each place—what she had to eat (pizza at Anderita Beach, Nee’s green curry at the Gately) and how the sunsets would catch the sky on fire. My only warning was about the darling vervet monkeys who were prone to stealing bananas from your hand, or anything else that they assumed was edible.


And I think I mentioned that Kampala was a zoo, but I didn’t want to be like a movie reviewer with a spoiler in the first sentence. I did send a photo of the Kampala taxi park as a subtle warning though. It’s a football field of ‘matatus’ (mini-van taxis), each with a horn which is blared in response to other blaring horns. Just like barking dogs, one starts, and the rest join in. But Heidi had been to Zambia, she knew the drill.

The flight to Entebbe alone is enough to cause exasperation in any sane person. Sitting upright for what seems like 108 hours is the first hurdle. Sleepless and rattled by disappearing time zones, you arrive in the vacuum cylinder that is Entebbe. It smells like one big armpit. The skeletal dogs you pass by are like a non-stop Humane Society commercial with some achy Sarah McLachlan song cooing in the background.

The dust begins to blow, the sweat begins to drip until you feel like you’ve taken a dip and are stuck wearing your wet swimsuit for the rest of the five hour car ride.

Heidi’s first post mentioned her exhilaration in finally arriving in Uganda, despite the cold shower (yeah, I forgot about the frequency of those too). She was looking forward to sleeping on her single bed with the lumpy foam mattress. I nearly spit wine all over my laptop screen. I remembered the foam mattresses well. They make you sweat so much that when you wake up, you think you’ve pissed the bed. And then there’s the mosquito net to wrangle with.  If they are hung from the ceiling on a hoop, there is a fantastic chance that by morning, there is a huge gap somewhere in the netting and 500 malaria-carrying mosquitoes are trapped inside the net with you.

Heidi’s Twitter-ed dinner reports were the most dramatic (and realistic). I think after being in Entebbe for four months, I had become used to the starch intake. A typical lunch or dinner would include: matoke (steamed green plantain), potatoes, yams and rice. Served with, as Heidi eloquently described it, “chicken parts.”

Yes, there were always mystery parts. I think I had part of a goat’s stomach in some broth once. But I conveniently forgot about the stench of fish for sale on the sidewalk in Kampala. The body odour that permeates all air molecules. There were several matatu rides where I had to do a lot of self-talk in tandem with my iPod and The Killers at a deafening level.

And then there was the internet and electricity issue. The patchy communications home made my mother routinely WRITE IN CAPITAL LETTERS. In Entebbe, the power went off in the airport as soon as I arrived. The luggage carousel was halted, but speech was not! The airport was alive with the raised voices of wilting missionaries and UN workers and Tilly-hatted tourists in safari suits fanning themselves as they complained to anyone who made eye contact.

I forgot about the crappy internet connection. I forgot about the stretches of three or four days without electricity. And the hurried cold showers that accompanied them.

When Heidi returned to Nashville, I relived my return home. Clean sheets, clean surfaces, meat without flies on it, ice cubes, soap! Deodorized people! No one yelling “Mizungo! Mizungo! Give me money! Mizungo, buy this!”

And I had space. I have probably only yelled twice in my life, and not even at a dog the other time. However, when I was flying out of Lubumbashi in July I had to yell against my will. Maybe it was more of a really loud voice than a yell, but, the man behind me had his passport pressed into my back. His jacket was practically slung over my shoulder and I could feel his hot, stale breath on my neck. I could feel myself cracking my own molars, trying to resist an eruption. “STANDING CLOSER TO ME DOES NOT MAKE THE LINE GO FASTER.” I erupted. It happens to the best of us when travelling.

And this is another blessing of North America (besides meat without flies and reliable wi-fi). We give each other personal space. It’s an unspoken rule that doesn’t exist everywhere in the world.

But, if we don’t travel and put ourselves in unfamiliar landscapes, how do we ever appreciate laundry detergent, $5 coffees and toilet seats? Or being served chicken instead of chicken parts? Distance from comfort, family and friends refines gratitude.

Public washroom in Kampala, Uganda

Even though I was reminded of all the nerve-fraying aspects of African travel, I am still halfway there in my head. I can always come home to a toilet seat and pocket-coil mattress again. It might be time to rent Out of Africa again. Apparently I miss corruption, using 500 Q-tips a month, parasites, starch and riding in matatus with 19 people, 6 chickens, blaring gospel music and an oily car-engine half on my lap.

Doesn’t everyone?

“Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” –Pat Conroy

Heidi’s World Vision Zambia footage featuring “All the Days” by Jann Arden:

Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand:

Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee:

The Drill Ranch in Nigeria:

J.A.C.K. in Lubumbashi:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Lessons in Dying

ikia in bagIt was to be a day of celebration, not a morning of angry tears and bitter rage directed at the ignorance of mankind.

I have always sympathized with Dian Fossey and her misinterpreted passion, I understood how her love for the mountain gorillas ran so deep and fast that strangling poachers bare-handed seemed  like the only viable solution to her. I’d like to stop the beating heart and breathing lungs of the guy who decided to rob Ikia of her life in the wild just to make a quick buck.

Three weeks ago, Julius, a geologist in Kalemie, was approached at his home a chimp trafficker, and the proposal wasn’t out of the ordinary. As a wealthy Congolese mining survey freelancer who frequently entertains expats and foreign nationals, Julius has been targeted as an individual who can afford exotic pets—and would have connections to others who would be interested in similar transactions. Exotic pet traffickers routinely come to his compound with African grey parrots, crocodiles, monkeys, marabou storks, and as of late, three baby chimpanzees.

When Julius saw the grave condition that Ikia was in, he felt there was no other choice but to save the chimp from the greedy hands of the trafficker who had her tucked away in a burlap sack bound with twigs. She was bought for $120US after Julius refused the asking price of $200.

Ikia’s decline was immediate. Julius provided her with shelter in his courtyard, and the young chimp was immediately hostile and aggressive. Attempts at feeding her were in vain—she refused milk and would only eat small amounts of papaya. Julius contacted the Jane Goodall Institute (no response) and Chimfunshi in Zambia (also no response) for advice. The husband of a colleague of Chantal’s who was familiar with her work as co-director of J.A.C.K. in Lubumbashi, cemented a connection between Julius and Chantal. Urgent phone calls and desperate emails ping-ponged between the two as Ikia’s health became critical.

Chantal immediately coordinated a meeting with the Minister of the Environment and an inspector from the Institute for Hunting and Conservation and Nature (notice how it’s the Institute of Hunting before other concerns like Conservation and Nature?) to obtain permission for the seizure and relocation of Ikia to the J.A.C.K. refuge where she could receive appropriate care and veterinary attention (from the one and only vet in Lubumbashi).

The Minister of the Environment was unavailable, but represented by a boozy stand-in, and the IHCN inspector proved to be shadier than a tree, working for financial motives more than animal welfare. The whiff of corruption was immediately evident as both men were asking for money to expedite the process and maintain their interest.

Ikia's arrival at the Lubumbashi airport

Ikia's arrival at the Lubumbashi airport

Kalemie is a two and a half hour flight from Lubumbashi. Due to Ikia’s deplorable condition, immediate decisions were necessary to ensure her survival. The documents that were to be signed by the officials on a Friday afternoon were somehow pushed to Monday in favour of whiskey, despite the urgent request for permission to fly Ikia to Lubumbashi that Saturday. On Monday, Chantal was to hear from the Minister by day’s end, but again, there was a delay in any formal action. When she was finally invited to the “office” of the Minister to receive the required documents, she was offered a seat (a plastic lawn chair) in a windowless office with only a table and one other lawn chair.  The Minister’s stand-in had no paper and asked Chantal to borrow a pen—which confirmed the lack of professionalism and governmental resources from the beginning.

Chantal phoned Julius to confirm that the permission had been granted, a pilot had been contacted and the expense of the flight was going to be waived. Except, on that Tuesday, only Julius got on the plane in Kalemie– there wasn’t room in the cargo area of the plane for Ikia. Julius decided to fly to Lubumbashi to assist the refuge with negotiations and his colleague, Patrick, would fly with Ikia the following day.

The refuge staff anxiously prepared the quarantine cage and the vet was contacted. As we paced, waiting for the phone call indicating that Ikia was on the plane, Julius informed us of different news– the flight from Kalemie was cancelled, but Ikia would arrive the next day. On Wednesday the flight was delayed for hours.  When we received the green light that Ikia was on the flight, we headed to the airport with the Minister’s useless sidekick and the seedy, glassy-eyed inspector. Halfway out of the city the sidekick realized he didn’t have the documents to present to the airport officials. We turned around. Then he decided he wanted to take his own vehicle—and asked Chantal for $10 to cover the petrol. 

In separate vehicles we rushed to the airport, exasperated at the behaviour of the ministry. The officials continued to ask Julius for more money. The airport officials in Kalemie demanded $100 US to put Ikia on the plane. The Lubumbashi  airport police stopped us at the gate and said we could only take one vehicle beyond the entrance. After removing the crate for transferring Ikia to the official’s car, he couldn’t unlock the back door of his Jeep, so we reloaded ours, and both cars were granted permission to proceed—with a bribe payment and a crooked smile.

The police officer wore a dusty uniform hat and a sweatshirt that my grandmother would have loved (it might have belonged to her at one point). The sweatshirt had LET IT SNOW written in big, sparkly letters and the snowflakes were carefully sewn-on sequins. The cardinals were also sparkly and of red glitter. I thought of the intense fear locals and the world have for the Congolese police. How could anyone be afraid of an officer wearing a nubby Grandma sweatshirt, even with a rifle slung over his shoulder?

The plane was landing as we made our way through the gate, the LET IT SNOW officer smiling like a fool with extra money in his pocket. Ikia had no idea of the life that was about to unfold for her, but already, the days had been too long. The daily setbacks in the process we tried to hurry would eventually determine her fate.

We don’t know how many days she spent in a burlap bag on the back of a bumpy truck from the mountains. We’ll never know how many chimps were killed in order for the trafficker to get his hands on Ikia. The chimp troop would have defended her and perished in a bloody battle to save their own from the trafficker.

Julius tells us the traffickers are infiltrating the Kalemie area from Tanzania–convincing local Bantus and a pygmy tribe that they can find a reliable income for their families by getting involved in the exotic pet trade.

Historically, the Bantus and Kalemie population have never eaten chimpanzee, but the ever-growing militia numbers in the area do, presenting another threat to the two chimp colonies nearby. No one knows the number of chimps living in this area—a survey has never been done. National Geographic biologists were in the region earlier this year, but their focus was on the snake and frog population.

For the chimps of Kalemie, habitat destruction is pushing them closer to local communities who are torching large stands of forest for charcoal (a major fuel source for locals for cooking) and farmland. Gold mining surveys are presently being carried out which could also upset the delicate ecosystem and range of the chimps in future years as mining exploits are carried out.

Many fingers of blame can be pointed in every direction. To the minister officials with questionable morals, to the inspectors with equally dark motives, to an uneducated population who have found exotic animal trafficking provides a lucrative income. There are no schools in a 120 km radius of Kalemie—the pygmy tribe still lives by nomadic principles, their quiet existence suddenly interrupted by outsiders who have found a valuable resource in their forests. The Tanzanian traders can be blamed too–for fulfilling a demand from Saudi Arabia, to supply wealthy oil barons and army officials asking for chimps to call their very own.

Although J.A.C.K. can celebrate 23 success stories, there is no progress being made when the alarming news of a lively chimp trafficking trade is illuminated. Lwiro Primates in South Kivu (near Goma) recently introduced two more chimps to its primate sanctuary, in addition to the 45 chimps and 50 monkeys that they already house. The existence of sanctuaries and refuges like Lwiro, J.A.C.K. and Ngamba Island (Entebbe, Uganda) are indications of human failure and the tremendously steep climb that is ahead.

Soccer balls, bonbons and old running shoes aren’t going to save Africa. The need for effective educational programs and a support staff to ensure their continuity are essential puzzle pieces in seeking equilibrium in this situation. Without education, poverty and corruption create an ugly piggy-back monster for a population surviving with limited resources.

086Ikia is a product of the conflict, soupy morals and disorientation of the Congo. She died 12 hours after she arrived at J.A.C.K. Severely malnourished and dehydrated, her immune system and vitality was compromised long before we could be of assistance. Her weak, initial cries upon arrival were the last we heard. By morning, she was unresponsive, her limp body was unable to resuscitate. She died in Augie’s arms, unaware of the safety and security that finally surrounded her.

The Congolese traditionally bury their dead the very same day, and by 2:30 that afternoon, Ikia’s body was placed in an elaborate coffin decorated with ivory bows and lined with cloth. She was customarily buried with tree branches pushed into the dirt of her grave, as the branches would take her back to nature when she went to the otherworld. The service was brief; the emotions of the J.A.C.K. staff were visible on drawn faces and in clenched fists. The tug-of-war between anger and inconceivable sadness for her death pulled at each of us.

Ikia reminded us of the consequence of poverty and the desperation of a beleaguered Africa. Her death provided insight into the existence of chimp colonies that were unheard of. Of course we envisioned a different life for her, but understand that her death was for a purpose that will prove to be greater than her life.

Please tell everyone you know about the chimp trafficking situation in the Congo. And if you want to donate money to a cause that will directly influence the future, wild population of chimpanzees in Africa, visit the J.A.C.K. website or Facebook link at:

Lwiro Primates:


Or if you’re bilingual like the Congo believes all Canadians to be due to Celine Dion singing French songs, visit the J.A.C.K. site on Facebook (en francais):


Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

An Unexpected Life

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:

Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary:

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:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Why All the Talk About Africa?

It was past midnight last May when I was waiting for an epiphany. I had been dreaming of hummingbirds biting me, which I learned later was a sign of restlessness. I had no idea at that time that such restlessness would see me flying to Africa in September.

The semester at Douglas College had just drawn to a close, and I was wondering what I could do to marry my interests of creative writing and my passion for animals. A colleague had landed a cool copywriter gig at the Telus World of Science in Vancouver. That’s when I realized that there were broader possibilities out there—and I Googled the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI).

I scrolled through the job postings and randomly applied for a position designing an environmental studies-based curriculum, despite being totally unqualified. I thought of Peter Mansbridge and his early days, working as a clerk at an airport in Manitoba. The airport announcer had called in sick, and with no short notice replacement available, the supervisor asked Mansbridge to announce a delayed flight. A local radio station manager was in the wings, heard his voice and recruited Mansbridge on the spot. He was shuffled to CBC radio’s northern service shortly thereafter. This is how things happen.

Chimp at Ngamba Island Sanctuary, Entebbe, Uganda

With an urge to do something bigger and stretch my mind into a downward dog of its own, I sent off the application with my beefed-up resume and then looked for Uganda on the globe. At that point, I had no idea where in Africa it sat. The curriculum designer position was for six months, beginning in July. When April and May rolled by, I assumed that the position had been filled.

During the last week of June I received an email from JGI Uganda. A posting that my skill set would be better suited for had become available. Would I be interested in editing a book on the tribes and totems of Uganda? As soon as possible?

It’s no secret that I find great difficulty in decision-making. Choosing between the coconut curry stew and the lemongrass chicken at New Saigon is agonizing. Do I want a skim latte or a mochacinno? A Sidekick or a VW Golf? How was I supposed to make a snap decision like going to Africa, as soon as possible? Sending off an application in May was cerrtainly spontaneous, but my nature is to brood, fret, think, re-think and create pro and con lists as thick as a phone book. God, really? Me? Uganda? I hadn’t told anyone about applying for the job…

And then I was there (after much see-sawing), from September 2008, to January 2009. The Tribes and Totems of Uganda project was a fascinating project, and the pile of 500 submissions from local elementary students soon narrowed into a comprehensive collection. The learning curve was exactly what my restless self needed. When I roared through that assignment and found myself with two months left in my volunteer stint, Debby Cox, then director of JGI, asked if I could draw primates. I guessed yes, I probably could. My days were soon consumed by designing a colouring book on the primates of Uganda. When an employee of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation came to visit, I was suddenly drawing the primates of Rwanda to be used in a colouring book format for them.

I was in my element, drawing bushbabies and monkeys all day. What could be more fulfilling? Well, I will find out this July.

On safari in Queen Elizabeth Park (Uganda) at Christmas, I met Chantal Jacques, co-director of J.A.C.K. (Jeunes Animaux Confisques au Katanga—Young Animals Confiscated in Katanga), a refuge centre for orphaned chimps confiscated by the Ministry of the Environment in the Congo. Chantal was interested in hearing more about my work with JGI and we exchanged emails as our tour groups were heading in different directions. What I didn’t expect a few months later was her email asking if I might like to visit the Congo in July and volunteer for a month.

This decision came quicker, yes. Yes!

Mac, at Ngamba Island

The opportunity to volunteer at J.A.C.K. will allow direct contact with the chimps, unlike my JGI experience. Chantal has pre-warned me of early mornings, preparing milk for the chimps. The house where I will be staying has no water (yet), electricity is dodgy, and Internet connections are patchy at best. And there is no postal service. Did I really want to come?

I was already knee-deep in my Congo research. Reading the refuge blog pulled me in even further. I have learned that the refuge has nearly insurmountable barriers to conquer. The Swahili word for wildlife,“nyama,” is the same term used for “meat.” Great apes and primates continue to be killed as a food source in the lucrative bushmeat trade, and as ancestral custom. One Congolese tribe believes that crushing and cooking the bones of an ape will allow the child who drinks the powder the strength of the chimpanzee that was killed. Infant chimps are smuggled by members of the Congo Army, high ranking Congolese and by request for expatriates wanting a darling little pet. Ten chimpanzees usually die for every baby taken as the family struggles and fights to defend the infant from poachers.

Franck and Roxanne Chantereau, co-directors of J.A.C.K. estimate that chimp trafficking in the last 10 years in the Congo has resulted in the death of over 4,000 chimpanzees. Still, chimps are found being sold for small change on roadsides in Lubumbashi. J.A.C.K., a self-funded NGO was started in April 2006 in response. The refuge, located in the Lubumbashi Zoo, was created to provide a safe space for orphaned chimps to live, as they wouldn’t have the ability to survive in the wild.

Education is key focus of the the refuge, and their accessibility (no admission fee) helps expose locals to the consequence of poaching, eating bushmeat and smuggling. There are plans to build a visitor’s centre with informative displays showing the correlation between local lifestyle and the impact on the future of chimpanzees in the Congo, where 40% of the remaining African population lives.

Even though my parents and partner aren’t exactly doing cartwheels about me travelling to the Congo, they see the lure. Of course they worry that I will pull a Meryl Streep and become an Out of Africa story, deciding to stay, buying myself a nice coffee plantation to live on. But that was Karen Blixen’s story, and I have my own to write!

* To immediately transport yourself to Africa, check  the “Into and Out of Africa” category on my site. Here, in chronological order, you can travel with me all over again beginning with From Your African Correspondent, Jules Torti (September 20, 2008) to Stories From Across the Water (January 23, 2009), which was posted shortly after my return to Canada.

For more information on J.A.C.K.:

J.A.C.K. Blog:

Jane Goodall Institute Africa programs:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Chumps and Chimps

October 13, 2008

So, it goes like this…
I decided to take the cheap (but hair-raising) matatu taxi into the capital city, Kampala (only a $1.50 for a near-death experience). The matatus are licensed to carry 14 passengers, but in no time we have 19. All I can smell is armpit, and there is Hooray for Jesus music blasting from the vehicle’s already blown-out speakers.
If we crash, I’m not going anywhere because I am so wedged between people and bags of eggplant, a generator and a greasy car engine-looking thing. I can’t even take a deep breath because there are elbows deep in my ribs on either side. The guy beside me has fallen asleep and apparently feels quite comfortable with his head resting on my shoulder.
The matatu driver honks at every person he sees along the way, even when there are no seats left in the taxi. He honks and abruptly pulls over in a cough-inducing cloud of dust for people walking in the opposite direction on the OTHER SIDE of the road. I want to punch him after only three minutes. It’s a never-ending scavenger hunt for passengers as people get on and off every few minutes. One thing is for sure: after world peace and an end to third world hunger, my only hope is that Ugandan drivers learn to drive with their steering wheels instead of their horns.
We finally arrive in Kampala, and my blood feels like it’s carbonated. I need a bath in Javex bleach for the unbleachables. The pants I have worn specifically because of a high security zippered pocket (for my passport), cling to me like Saran Wrap. I am sweating like I’ve been trapped in a phone booth overnight with six Sumo wrestlers and a mamba snake.
I jump on a boda boda(motorcycle taxi) to go to the Immigration building to have my three month visa renewed (the snotty airport official would only stamp it for one month when I arrived, despite the Ugandan High Commission in Ottawa already issuing it for three months). The boda driver weaves through the lanes of diesel-belching traffic, and I am quick to assume that he has a depth perception issue. I have my elbows so tightly tucked in behind me as I clench the back bar of the bike, I don’t know if they will ever un-tuck! There are no helmets for passengers, let alone for the drivers themselves. I see one driver wearing only the inner foam lining of a helmet. As I think about the fragility of my skull I try to ignore the giant wheels of the charcoal delivery truck towering above me, I notice that I am squeezing my driver’s ass so hard with my knees that he probably won’t have a bowel movement for a week. I am so focused on trying to keep myself small and to avoid the mirrors and bumpers of passing vehicles. It’s nothing but screaming brakes and incessant horns. Three times I wince, thinking, shit, this is it, we’re getting smacked. But, I arrive at Immigration (to meet a fate of a different kind) in one jittery piece, streaked with red dirt from brushing up against so many vehicles as we wormed through traffic.
I enter the Immigration courtyard and see at least 100 people fanning themselves under a tent canopy. I immediately decide that if I have to wait in this line, I’ll just fly back to Canada instead. I ask where I should go to have my visa renewed and a cranky security official with a gun slung over his shoulder like a backpack grunts and points. I wait for an hour where he indicated and when I reach the window with my passport in hand, I am told to wait in another line twice as long. Women are standing so close to me that their breasts are pushing into my back. A guy in the next line is so close I can feel his breath on my neck. Finally, I turn to him and say, “‘standing closer to me doesn’t make the line go faster.” He edges back, but soon creeps forward again, and the papers in his hand are pushing into my spine–so I lean backwards and hear his papers crumple. It’s just a fucking herd of people, butting in and pushing. A Dutch woman politely asks me which line is for work permits, and the guy with the papers behind me steps boldly ahead of me when I turn my head to answer her. I assertively tell him, “hey buddy, it’s called a line-up” (and I instantly think of my ex-girlfriend Kelly, and her famous line that she used daily in downtown Toronto: “It’s called excuse me!” There are no excuse-me’s in Uganda, and especially not at Immigration.
Finally, I am at the window (again), feeling faint and damp in my hot pants. I tell the already sneering official that I simply need my visa stamped. She asks for my return air ticket. What?? I didn’t bring it of course, because, I already had the stupid visa, I just needed the stamp. She tells me that I’ll have to come back with my plane ticket. “Maybe on Monday?” I say “no way” and lie that I have traveled all the way from Masindi (4 hours away). We are back and forth in a verbal judo, and I am actually raising my voice (which I generally only do once a year in extreme cases). I had already sent a copy of my return ticket to the High Commission in Canada–and I had to show it at Entebbe airport. She did not need to see it. She tells me to come back after lunch (it’s now 12:10). I ask when lunch is over—“2pm.” Imagine!! She takes my passport, makes me fill out a form and instructs me to write a letter stating my case. She refuses to talk to me anymore.
I am spitting daggers by now, but walk to find somewhere for lunch. My appetite is for eating Immigration Officials head, but I settle for some chicken tikka masala and buttery naan bread in the sun. I am still mildly stewing, wondering my fate with immigration and a little angry with Africa as a whole. When I pay my bill, I realize that I have been grossly overcharged. I mention this to the server and he apologizes with a shrug and tells me that the menu is old, prices have gone up. I don’t have any fight left in me for overpriced naan bread, I need to save my fire for Immigration.
I walk back and there are lineups beginning to form already (which I’ve already explained doesn’t really mean anything). The window opens at 2:10, and it’s a new guy–asking for my receipt. “A receipt?” I was never given a receipt! I tell him my weepy story and he says I‘ll have to wait for the woman I dealt with to come back from lunch which will be, “whenever she decides to come back.”
It starts raining, so everyone is pushing to get under the awning. Twenty minutes later a woman running with a yellow plastic bag knotted over her hair tells me “ít’s coming,” –but this could be more rain, the apocalypse, or?? I wait another 15 minutes back in line, water splashing down from the roof spout, leaving me wet up to my knees. My woman returns from her lunch at a casual 2:45. She writes me a hasty receipt to go to Room 2. I go to Room 2 and am appalled by the non-filing system—there are a thousand sheets of paper stacked in a hundred piles on bookshelves that threaten to buckle and fall over. There are boxes and trays of passports. I want to cry, this is where passports come to die.
I hand in my receipt to the surly guy at the desk drinking coffee as black as oil and he hands me my passport immediately. I open it up and the visa looks the same–all that for nothing?? He shakes his head and flips the page, and I see the god-damned stamp allowing me to stay for 30 more days. Good grief, I can’t wait to do it all over again in a month.
The thrill of my week (Immigration did not register high on my thrill meter) was going to visit the Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary. It was the 10th anniversary, and my association with the Jane Goodall Institute allowed me to sneak on the invite-only red carpet list. A violent thunderstorm lit up the sky just before the boat was to leave the dock to take us 23km south to the Koome Islands. Lake Victoria was frothing with white caps, and the boat was delayed for an hour and a half. Carol and I found seats on the 30-foot “traditional canoe” with not-so-traditional Yamaha motors (travel time: 90 minutes). The boat was soon full of people and giant speakers that were balanced in the center. My mother would have climbed out of the boat at that point. Staff from the sanctuary passed out lifejackets (or, what were intended to be lifejackets—they looked more like nylon vests with shoulder pad flotation devices in them). I was told that I didn’t need one, “you’ll be fine,” and the last jacket was handed to a local. How would I be fine? Carol told me later that the majority of Africans can’t swim, so, even if I could only pull off a dog-paddle, “I’d be fine.” The equator invisibly splits the world here somewhere in the deep waters of Lake Victoria, making it an even 9,640 km to the North or the South pole. So, it would be a very special dog paddle indeed.


There are 44 rescued chimps at the Ngamba sanctuary. They have either been found trapped in wire snares or mantraps (made out of spring-loaded car parts sometimes weighing 12 kg that the chimps will drag around, usually dying from a slow death because they are unable to feed). Some are victims of the pet trade, or, orphaned when their mothers have been illegally poached. The chimps sheltered at Ngamba would never survive in the wild—chimp communities have strong blood, and they don’t allow new faces in without huge dominance fights which often end in death. Often, for chimps that have been injured in snare traps, they can no longer properly find food for themselves or climb to safety as they once could. At Ngamba, the chimps call 98 acres of natural habitat home. The electric fence that separates them from the viewing area is operated by solar-power (much like myself).
The chimps are fed daily by caregivers, which is what we arrive just in time to see. Bananas, carrots and jackfruit are thrown from the platform, and soon the word is out. The jackfruit is the most prized, although, Sunday, is quite partial to carrots. He soon has so many collected in his arms that he walks on his hind legs to a quiet spot to peel them with his nails. The chimps are fed at 11am and 2:30 (more bananas, avocado, tomatoes). At night they are given posho (a porridge made from maize flour). They sleep in an enclosure with suspended hammocks that mimic the nests that they would build high in the trees.

Sunday, peeling carrots

Watching the Ngamba chimps so closely while they feed is quite entertaining. Tombu hogs most of the jackfruit and bristles when the younger chimps enter his personal bubble. Others sit and simply hold up their hand if they want more bananas. Like, “here, toss me one.” However, one of the chimps becomes agitated with the whole scene and Stanley warns that he is going to throw stones. The chimp struts away, much like a macho guy flexing in front of the mirrors at the gym. His hair is on end, and Stanley points out the stones clenched in his hand. Sure enough, the chimp turns back around and charges, flinging the stones up at the platform as we scurry. He slaps the ground hard with his hand and cools down. In the wild, this is common behaviour. Chimps “display” by making themselves sound bigger than they are. They hammer on ironwood trees because of the great echoing drumming sound, they throw things (Jane Goodall tells stories of having empty kerosene cans pitched at her), they snap branches, and basically have a tantrum. We share 98.7 % of the same DNA with a chimp and it becomes obvious that they share our sadness, anger, agitation and joy too. They are affectionate with each other, holding hands, kissing, consoling even, but, they are also wild animals prone to natural instincts.
Visiting the Island’s vet clinic, I learn of the importance of vaccinations, not for my protection, but for the welfare of the chimps. If an employee or tourist comes down with the flu, they are evacuated from the island immediately. Because our DNA is so similar, chimps are susceptible to many of the same diseases that we are: the common cold, flu, and even polio. In Gombe, Tanzania where Goodall did most of her chimp observations, there was a polio outbreak in the 80s that devastated the chimp population. Chimps sadly lost use of their arms, their legs—some learned to somersault to get to places. They could no longer climb trees, and Goodall’s description of the outbreak actually had me sobbing as I read In the Shadow Of Man. Several chimps died from the outbreak that was believed to be passed on from humans. (Pfizer drugs actually donated polio vaccines that were slipped into bananas and eggs to help prevent the rest of the chimp community from falling ill.)

Lily Ajarova, the Executive Director of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust said, “the fact that there is a chimp sanctuary is proof of human failure.” Chimps face endangerment from many fronts: human encroachment, the bushmeat trade (seen more in the Congo than Uganda–yes, people actually eat chimps!), chimps being presented to foreign dignitaries as gifts and the mass burning of forests for charcoal (the primary fuel source in many villages and cities).
The hope is that one day sanctuaries like Ngamba Island no longer have to exist. That one day, chimps will find a safe haven in the forest where they belong.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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