Posts Tagged With: Congo

Coffee & Chimps

I can’t wake up. My down duvet and the darkness are holding me hostage. I set my alarm forward to what I hope is 15 more minutes and not 15 hours. I’ll soon find out.  The subway rumbles by, as it does. Behind my house the incessant jackhammering in the underground parking garage is already full tilt. The upstairs tenant is busy doing her usual morning laps on the hardwood in army boots.

I pull on a hoodie, do a visual weather check and in one swoop turn on my laptop, the gas fireplace and the left stove burner for the kettle. Scooping towers of coffee grounds into my Bodum I start thinking about how different mornings were in the Congo. Coffee was not a leisurely event with a daily paper spread out before me. In the Congo, provided there was electricity, coffee happened quickly as there were 23 chimpanzees patiently waiting at the sanctuary for hot milk. My alarm routinely sounded at 5 am, not 9:30 am as my Toronto life permits.

I felt like a wayward Starbucks barista in Africa. Dozens of one litre plastic bottles dominated the space beside the sink in the crowded prep kitchen. The six youngest chimps had their own personal bottles with pacifier tops as they were still bottle fed. I never imagined that I’d be making breakfast for chimps. However, pre-sunrise and bleary-eyed, I was stationed in the kitchen, boiling water, carefully measuring honey, propolis, vitamins and powdered milk into a narrow funnel.

This was serious business. Chimps are as particular as we are; if the milk was too hot or too cold, they pushed it away in disgust. Not enough honey or too much propolis and they balked. Tall, full-fat, no-whip, extra honey or else! The adults accepted the warm milk poured into tin cups with handles in a semi-mannerly way. The shrill feeding time pant-hoots and excited displays were deafening.

As I plunge the French press and pour my first cup I stand in two worlds, as I often do. I’m drinking coffee in downtown Toronto, but am transported back to the dust and din of the Congo. All I have to do is look at the enlarged photos hanging on the wall in my kitchen. I step into a sunrise in Masai Mara and stare into the eyes of two curious Congolese children.

I wait for my bagel to toast with crossed arms. I miss waking Micah, the youngest chimp. She stayed with us at the house near the sanctuary because the July nights were too cold, and she was already suffering from bronchitis. After the milk bottles had been filled, I’d wake her (rousing her earlier was too chaotic—imagine a four-armed child on the loose!).

Micah slept in a large dog-type carrier, swathed in blankets, in a tiny t-shirt to keep her core warm. She would gently coo and begin to blink at the light as I folded the blankets back that kept the carrier dark. As I unlocked the carrier door, she instantly reached out for my neck as though it were a tree trunk and gripped me tightly. Her body would be so warm from sleep. Her diaper would be soggy, but, in that moment, she could do no wrong. She’d yawn so innocently and examine me, sometimes reaching her fingers to my mouth to trace my teeth.

Minutes later she would be on a tear. Changing her diaper would turn into a chase scene. She’d have the powdered milk container popped open. She’d be squeezing honey from the bottle when I turned my back. The cat would be hiding behind the curtains avoiding unexpected tail yanks. Micah would appear with matches in her mouth. A bar of soap.  My lip balm. Red paint—from where? I never found out.

I pour more coffee and add too much cream. The chimps would send it back. Micah would have her fingers in my mug already, threatening to tip the contents, her eyes hovering just above my counter, scanning.  She would love my barstools—four of them to swing between. In no time she’d find my porcupine quills and beluga bone. My cowhide rug would have tiny chimp teeth marks at its edge. The wine bottles tucked in the recycling bin would be out and rolling around after she sipped the last sips.

Grabbing the peanut butter from the middle drawer I see all the things Micah would ransack in less than a minute. Spaghetti noodles, oatmeal, popcorn, Nutella. She was a sucker for sweets and would be in the fridge searching for cordial or Coke.  Her guilty face and temporary disappearance always gave her away.

Even though it’s louder here in Toronto, it’s somehow quieter. I should be getting ready for work but somehow find myself scrolling through my Congo photos instead.  It’s a side effect of sharing breakfast with chimps.

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Geography Lessons

Yesterday I was at Hanlan’s Point, my GPS location for self-imposed exile. Here, I lie supine and allow the lake to pull my mind away. The trembling aspens rustle and cicadas buzz at a pitch that is more of an alarm to me—summer is already gathering up its carefree days in fast pursuit of the fall. The cicadas are early this year, they are usually indicative of sizzling late August afternoons where humidity hangs like a wet duvet on our shoulders.

The sun is already setting a minute earlier each night. Yesterday the sun set at 8:45, tonight, 8:44. While the sun was still blistering hot and turning the pale-skinned gingers into Maine lobsters, I snapped open a beer. The bathtub-warm Mill Street Lemon Tea beer was effervescent in my mouth, and the tepid temperature hurled me several latitudes over, to Simba beers in the Congo sun.

Two men walked past me at Hanlan’s as I skimmed the condensation off the beer can and dragged my hand across the back of my neck. The men were holding hands, laughing without inhibition, ankle-deep in the lake water. They were the colour of teak furniture. A Porter jet took to the sky with a distant growl—Boston? New York? Chicago? It banked and slid into the atmosphere and pillowy clouds beyond the aspens above my head.

I dog-eared the 37th page of The Outport People, a book about the zany brood that breathe life into a seemingly uninhabitable island called Baleena. There are no roads, no cars, no telephones. It’s Claire Mowatss best-selling memoir based on the five years she and Farley lived in Newfoundland. My mind was already in too many places to focus on Newfoundland.

Again, I disappeared to the Congo despite staring at the Toronto skyline and the sailboats skating across the surface of the water in front of me. Just one year ago I was popping the remaining Malarone anti-malarial pills out of their foil seal into my cupped hand, sad to see the numbers dwindle by day. My eyes were strained from trying to absorb all the jacaranda trees, brilliant hibiscus and termite hills as tall as flagpoles. I was desperate to take in all that surrounded me. I studied the texture of Mikai’s hair and cool skin. I searched for the history and future in her eyes that were as dark as the African coffee I sipped. The chimp I held in my arms would be a mighty adult next time I saw her. She would no longer be gently accepting spoonfuls of strawberry yogurt and sucking on warm milk sweetened with honey.  In a year, she would find her place among the troop, no longer coddled and fussed over as the babe in arms.

A year ago I was running around the fairways of the Lubumbashi Golf Course, listening to the same songs on my iPod that fuel my route through Riverdale Park and along the Don River in Toronto today. Chantal would meet me after my run and we would sit in the still of the morning, watching the copper mine bigwigs teeing off in ill-fitting plaids and stripes. More often it was the wives of the bigwigs in wide-brimmed hats and equally wide-rimmed sunglasses.

Days later, far from the idyllic morning runs around the greens with the fanfare of grinning, waving Congolese children, I was touching down in Harare, Zimbabwe and Nairobi. All that was familiar and quintissential Africa grew smaller and smaller, until it seemed like a child’s train set, not a real world, below the plane. The dust was still under my nails, in my nose, and deep in the stitching of everything I had worn.

I was leaving, again. And returning. And leaving. My brain needed sutures to hold everything I had seen together.

A  year ago, I held a hastily stamped Kenya exit visa in my hand.  My passport felt heavier with the miles that it had permitted. I landed in Toronto, elated and exhausted. I shared startling stories with my parents like a kid strung out on Halloween candy. I pulled up the photos on my laptop and sat in disbelief that I had actually been to such a place. I described each of the chimps, all 23, their names, their quirks. I watched my mom laugh until she couldn’t breathe over video footage of Mikai clobbering the kitten with a stuffed animal. I felt like I was describing someone else’s life.

We drank champagne in my parents zen backyard with Yanni and the babbling fish pond and citronella candles creating a path that replicated a parade of fireflies. The humming mosquitoes were a nuisance, but not a constant worry like their African counterparts.

I said goodbye, again, to my parents, to Dax, to the backyard that I hadn’t sat in long enough. I didn’t know what my five year plan was. Hell, I wasn’t even sure what my five day plan was.

The urban sprawl of paved Toronto lit up like the most fantastic Lite Brite display, glowing and blurring until I let myself find sleep on the flight to the west coast.

A year ago, and a week from now, I was in BC. The Fraser Valley spread wide below the plane’s wings in a neat patchwork quilt of blueberry and raspberry fields. The snow on Mt. Baker’s peak bounced the glare of the sun back onto my window.

I was coming home, but felt split between the provinces and the peace found in the burning sunsets of the Congo. Home was a sharp slap of reality. My stories stalled in the face of Mila, the most darling lab in the world. She was dying and I felt like I had five hearts beating in my chest, and still, not enough blood for all my limbs.

I unpacked from Africa, and packed again for Toronto. For good. A once familiar life and routine was dissolving and passing through my hands that could only grasp the immediate moment. I spent hours in the grass with Mila, crying like a fool, begging her to slip away. It would be okay. I’m not sure who I was reassuring– myself, or her. Both of us, I think.

I felt like I had live goldfish living in my stomach. My eyes burned like they were full of poison ivy. A year ago and a week from today, I wondered what was right. What was wrong?

Nothing felt right, even my skin felt unfamiliar over my bones. Jann reminded me, “life is fleeting.”

And I touched down at Pearson a week later. Mila died the very next day. I found solace in unexpected places, and comfort, even on the hardwood floor of Dax’s condo.

A year ago, I stood at the edge of the quarry in the Congo, knowing life was changing as fast as the landscapes would be under my feet in that week. I stood on a ferry the next day, crossing Lake Ontario to Ward’s Island with my anxious parents, who didn’t expect to see me again until Christmas. The next day I was at Hayward Lake, BC, watching Mila swim out into the cool depths for the very last time.

And I return. To Lake Ontario, with my feet in the sand. I still see Hayward Lake, I see Lake Victoria too. I see the quarry and all of the Congo. My mind revisits the year and all the geography in between. 

I am lucky not for what I have seen, but for what I have felt.  And there’s no passport to show for that. Just this.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

The Year of My Content

Cat crap coffee.

Worms and lime Jell-o.

Eggy burps and frog legs.

Boy/goat oral sex.

Derriere facials.

These are actual “search terms” that people have used, and in turn, have been directed to my blog because of. I will blame (and credit) my Africa posts for the landslide of readers wanting to learn more about parasites, diarrhoea, gin and snake bite remedies.

It’s been a year. A whole long-winded year of blogging. Rona Maynard, former editor of Chatelaine insisted I get my act together last April and take my Facebook community stage performance to a wider audience.  And what does she know? Well, when it comes to anything literary, writerly or necessary, she would be the woman I would choose to represent me for the Double Jeopardy question in any of those categories.  So I did.

“You really MUST have a blog (I say for the hundred and 99th time).”

–Rona Maynard, April 25th, 2009

Rona had been following my colourful (profanity-laden) posts of life in Uganda, when I volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute. The graphic tales of nearly being shot, shitting my pants, mystery bites, eating termites with piss-warm beer  aged my parents about 20 years.

My blog evolved into an uncensored postcard. We all know letter carriers read our postcards—and with a blog, I was posting postcards to the world, essentially. Now I get immediate disclaimers from my parents and close friends: “Do NOT put that in your blog!” They’ve learned that if there’s no disclaimer, the material is fair game.

Last week, when my brother and I were particularly smiley from drinking old-fashioned whiskeys, we had a revelation. The blog had evolved into another purpose—it was my data bank–the hard drive of my mind! Dax and I were trying to remember my mother’s famous quote about boredom. We struggled for a good five minutes, trying to assist each other’s memory. Dax finally wisely said, “Oh, just look it up on your blog tomorrow.”

(And I did. I knew exactly where to find it. My mother had said, “Only boring people get bored.”)

Writing a weekly blog is self-indulgent. I get to explore all my passions without worrying about parameters (with only my fear of being boring in mind). Readers can tune in or be turned off in mere sentences. I’ve written about many controversial topics (Chaz Bono and her “gender variance”, the bushmeat trade in the Congo, Abbotsford gangs). I’ve detailed the side effects (read: toilet visits) of living in Africa and what happens when one eats fly-infested meat that has been hanging in the equatorial sun for hours.  


There have been posts that I’ve written with tears running down to my collarbones from start to finish (when Mila was dying of cancer). In the Congo, I funnelled rage and sadness into a post about Ikia, the chimpanzee who died in our arms 12 hours after arriving at the sanctuary because of governmental delays.

With my writing, I’ve convinced more people NOT to go to Africa than I have convinced to go. All that was raw, unsettling, dusty and disturbing, I included.  A foodie review of pan-fried goat testicles and crispy frog legs didn’t come across as I intended. I thought I was living high off the hog in the Congo. Or, high off the goat, at least. Noelle from P.E.I. thought otherwise: “You scare the shit out of me, yet make me laugh at the same time. As much as I love Africa and dream about going, the more I read your stories the more I think….yeah, I’ll stick with my Animal Kingdom.  You’re brave and you do belong to Africa.”

The year in review saw posts from Uganda, Kenya, Banff, the Congo (pit stop in Zimbabwe), Amsterdam, British Columbia, Toronto, Nashville, Venezuela and the dozens of places my restless mind travelled to in between. There were tributes to my nearest and dearest, nostalgic excerpts from the diary of my 13-year-old self (that was an out loud love letter to my grade 8 fiancee, Robert LeBovic), fried grasshoppers, Thai cooking classes, bitching about moving across Canada, corrupt Congolese police tales, musings on love,  lost in translation stories, half-marathons…sigh, there was a lot.

I woke up in so many beds, under so many mosquito nets and starry hemispheres, after so much gin and tonic with four Q-tips worth of safari dust in my ears. I packed up a life in BC and unpacked one in Toronto. I quit jobs, found new ones, had fecal-oral contamination, went piranha fishing, had Banff ticks that I flew home to Abbotsford with via Westjet, itched for nearly six months due to something else, and fell in love with the charms of Nashville and the chimps of the Congo.

And you followed me, like shadows, to the corners of the earth, and the corners of my mind. Which puts me in an odd place at times. Is there any mystery left to me? I’ve put it all out there. Strangers know me better than my non-blog reading co-workers. Is this a good or a bad thing?

I’ve spent tonight reading through 60+ of my favourite glowing comments that I’ve saved in my inbox in response to the blog. If I include one, I have to include them all. If  I quote my mom, then I have to have a dad quote, and then I’ll feel awkward and like I’m playing favourites if I don’t include Dax and Kiley. Then there’s Suzanne, and her sister Jo, Kay, Connie, Heidi, Kelly W. Leslie, Wendy G., Mag, Jann, Kristyn, Jules (not me), Wendy M., Rona (of course!), Rodney, Sass, David, Carol, Karen, Carol (another one, I’m not repeating myself), Kim & Kim (not together), Steph, Lynne (and Al who gets the postings read to him by Lynne on drives up to the houseboat)…I’m forgetting important people here—Farrah, Kaitlin, Chantal, Martine, Pamela, Toni, Nunavut Michelle, Karen of way west Queen west (the Nunavut of Toronto), Karin, Martha, Kathleen, Babysnooks, the ever-breeding Twitter population, Andie, my Body Blitz fan club, Rose, Nancy, Corie, Denny, Jennifer Aniston (oh, are you still paying attention?)…

Thank you to all my dedicated and drop-in readers for your rallying cries, support, chides, type-o alerts and genuine blog love. And a special thank you to my parents for not cutting me off the Christmas card list for all the Torti secrets that I have spilled.

The moments we most remember when we look back are the ones that made us feel more deeply than usual. Feel pain, feel elation, feel despair.  There’s a Feist song I like that says, “I feel it all, I feel it all… wings are wide, my wings are wide.” So great.—Staci Frenes

And so another year begins, with wings as wide as an albatross (that’s a 2.4 meter wingspan).

 Join me?

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

What On Earth Are We Doing?

An "eco-tourism lodge attraction" in the Congo

My original intention was to Google the story about the 32 monkeys that died when a Nevada lab overheated. Charles River Laboratories is one of 26 registered US  importers of primates (others on the list include zoos, universities and private labs). An article on indicated that 27, 388 primates were imported into the US in 2008, with an average of 25,000 primates being imported in the last four years. In 2008, Charles River housed over 10,000 primates at their facility alone.

Ikia's arrival at the Lubumbashi airport

The company’s history traces back to the 1940s when veterinarian  Dr. Henry L. Foster bought a Maryland rat farm for breeding purposes. Later, on a trapping expedition in the Himalayas, Foster returned to the states with several Rhesus monkeys to create a quick-breeding stock of 800. The monkeys were bred on two Florida islands where workers captured 400-500 a year to be sold to labs worldwide.

When I keyed “monkey” into the search engine, “monkeys for sale” immediately appeared in the drop-down list. Curious and appalled, I clicked on it. Monkeys for sale in Canada? I clicked through the pages and found a Japanese Snow monkey for $6,500, posted by Northern Exotics near Sudbury, Ontario. “This is a legit sale and not a scam as so often seen with monkeys.” There was also a baby female Snow monkey for $3,500, OBO.

The Northern Exotics site also boasted Jamaican Fruit bats, armadillos, sugar gliders and Fennec foxes.  In Montreal, Quebec, Pastor Emmanuel and his wife Cindy have an advert that says they “are giving out cute baby marmosets for adoption to any Christian, pet loving and caring family.” The babies are house-raised, diaper and leash trained, wear clothes and like to watch TV.

The primatestore. com had a Christmas special on infant black-handed spider monkeys—only $9,000 each. Tentatively, I keyed in “Chimps for sale.” I was stunned. There were several listings for chimps in Texas and Ohio.  One of the links led me to a 2008 SPCA report on the rescue of Henry, a 23-year-old chimp who was found at an emaciated 60 pounds (half the body weight of a healthy chimp) in a cage so small that it caused him severe spinal deformities. The cage was littered with empty soda cans and cigarette butts.

On the site PRLog Free Press Release I came across this headline: “We Sale Big Monkeys, Chimpanzees, Orang tuans, Gorillas.” They advertised worldwide delivery in two to three working days to America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Here’s a cut and paste of the ad at :

PR Log (Press Release)Mar 08, 2010 – You need a monkey babies or old ?  a chimpanzee, orang utans, gorillas, big cats, panter  please call us tehn we can get it done within 2 working days deliver to your home  or you can pick it up payment upon receival   we can also trains this animals for you  in additional 6 weeks  time.

I remember the day Chantal, Sevrine and I were driving out to a quarry for a picnic (in the Congo). We saw a sinewy Congolese boy in his early teens at the roadside. As our vehicle approached he lifted a dik dik in the air (a dik dik is a small, antelope-like animal). He began shouting at us as we slowed down. The dik dik was for sale. I hadn’t even seen a dik dik in the wild the entire month I was there, and was saddened to see a young one for sale that would most likely be bought as a pet by an expat, or slaughtered.

The image of the dik dik still haunts me, as does the arrival of Ikia, the chimp who was flown to the J.A.C.K. chimp sanctuary where I volunteered in Lubumbashi. She arrived dehydrated and limp-bodied, and died less than 12 hours later in the arms of Augustin. She was bought for $120 US on the roadside of Kalemie in a burlap sack bound with twigs.

Ikia, sold for $120 in Kalemie, Congo

Writing this post, I feel the dull pulse of a headache. It’s one that stems from frustration, and when I find another ad for a chimp for sale in Yellowknife, posted December 28th, I am exasperated. For $700, “King,” an eight-month-old chimp comes with a complete instruction book and other toys and accessories.

I need Jane Goodall on speed dial. Chimps and monkeys are not intended as pets. We can all easily recall the disturbing images of Charla Nash who was attacked by her friend’s chimp in Stamford, Connecticut, can’t we? The chimp was eventually shot by police due to his aggression. Nash is suing her friend, Sandra Herold, for $50 million saying she “was negligent and reckless for lacking the ability to control a wild animal with violent propensities.”

Travis, Herold’s chimp, had lived with her for 14 years. He had appeared in several TV commercials and a television pilot, as well as promotional events for Herold’s towing business. Nash is left blind, wearing a veil so she doesn’t scare people with her unsightly appearance.

I returned to the article on the Nevada research monkeys that were killed by human error. The company was charged just last year when a monkey was scalded to death after it was accidentally sent through an automatic cage washer.

Ikia at the J.A.C.K. sanctuary

Andrew Westoll, author of The Riverbones had posted the original article on his Facebook profile page. Westoll, a former biologist and primatologist who decided to focus on his dynamic writing talent is to publish Thirteen Chimpanzees in the spring of 2011. The thirteen chimps he writes about have spent decades in US biomedical research labs and have now found a safe haven at the Fauna Foundation in Quebec. The chimps share the farm with over a hundred other rehabilitating animals rescued from the entertainment industry, research labs or agriculture. Fauna is their forever home. As the home page for the Foundation promises, the animals are provided with companionship and enrichment, “free from the fear and hardships they have known.”

I clicked on the chimp In Remembrance page, knowing that I would be inconsolable. I read about Donna Rae, the chimp who came from the Animal Kingdom Talent Service. She learned to ride a bike and how to play the guitar. In her last five years at a lab, she was used in HIV studies that involved lymph node and bone marrow biopsies. Following one intervention, she actually went into shock from the pain. The obituary reads: “constantly mutilating herself, Donna always looked as though she had given up all hope.”

I read about Pablo who chewed off one of his fingers, clearly the direct result of being darted over 220 times, enduring 30 biopsies and being injected with 10,000 times the lethal dose of HIV.

In 1959, Annie was stolen from her family in Africa. She became part of the circus before spending 21 years in the lab as a breeder. Billy was often found having panic attacks so violent that he would be left convulsing. His teeth had been knocked out by a crow bar. After 15 years in the entertainment industry, he was knocked out 289 times for 40 liver and lymph node biopsies. He eventually chewed off  his own thumbs. Jean was inoculated with HIV after several cervical biopsies. After a nervous breakdown she removed all of her fingernails. Her aggressive seizures led to “floating hand and foot,” a condition that led her to attack her own feet and hands, as though they were not her own.

Fifteen years ago I wrote a feature for Cockroach magazine, a publication of the Environmental Youth Alliance, where I worked in Vancouver, BC. It was an expose of the bear bile and bear part trade industry in China. There are currently 7,000 bears on bear bile farms in China, caged and exploited for their bile which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The bears have surgically implanted tubes in their gall bladders and are “milked” twice a day. Once they stop producing bile (between five and ten years of age), the bears are left to die of starvation or illness, or killed so the farm can sell their paws ($250 each). In the15 years since I wrote that article, the farms have grown in size and production.

In the documentary The Cove I watched the waters of Taiji, Japan turn scarlet red with the slaughter of dolphins. Over 20,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed every year, driven to shore by the fishing boats where they are harpooned. Due to suffocating media pressure and response to the documentary, Taiji actually called for a temporary ban on killing bottlenose dolphins.

Exposure brings education, hope and change.

The news seems to be littered with abominable stories of animal abuse lately. Like the 11 rare Siberian tigers who died at a zoo in Beijing. There is speculation that zoos in China may be deliberately breeding more animals than they can afford, selling the carcasses to the black market for use in traditional medicines and liquor. An article in the Hamilton Spectator reported the tigers starved to death, having been fed nothing but chicken bones. Since, there have been reports of tiger farms steeping the bones of deceased tigers in liquor which is then sold to visitors.

There are 300 Siberian tigers left in the wild, 50 in China. Five thousand more live in captivity on farms and wildlife parks across China.

I could go on.

However, there is hope. Jane Goodall says so. She is lecturing in Toronto next week, celebrating the 50th anniversary of her plight to bring the story of her chimps in Gombe, Tanzania to the world. Her latest book, Hope For Animals and Their World, How Endangered Species are Being Rescued From the Brink (co-authored with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson) spotlights the enormous efforts of several individuals and field biologists who have truly saved several species from the brink. Her message is uplifting, and instils motivation. She dedicates the book to “the memory of Martha, the last passenger pigeon—and to the last Miss Waldron’s colobus monkey and the last Yangtze River dolphin. As we think of their lonely end, may we be inspired to work harder to prevent others suffering a similar fate.”

Please watch The Cove. Read about the Flora Foundation. Become a fan of Andrew Westoll’s Thirteen Chimpanzees on Facebook.. Buy tickets to see empowering speakers like Jane, a woman who has given her life to a crusade that should remind us all of the fragility and interconnectedness we share with animals on this Earth.

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.” –Barbara Kingsolver

Andrew Westoll’s site:

Jane Goodall’s Hope For the Animals:

More on the bear trade industry:

The Cove

Fox News article on Nevada research monkeys:

Christian marmosets for sale:

Northern Exotics:

The Fauna Foundation:

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


Jane and Jules, chimp lovers

On the weekend, two friends remarked on how brave I was to go to the Congo. Brave? I was blinded by a passion that didn’t even allow me to consider any ill-fated consequences. I had an opportunity to work with chimpanzees—after hearing that, my mind was already in fast-forward, mentally packing my bag and visualizing my Jane Goodall moment.

When I decided to go to Costa Rica and volunteer for three months at age 20, I was also commended on my bravery. Again, it was a selfish indulgence. Live in a jungle hut and pick bananas off the trees for breakfast? What could possibly go wrong in the jungle? Where do I sign up?

I’ve made a lot of questionable decisions over the years. Again, I blame it on the blinding passion. Like the time I hitchhiked to Clayoquot Sound, BC, to stand on a logging road blocking the path of the trucks ready to level another stand of trees.

My ‘bravery’ can also be blamed for my enthusiasm to have a pint at the most bombed-out bar in all of Europe. Who wouldn’t want to do that? As I sat in the pub across from the Opera House in Belfast, Ireland, I was sure that after 33 bombings, surely a 34th couldn’t happen. Not while I was there. Not on my watch.

Scrappy, the dog who dodged a bullet

In Uganda I stood strong (‘bravely’) as Debby and I had a gun pointed in our direction by a Ugandan Wildlife Authority guard. The guard was ready to shoot Scrappy, one of the dogs from the Jane Goodall office. When Debby remarked on the guard’s ignorance in shooting a dog in front of a young child, the barrel of the gun was suddenly a little too close for comfort. But shoot Scrappy? The guard would definitely have to shoot Debby and I first.

But still, it was ‘bravery’ that made me walk (at incredibly high speeds) away from the corrupt police who wanted to confiscate my camera in Entebbe.  They had guns too (sawed-off shotguns in fact), ready to be used if necessary—however, I could barely hear their threats over the THUMPTHUMPTHUMP of my heart. Was it worth being shot in the back over a stupid camera? On that day, yes. I had a really nice sunset shot from Anderita Beach and a cool picture of a Marabou stork in a dumpster.

Steph commented that I was brave to stay three nights in Nairobi by myself after missing my flight to the Congo. To me, there was no other option. I had heard all the horror stories already—the missionary couple who were attacked with machetes, the brutal carjackings and the bombing of the American Embassy. These highlights were pointed out on the Nairobi tour with my hired driver.

When I think back to my time in Costa Rica, it was clear and present danger on a daily basis. Our group was situated near the Panama border and we passed by drug-runners with flour sacs full of marijuana on a daily basis. We avoided eye contact and both went on our merry, separate ways. Except the drug-runners had AK-47’s slung over their shoulders and machetes on their hip. I had a Swiss Army knife that I couldn’t open at the best of times.

Last week when I told my mother that I had booked a trip to Venezuela there was a gasp. Naturally she was nervous that I was taking off on another four month sojourn. When I told her it was just for a week, she resumed breathing and said, “Well, don’t get yourself kidnapped down there because they want gazillions of dollars in ransom.” Nice.

And this is when I had the flashback of the drug-runners and ‘missing persons’ in the jungle. Locals often disappeared and the mighty Water Tiger that lived in the Cuen River was blamed. I’d put my poker chips on the dudes with the flour sacs.

And it all led to this– the night in the jungle that I didn’t feel very brave at all. I was imagining my story as a Reader’s Digest Drama in Real Life feature. Mostly I hoped I would live to tell the story to someone, anybody.

Jungle Jules, circa age 20

Our volunteer group of 12 lived in a hut with a tree bark floor and palm frond roof. There were no walls. Twelve of us lived in a space the size of a North American living room, with mosquito nets strung about the ‘ceiling’ like a massive spider web. Wild boars lived under the hut and made horrific screaming sounds in the night that sounded like women being murdered.

We had been together since early December, and all threads of patience had been completely frayed. In one exasperated moment, I hid Alex’s drumsticks in the palm fronds because I was visualizing a homicide due to his incessant drumming. Every Sunday we had a meeting to discuss our feelings which basically evolved into a Lord of the Flies-esque scenario. We could barely tolerate each other anymore with such close quarters, paralyzing body odour, Chihuahua-sized mosquitoes and drumming.

Our group was motley—with reps from Costa Rica, Canada and Australia. We had already split into Survivor-type alliances (and this was way before Mark Burnett created the show that would hook millions of viewers all these seasons later). Rachel from Prince Edward Island was my go-to girl, and we often shared our hidden stashes of Oreos, bathtub warm beer and just-discovered orange trees with each other.

But on January 20th? I was looking out for number one.

My loft condo in Alto Cuen, Costa Rica

The Cabecar chief of Alto Cuen had generously offered his own hut to us for the duration of our stay. He also pointed out an abandoned hut a 10 minute walk into the rainforest that we could also use. We decided that one hut would be for cooking and sleeping, and the satellite hut would be a place for reading, writing and siestas. Library voices only. It was a perfect retreat. On the days when the rain pounded down and bounced off the ground, a book, a sleeping bag and some secret chocolate balanced the world.

We were a gruelling 12 km hike from the closest village. The trip involved six tricky river crossings (one of our group members nearly drowned on one occasion when we hiked in with horses. Her backpack caught on the rope that we were using to cross the rapids when one of the horses was startled and moved downstream. Alice was trapped in the current with the weight of the pack on her. But that’s another story). Our trips into ‘town’ were planned for every third week to pickup canned goods, flour, mail and chocolate.

On that January day in 1996, I told Alice I was going to the satellite hut (the “Summer House” as we began to refer to it), with a crappy Costa Rican blueberry chocolate bar stuffed in my bra. I had received some mail from home and was eager to tear into the letters.

The path to the Summer House was like a page out of a fairy tale. Brilliant orchids, butterflies bobbing about in huge clouds of bright yellow and crimson wings, verdant vines snaking up trees, processions of carpenter ants marching along, toucans crash-landing into the palms—the awe of living in a virgin rainforest never escaped me.

I ate my chocolate bar in painfully small rations. Our diet consisted of rice and black beans, oily mackerel, glue-like oatmeal, yucca (which when mashed had the consistency of Vaseline), plantain and bananas. I read my mail, twice probably, licked the chocolate bar foil clean and had a cat nap.

I slept longer than anticipated and awoke with a start at 5:55 pm. I quickly slipped on my rubber boots and turned on my Petzl head lamp and headed off to the main hut. Living on the equator and in a valley, it was completely dark at 6:05. There was no dusk, just day and a very dark night.

(Direct journal entry follows, recounted with a lot of swearing after the ‘event’)

I should have changed the batteries in my Petzl. Oh well, I continued on. And on.  And on. Hmmm. Didn’t recall it taking so long to get to the other hut. Hmmm. No orange tape on the tree to signal the turn in the path. Hmmm. Where the FUCK was the path?

I was totally fucking lost. Self-talk: Don’t panic. Going to die, but don’t panic. The roots and vines were closing in on me.  I turned off my flashlight to preserve batteries while I contemplated my life so far.

–More cursing—

I decided to yell.


Long pause.

A million deafening crickets. No voices. I was listening so hard I was hallucinating voices.

“PHIL? ANDREA? I’m lost in the woods!”

My voice was getting shakier. My legs? Could I feel them? My heart threatening to have an attack. I had a sudden revelation. Not only was I lost in the woods,  I was lost in the JUNGLE. In Costa Rica! In an indigenous village! I was hollering in English and they speak Cabecar and a little Spanish. I was fucked. Think Spanish. Think Spanish. Una cervesa. El gato es en la bano (The cat is in the bathroom—I knew that phrase from Spanish class would come in handy!).

DESCULPE!” That was it! Help! I remembered how to say ‘help’ in Spanish. I begin yelling desculpe. I developed an instant sore throat from yelling. (*I later learn when recounting my story to the group that ‘desculpe’ means ‘excuse me’ not ‘help me. So, I was in the middle of the $&%* jungle yelling “EXCUSE ME!”)

 I looked at my watch. 6:17. Everyone was having dinner, clearly not missing me.

The Bosque

I shouted some more, not willing to take any more time to think of the complete scariness of my predicament. I was so far from the hut that NO ONE could hear me? Then I remembered the Spanish word for forest—‘bosque.’ I holler “El Lost-ay in the bosque!”

Long pause.

They always say to hug a tree and stay in the same spot when you are lost (THEY were obviously not lost in the jungle in short sleeves with malaria-laden mozzies looking for bare skin landing strips).  Blah, blah, blah.  I convince myself that I can find my way back to the path.  Experiencing extreme denial of not being lost, I walk for a few more minutes. I thought I was lost before? Now I was reallllly lost. In the exact middle of fuck-all Costa Rica. Or Panama for all I knew.

 A million eyes were watching me. The whistle that they put on the Suggested Items to Pack list would have come in handy at this precise time.

I went back to yelling desculpe. I yell desculpe until I am hoarse—finally I hear a sound in response. Kind of an “AYE.” I respond with my urgent desculpe and AQUI! (here), hoping I’m not attracting a randy drug runner with gold teeth.

“Excuse me here! I love squash. Do you like green carpet?” Who knows what I was yelling. The voice grew closer. I turned on my headlamp (that I turned off, figuring I might be spending my night in the jungle. Thought I might want some battery power for when the jaguars attacked me). I started walking towards the voice. Did I say walking towards the voice? I was running. Totally bushwhacking. “AQUI! AQUI!”

The voice belonged to a Cabecar man and a woman with a baby in a papoose. I began explaining my Lost-ay in the Bosque story in caveman Spanglish.

I’d been found, but was at a loss. Where did I belong? I pulled a pen and a letter from my pack and began to draw the village church. “Jesu Christo?” I asked. I printed Reto Juvenil (Youth Challenge, the name of the group I was with). No response, they probably couldn’t read. I drew the soccer field. “Octavio?” We’d been working with Octavio, one of the prominent community members on the construction site.

No se.” (I don’t know).

The woman with the papoose took my letter and walked away. The man followed. (I was definitely not sticking around the jungle by myself!) I followed them, stepping on their heels in fact. “Octavio’s casa aqui?” (Octavio’s house here?). There was a grunt response. I was never good at small talk, but kept trying. “El bosque es mucho neigre a la noche.” (The forest is very black at night). No grunt. Nothing. We walked quietly and quickly in the dark.

We walked and walked (15-20 minutes) into a jungle-y dead end. Excellent, now we were all lost-ay. But I heard voices. We were approaching a hut with glowing lanterns. MY HOUSE!! I could see Phil and Tomas by the fire in the kitchen. “WITABADA!” (‘thank you’ in Cabecar). I said this 10 times and shook the hands of my rescuers a little too firmly (Cabecar handshakes are a mere brushing of the palms).

I can’t even remember what my knight in shining armour looked like. The whole hour of lost-ness was such a frantic blur.

I returned to the hut and there were no excited faces or eager embraces. They hadn’t missed me at all. While I was having the most terrifying moment of my life, a near-death experience if you will, my jungle pals were playing gin rummy, drumming and eating my share of the rice and beans. They figured I was sleeping. They didn’t hear my desperate calls for help. I must have been in Panama for sure–all because I didn’t want to share my chocolate bar and wanted a bit of quiet time and personal space. I almost had all the personal space I wanted!

The following day this quote appears in my journal:

Security is mostly a superstition

It does not exist in nature,

Nor do the children of men as a whole experience it

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run

Than outright exposure

Life is either a daring adventure

Or nothing

To keep our faces towards change and behave like free spirits

In the presence of fate

Is strength undefeatable.

–Helen Keller (1940)

Limon Naval Base, Costa Rica

On February 17th, 1996, our group was evacuated from the jungle by local military and flown to a naval base in Limon. The militia were doing emergency food supply drop-offs in the Astrella Valley due to major flooding of the Cuen River when they discovered us in Alto Cuen. The suspension bridge had been washed out and we had lost radio contact weeks ago.


Let’s just say I’ve had a few experiences that have put my life in an altered perspective. It’s a daring adventure—or nothing. I’m with Helen on this one.

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

It’s Not That Complicated

It’s not that complicated at all, actually.

I could guess with a 97% accuracy rate that the woman who was openly sobbing behind me in the dark theatre midway through It’s Complicated was/is clearly heartbroken. Probably teetering on a divorce, or longing for yesteryear and the ex that used to be the oh! But she was crying so hard (the kind where you can’t catch your breath without a gasp, like you’ve dove into a pool, skimmed the bottom and can’t make it to the surface fast enough). I was worried about her vulnerable state until I realized that we all came to see the movie for the same reason. To feel. Whatever the feeling might be, this is our universal connectedness.

I realized that the Sobbing Woman may have come to the movie seeking hope. Maybe she came to let herself cry in an acceptable place (even though she was crying in unacceptable parts of the movie).  We are conditioned to pull ourselves together and be pillars of the Earth, but perhaps Sobbing Woman has it right. Just cry your bloody eyes out so hard that eating popcorn feels like you’re swallowing gravel.

Yesterday, musician Staci Frenes posted this statement on Facebook: “Frost said poems start with a lump in the throat. I think songs do to—the ones worth writing, anyway.”

And bless the musicians that make the music allows us to feel and wallow in a swamp of satisfyingly depressing lyrics, guaranteed to pull out every tear.  And it’s so much easier to cry digitally now. Before, like in the 80s, you had to rewind that stupid Wham!  song and put your tears on hold as you fidgeted with the cassette player that would always rewind too far into the last song. And that last song would be an uppity Bananarama tune, which would totally kill the sad buzz.

When you think about it though, Frost and Frenes are both bang-on. The best memories of your life?  I bet they induce a lump in your throat. Poems, songs, pancake batter—they all need lumps to be memorable.  When I look back at 2009, it’s the lumps that dictate the best stories for me. And by best, I mean the moments that truly engaged my senses. The sensations, feelings, tastes, sounds and sights of 2009 that I remember with the most clarity are largely the lump-makers. Not because of sadness, but because they slammed my senses in an electrical way that can’t be rewired. And here they are, in no particular order:

The Best Feeling of 2009

When you meet a chimp for the first time, they are skeptical. It’s not like picking up a Cabbage Patch Kid. The chimps are sizing you up, and they have to warm to you before they reach a tentative hand in your direction. Even with the lure of warm milk and honey, whole bananas and strawberry yogurt—there’s a courting process to endure. Mikai was already latched to Chantal like Velcro, and the morning Chantal said I could go wake Mikai up, I was unsure if she would allow me to hold her. I folded the blanket back from her cage and as the sunlight filtered in, Mikai stirred. Her bright eyes opened, and as I unlocked the cage, she stood and reached for me. Her arms were outstretched and she pulled herself close to me, her arms tight around my neck. She yawned and inspected me (mostly my nostrils). When I smiled she ran her finger along my teeth and sighed. I had been accepted. I smoothed her upright hair and tugged her tiny t-shirt down as the mornings were so cold below the equator.  Mikai shivered a little and snuggled in closer. I stood there, stunned. I was in the Congo and holding an orphaned chimpanzee in my arms. Her diaper was full and wet and running down my clean t-shirt but I couldn’t care less. It was the best feeling of 2009, and possibly my life.

Best Sensation of 2009

I had always wondered about reflexology and thought the concept of all the body’s organs being mapped out on the bottom of our feet intriguing.  And so, I wandered along Dundas west, to Chinatown, sucking on a taro root bubble tea (because they’re good for the senses too). A client of mine had recommended a nameless place that was close to a bakery and a dim sum place. Which describes about three full blocks of Dundas west. I was to look for flourescent green footprints on the stairs, on the south side, east of Spadina. I found it almost immediately and bounded up the footprinted stairs.  I was served boiling hot tea that tasted like hamster shavings and told to place my feet in the wooden barrel with floating rose petals. I soaked, unaware of the pulverization that awaited me. Lisa had fingers like knives that perforated my bladder and gonads. But, despite the bouts of sheer agony, an overwhelming feeling of euphoria came with each pressure point. I let my copy of Toronto Life slide to the floor and examined the reflexology map on the wall. She pinpointed my sinuses and I could actually feel a nasal drip. When she touched on my right hip via my foot, I went to the moon. My bladder hot-spot made me think that I needed to schedule a tuck, the very next day. And then I fell asleep. I could feel Lisa’s hands and pressure points, but I was knocked out in a very bizarre reflexology coma. She shook me at the end of the treatment and asked if I had trouble sleeping. No, apparently I didn’t. Or maybe I wasn’t really sleeping when I thought I was. I walked out with new feet. They hummed and vibrated and my calves felt oxygenated. Definitely the best sensation of 2009.

Best Feeling of Elation of 2009

I’ve run seven or nine half-marathons. Maybe more. I lost track. I run six days a week, even when the cold threatens to crack my femurs, and the rain feels like needles against my exposed skin. I run against the wind chill that bites at my face, when there are heat advisories in effect, when there are smog alerts and when I have a head full of leftover champagne still bubbling inside. Like the Melissa Etheridge song (I Run For Life)—“I run for hope, I run to feel, I run for the truth, for all that is real.” (And also to keep myself from getting fat from my late-night steak and eggs habit.) Regardless of how many races I’ve run, I can easily intimidate myself into thinking that I will cramp up and collapse after the first mile. I register for a half-marathon and fret from that moment until the race is over.  This year I entered the Run For Water in Abbotsford, BC, just to see if I could still wing it. I do have intentions of running a full marathon (maybe that Great Wall of China one), and I have to periodically confirm that I still have the guts, gumption and cartilage to pull off 13 miles.

It was the hottest May 31st that Abbotsford had ever seen. I was saturated by the third mile, my iPod earphones were squeaking in my ears that were full of sweat. My shorts were already chafing my low back and I wondered why the hell I had subjected myself to such torture, again.  The route was scenic, but I had chills and probably should have been hooked up to an intravenous, but I carried on, buoyed by the likes of Pink, Jann Arden, Carole Pope, Anne Murray, The Killers and even Willie Nelson.

Elation comes in the last mile, when sweat is stinging your eyes like lemon juice and your lungs feel like they’re bleeding. When the heat off the pavement makes you want to throw up and your muscles are so spent they cramp as soon as you stop the running motion.  I reminded myself not to be so selfish, because I was running in support of a project that would provide clean drinking water to a village in Ethiopia. Surely I could run 13 miles for such a noble cause. I had just dumped 10  gallons of clean drinking water over my head—and there were humans who had never seen or tasted something so simple as clean water.

Elation. Finishing the race in 1:45:47. About 10 minutes off my personal best, set when I was much more svelte and regimented, but it wasn’t a race. It was for a greater cause than a personal best.

Greatest Heartbreaks of 2009

I watched a chimp die in the Congo. Ikia became the victim of a corrupt government that sloppily handled the extreme emergency of her situation. Officials hesitated on signing release documents and let critical decisions wait until Monday morning in hopes of finishing early on a Friday. Ikia arrived at the Lumbumbashi Airport, already in dire condition, dehydrated and malnourished, with no fight left in her. Poached from the wild jungles of Kalemi, she was sold for $200 US. She died less than 12 hours later at the J.A.C.K. sanctuary, unresponsive to the medical care she was given.

When I returned from the Congo, I was faced with an even greater heartbreak. Mila, my darling lab retriever was rapidly declining in health. She had been diagnosed with a cancer so invasive that it had enveloped her organs to the extent that surgery couldn’t be performed. Thoughts of lying with Mila in the grass, her stomach shaved and full of staples, still makes me ache. She was disoriented from painkillers, panting and anxious. The dog that I knew and loved, so full of life and puppy-like ways, was dying. I stroked her velvety ears and hoped she would just go quietly in her sleep.

I had already flown back to Toronto and learned through an email that Mila had to be put down. She had stopped eating. I had tears running down my neck. I still do when I think of her. But she comes to visit me in my dreams, and that reassures me that she is in a better place, full of ocean waves, pig’s ears and fat squirrels to chase.

Best Sounds of 2009

It will come as no surprise when I say Jann Arden’s Free was my repeat CD of 2009. When I moved back to Toronto, feeling like I was all bones, sinew and raw nerves, her songs did for me what It’s Complicated did for the Sobbing Woman.  I was feeling so much that I actually ran my Riverdale route one day with my earphones in and didn’t realize until I stopped running that I hadn’t turned my iPod on. That’s when you know your head is busy with white noise.

Sass Jordan released Dusk ‘til Dawn and “Awake” became my national anthem for October. And I’ll plug Carole Pope here too, even though Transcend was released in 2007, because her CD found a lot of airtime in 2009 too. “Edible Flower” is seductive, dangerous and makes me want to smoke cigarettes in bed.

The other best sound? The ferocious thunderstorms in Uganda that shook all of Entebbe in a frightening way. Lightning split Lake Victoria in such violent spikes in January. The thunder that followed made me feel like I was six all over again. But I had three dogs to shiver with—all of them piled on my single bed under the mosquito net.

The Best Things I Ate/Drank in 2009

Frog legs. Meatloaf sandwiches at Ted’s BBQ in Nashville. Heidi’s old-fashioned whiskey potion with Maker’s Mark, muddled cherries, oranges and brown sugar. Dolfin pink peppercorn dark chocolate. Le Gourmand chocolate chip walnut cookies every Saturday morning, chips still melted and gooey as I walk to the spa. Body Blitz Vitamin D shakes with banana and a bang of nutmeg. Bacon and cheese pancakes in Amsterdam after a month in the Congo.  Moules Frites at Spinnakers. Lamb burgers with Roquefort at the Rectory on Toronto Island. My mom’s Chex Mix. Ted Reader’s pulled pork and slaw cones. Mill Street Coffee Porter.  You know this list has no end, so I’ll stop here.

There are a lot of best feelings for 2009. And I didn’t even get to the books that moved me (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — Jonathan Foer, Still Alice— Lisa Genova, Holding Still For As Long As Possible—Zoe Whittall, The Glass Castle—Jeannette Walls, Then We Came to the End—Joshua Ferris). Or the movies (The Strength of Water, Hannah Free, Snowcake, 500 Days of Summer).

As 2010 opens before us like a broad wingspan, the best we can do is feel. Every day, feel something.  Expose your senses to something wonderful. “Let life happen to you. Life is in the right, always.” –Rilke

To read Ikia’s story–

My tribute to Mila–

Review of Jann Arden’s Free

Running Halfway–

Why the Congo?

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , | 12 Comments


040“Thirty-five is the pivotal year of change,” Merryde informed me as we clinked glasses full of Australian merlot. The night sky was a romantic chandelier of stars—and that particular evening, Venus, Jupiter and the crescent moon aligned in a very apocalyptic way. They were eerily parallel in the November sky. I had just turned 34, and was more preoccupied with the awareness (that still caught me off-guard) of: “Oh my god, I’m in Africa.” I was as far away from 35 as I was from Canada and maple syrup at that moment.

 As for 35 being a year of change, Merryde obviously had a shiny crystal ball under the table that I didn’t see that night. But I do remember being on the verge of something, even then. It wasn’t quite tangible, but hummingbirds had been visiting me in my dreams for months. They were a sign of restlessness and spoke of change, according to a spiritual higher-up that my friend Gillian had consulted.

The moment I laid my head under the mosquito net in Africa, the restless hummingbirds were rudely ousted out of my dreams and replaced by slithering snakes (which I pooh-poohed as a coincidence considering that I was living among the world’s deadliest in Uganda).

Late night Google research investigations revealed that snakes in dreams indicated transformation. Transcendence even. I was advised to employ lucid dreaming techniques to ask the snakes what they wanted. As if that conversation would go over well.

 If the snakes bit me (which they often did), it was a signal that I was “going through a kind of initiation; a psychological and spiritual trial that had the potential to change my life for the better if I dealt with it bravely and with a clear heart.” Bravery and pit vipers don’t usually fall into the same sentence, but I made note of the possible end result.

And here I am, not exactly with three clicks of the ruby slippers, but, I’m back in the hum and vibration of my Toronto. Thanks to the snakes I guess, and the hummingbirds that initially led me to Africa. My spiritual trial has been temporarily adjourned. Or was it just beginning season two?

Birthdays (like red wine and starry nights) have an indirect way of inspiring reflection and microscopic analysis of the years and the dreams that have propelled us along the way. After an indulgent night at the Sultan’s Tent on Friday, celebrating my 35th in fine Moroccan fashion, I was unbearably full of couscous and braised lamb shank. I was sleepless and I was thinking of Bob, again.

Bob was one of my first massage client’s at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in 2002. He asked me one question that will never leave me. He breezed in almost daily (when he wasn’t golfing in Palm Springs), a Cuban cigar clenched between his professionally-whitened teeth, stylish and sockless in his Gucci loafers. His suit and perfectly-knotted pink tie probably cost more than my entire wardrobe, but he had charm that matched his wealth. And the first question he asked me when we were introduced?

“Jules, tell me the most amazing thing you’ve done with your life so far.”

Well, no pressure there. I ran with the first flashes that were triggered in my then 28-year-old head. I told him that I had volunteered in the Costa Rican jungle for three months and lived in a hut with a tree bark floor, no walls, and a palm frond roof. That had to be amazing. (Not so amazing was having to bang my boots in the morning to scoot out dormant scorpions and the trench foot that ate at away at my flesh at the same rate as the parasites in my intestines.)

I think of Bob often, especially around my birthday–almost in preparation if I meet him again. I can picture him with his trendy red eyeglasses pushed back on his shock of white hair. “Jules, tell me the most amazing thing you’ve done since I Iast saw you.” It’s a good question—why don’t we ask it of each other more often? We should have answers ready. Are we living our lives to the most amazing capacity?

Of course I would tell Bob of my time in Africa, those precious moments with Micah and the other darling chimps in the Congo hanging around my neck like it was a tree trunk. And how I survived Uganda and the several brushes with death that came in the form of gun-toting wildlife officers wanting to shoot me and my dog, rush-hour boda-boda rides and eating dodgy goat meat from the street vendors. That was amazing too.

But there are other things, and I would need to sit him down for about 35 days to share the rest. What was amazing to me at 25 has become amusing at 35. And at 45? I’ll be writing fortune cookie messages with my profound knowledge and wisdom. 

home-toronto-amster-nairobi 753I remember copying out a passage from one of Douglas Coupland’s books (Shampoo Planet?) in my early 20s about the beauty of hotel rooms. How everyone who stays in a hotel becomes a blank page, waiting to be rewritten. You are allowed to reinvent yourself, over and over again. I loved that—it was strangely reassuring to me then.

And now? I am beginning to crave familiarity. I want to be surrounded by friends who know me and can finish my sentences and bottles of wine. Moving back to Toronto has allowed me to spend an unexpected and treasured amount of time with my parents and brother, Dax. I missed knowing them so intimately. Even though I was just a just a five-hour flight away, many things are lost across the miles. And visiting at Christmas was such a hurried emotional and egg nog-fuelled rush that we were already missing each other on the day of my arrival.

Which doesn’t mean I won’t wander off again to that magnetic place called Africa. I do want to go back, eventually. That won’t change. home-toronto-amster-nairobi 1047Africa has become an integral part of me. I want to see the chimps from the J.A.C.K. sanctuary released into the wild. I want to see Micah, bigger and bolder, finding her place among the group. I want to see the fiery Lubumbashi sunsets that I stared into this past July, and see how far I’ve travelled spiritually since then.

I can’t stop my hungry need to see the world.

My mom told me a few days ago of her plans to travel until she’s physically and financially exhausted. Then she will be happy to be put in a retirement home to stare blankly out the window at the chickadees pecking at the suet feeder. Because then, she will be satisfied and content in what she has seen, comforted by the vivid memories of the misty moors of Scotland, the soupy canals of Ireland, her time in Belgium, Austria, Amsterdam, Italy and beyond.

And this is what it comes down to. What we have seen and who we have shared it with. Our footage changes over the years, as we edit, fast-forward and rewind through certain clips and replace them with others. All that is important is refined, but the structural bones of our life remain, stabilizing us through the years. As we stare out the window at the chickadees, what is it that we will really see before us?

home-toronto-amster-nairobi 881 Just as Jupiter, Venus and the moon realigned, I feel myself doing the same.

 But tell me, what’s the most amazing thing you’ve done with your life so far?

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , | 12 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

Don’t Let The Bed Bugs Bite

After volunteering for three months in a Costa Rican jungle, I came home with an unwelcome  souvenir: worms as long as spaghetti noodles. Malcolm and Liddy convinced me to lick a 9-volt battery. Malcolm, who grew up in England, reassured me that he licked batteries routinely as a kid as a de-worming remedy. So, I licked the battery.  I also drank a Slovakian tea prepared by my then-girlfriend’s mother that tasted like liquid vegemite. I wondered if she was trying to poison me with such a vile brew. It was as bitter as grapefruit peels and burned like chlorine all the way down my esophagus where it promptly set fire to my stomach.

After returning from Costa Rica, I had become accustomed to nearly shitting my pants on a daily basis. The cramps that left me curled up in a tight shrimp ball were also considered normal. I remember lying on the front lawn of Pat and Rene’s lakeside cottage in the kind of position that someone would assume when fired out of a cannon. Pat Lane came out with a spoon and some Pepto Bismol. I said I was fine, but I couldn’t really move from my position. So, she brought me a beer. That’s what friends are for.

It was Cindy and Louise who convinced me of an old wives tale that would surely work. Louise said she had a tapeworm as a child, and her mother successfully lured the worm out with a piece of bread soaked in milk. After several months of intestinal agony, I thought, why not?

When I got home that night, Kate (whose mother made the poison tea) assisted in the worm-removal operation. Unfortunately we had no bread—only multigrain bagels and freezer-burned hot dog buns. We both figured the bun would be better, especially because the bagel had a hole in it. She put the white Wonderbread bun in the microwave and soaked it in a dish with skim milk. And then, while I rolled over prone in bed, she used hockey tape to secure the milk-soaked hot dog bun to my ass.

Milk ran down my legs and soaked the sheets.  I was wide awake thinking of how big of a worm might crawl out of me in the night. And then what? If the worm ate the entire bun, then it would be taped to my ass until I woke up.

I’m not sure how I fell asleep with something so soggy attached to me, and come morning, there was nothing but a bun still attached to me. That’s when I gave up and went to the Tropical Disease Center at McMaster University. Six Vermox pills later and I was given a promising prognosis: I was no longer feeding a thousand.

Travel always brings about unexpected surprises, like intestinal worms that arrive months later like a misdirected postcard. It’s the Tumbu flies of Congo that give me a mild case of the heebie jeebies though. The adult flies lay eggs on drying laundry and when the eggs come in contact with your skin, they hatch and bury themselves under your skin. “Here they form a crop of boils, each with a maggot inside,” the Bradt guide to the Congo reports. But, by smearing Vaseline on the breathing holes, you can suffocate the suckers out of your skin. As they emerge to the surface of the skin, they can be squeezed out but the larvae also have spines which help them hold on. Ew. I have jungle stories about a similar maggoty fly, but that’s for another time. There are many other gruesome things to report on that are endemic to the Congo. Like the pneumonic plague.

The plague is transferred from small animals to the fleas that bite them. Humans can get transmission from flea bites, direct contact with the animal with the fleas, inhalation—or by eating the animal. This is why you shouldn’t eat your pet dog or cat.

The most common and infamous form of the pneumonic plague is the bubonic, acquired by the bite of an infected flea. Jungle towns and crowded mining camps are breeding grounds for such a plague, and Ituri, Congo, is the most active plague region on the planet. My hometown, Brantford, Ontario, proudly boasts about being the home of Wayne Gretzky. I wonder if Ituri has a welcome sign indicating “Most Active Plague Region on the Planet!”

Plague symptoms aren’t as dramatic as I thought: chills, diarrhea, fever, headache and swollen lymph nodes. The most obvious sign that you have the plague? Death in one week. There are antibiotics to treat the bubonic plague, but in the middle ages, millions of Europeans died of measly flea bites. Shame.

The Bradt guide has provided an intriguing breakfast read for me over cups of tea. I have learned that if I am bitten by an animal suspected to be rabid, I should scrub with soap, strong iodine, gin, whisky or rum, to stop the virus from entering my body. Traveling with the rabies immunoglobin is recommended, but I should be prepared to drop $800 US. However, “mortality is 100% and death from rabies is probably the worst way to go.”

Of greater concern is the Ebola virus. In 2001 and 2003 there were outbreaks near the Gabonese-Congo border with 302 infected. Of that number, 254 died—with many family members contracting Ebola during burial ceremonies due to handling bodies in unsanitary conditions. It is fatal three weeks after transmission and can be contracted from infected bodily fluid exchange, contaminated needles, or eating (or handling) contaminated meat of gorillas, chimps, antelopes and porcupines. All have been crossed off my must-eat list.

Ebola presents like malaria and typhoid with a high fever, headache, exhaustion, dizziness and sore throat. But the bleeding from every opening in the body is the best indication of Ebola. Death occurs from organ failure or blood loss.

Chantal is fearful of the day the Congo is put in quarantine because of an Ebola outbreak. With no incoming or outgoing flights, the Congo would have to rely on its own water sources and produce–much of which is shipped in from South Africa, Kenya and Belgium. They would be shut-off from major supply sources, creating an even greater outbreak of starvation and violence.

The Bradt guide advises that if a hospital visit is required while in Congo, “you may be exposing yourself to even more risk.” Poorly sanitized and supplied, the book recommends flying to Johannesburg.  “Under no circumstance should you receive a blood transfusion unless the option is your own demise.”

Sean Rorison, who bravely pieced the Congo guide together over a span of five years offers this gem: “whatever you think you may need in the Congo, bring it. It is not the country to be lean on what you bring.” The usual advice is to bring half the stuff and twice the money. In the Congo? Bring twice the stuff and three times the money. And a lot of Q-tips.

Rorison speaks of the corruption that I have been a witness to since the day I arrived. He suggests “unless an officer is standing in front of your vehicle, with his hands waving, blowing his whistle so hard a vein is going to pop—just drive around them. If stopped later, apologize and say you didn’t see them.”

Chantal’s advice—give them the 500 francs ($1 US). Although their guns are likely from the 1940s and sans ammunition, no sense in testing the theory.

And, under no circumstance should you perform any magic tricks (and I don’t mean a disappearing act). Rorison writes that being able to perform magic implies that you are possessed and communicating with otherworld spirits which is totally not cool with the Congolese.  They will cast away their own children into the streets if there is suspicion of sorcery or magic. Luckily, I don’t know any magic tricks—in fact, I never did learn how to make a loon call with a blade of grass or make that really authentic farting sound by cupping your hand in your armpit and pumping your arm up and down. I think I’ll be safe.

I’ve already breached the traveller’s maxim of how to determine what to safely eat: PEEL IT, BOIL IT, COOK IT OR FORGET IT.  Curiously, I stopped having diarrhea the day I arrived in the Congo. But, as Rorison scolds, “other fecal-oral diseases come from getting other people’s feces in your mouth.” (But your own is okay?) This happens when cooks don’t wash their hands after a dump, or you touch a contaminated door handle and possibly bank notes (as my friend Andrea warned me in Uganda—Congolese women keep money up their bums to hide it from their husbands).  Gives a whole new meaning to safety deposit boxes and automatic withdrawals.

Dr. Jane Wilson-Howarth wrote a very graphic article in the guide about how to identify what intestinal creepy-crawly you might have, characterized by if you are passing “blood or slime. If the diarrhea is greasy and bulky and is accompanied by sulphurous (eggy) burps, one likely cause is giardia.” She suggests Coke or orange squash (??) with a three-finger (and wash those three fingers!) pinch of salt to rehydrate. I think Wilson-Howarth should write children’s books, the content would be a genuine crowd-pleaser. What kid wouldn’t love talk about eggy bum burps? Or was she talking about burps from one’s mouth?

I do hope to remain worm-less this time ‘round, but if I do inadvertently find myself eating shit or licking bank notes, I know the remedy (which does not involve hot dog buns taped to my ass or Congolese money up my ass). I have been chimp-licked, French-kissed by a giraffe and shared cooties with four cheetahs in Kenya, so I’m crossing my sanitized fingers.

Please wash your hands after reading this, and remember– absolutely no magic tricks or porcupine burgers in the Congo. Sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.

Not sure where this giraffe's tongue has been...

Not sure where this giraffe's tongue has been...

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Chimp Rules of Engagement


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.

034Like 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.

Cyril, a French vet student and I in the baby enclosure at J.A.C.K.

Cyril, a French vet student and I in the baby enclosure at J.A.C.K.

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. 

Micah and I

Micah and I

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:

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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