Posts Tagged With: Ngamba Island

An Unexpected Life

When a local game ranger brought a malnourished and sickly chimpanzee to Shelia Siddle in Zambia in 1983, she never anticipated that one day her cattle ranch would become the largest chimp sanctuary in the world.

With only a copy of Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man to refer to, Shelia and her husband Dave committed to the daunting task of nursing “Pal” back to health, following parenting instincts more than anything else.  After Pal came Liza Do Little, Girly, Junior and Charley, each with their own troubling story of abuse. When Shelia’s book In My Family Tree—A Life With Chimpanzees was published in 2002, her Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage had welcomed over 85 injured and abused chimps, dozens of monkeys, baboons, African grey parrots, bushbucks and a hippo named Billy.

For Shelia, who was ready to embrace a golden retirement on the Kafue River, Pal and those who followed forever changed the path of her life. Shelia had moved to Africa in 1947 with her wanderlust-driven parents and became a race-car driver, contrary to what her generation accepted as a traditional female role. She had five children and a cattle ranch, and never dreamed that her life would be dedicated to chimps.

Mac at Ngamba Island, Uganda

Chimps arrived at Chimfunshi addicted to cigarettes and beer from young lives spent as circus performers in local bars. Some chimpanzees didn’t recognize their own kind after being raised in human households. Others struggled for dominance, or sometimes just acceptance amongst the motley crew. Wide-eyed in their new territory, some of the youngsters had to watch the older chimps for lessons on how to build nests. The Siddles had built large enclosures so the chimps could sleep in the cages at night, or, in the open acreage in trees as they would in the wild.

Rita preferred the company of humans, and their shoes. She would remove the laces of every guest’s shoes, then carefully attempt to relace them, missing a few eyes, but would attempt to tie them up again. An artistic soul, Rita also used American scientist Mark Wright’s notepad and pen to draw. When other chimps were around though, they would annoy Rita by stealing her artwork. Eventually, Mark would wait until the other chimps were napping before he passed Rita the notepad. She would sometimes sit and draw for half an hour or more.

Pal was more concerned with Shelia’s complexion than doodling. Chimps love to groom one another, but Pal became consumed with the hairs on Shelia’s face. He would use his lips and teeth to pull out offending hairs and even squeeze pimples between his fingers!

The antics of Sandy had me laughing out loud. His natural reaction was to throw anything he could get his hands on at whoever might be in range. Oranges became perfect weapons, and Shelia finally realized she was perpetuating his behavior by returning the thrown objects back to him. When she held on to the thrown orange longer than usual, Sandy became sharply aware of the consequences. Shelia eventually returned the orange which Sandy immediately ate—quickly throwing the wadded-up orange peel at Shelia as she walked away.

Sunday at Ngamba Island

When the Siddles began offering sugarcane to the chimps to eat, Sandy found a dual purpose. He took great pleasure in thwacking unsuspecting chimps in the back of the head with the sugarcane stalks, creating instant chaos.

“It wasn’t long before mealtimes became a regular battlefield with Sandy around, as bits of fruits and vegetables filled the skies like V-2 rockets. Sandy eventually became a connoisseur of throwable food, preferring more solid bits like apple cores or apricot pits, or fruits that had peels that he could was into a tight ball. He clearly eschewed leafy foods like lettuce and cabbage though. The few times Sandy threw those, the leaves just fluttered harmlessly to the ground, and he trudged away disgusted.”

Sandy eventually found a partner in crime, Tara. The sanctuary was open to the public, and Sandy and Tara were known to pounce on visitors from their hiding spots on low branches. Other times they would pull back saplings like catapults and release them in perfect time to slap an unsuspecting visitor. Sandy also liked to race ahead and then quietly double back from which point he would dive on to the shoulders and heads of somebody. Many guests returned from the bush walks with bruises and torn clothing, but always full of smiles and stories.

Sandy was also dramatic—nearly convincing Shelia that he was near death one day.  He had refused his morning milk and was incredibly mopey. He appeared too weak to stand and “spent the entire day on the verge of death.” The following morning Sandy showed Shelia the source of his moping– his tooth had fallen out and he showed her by pulling back his lips with his fingers.

Rita was known for her nursing sense. When she couldn’t remove a splinter from Tara’s foot, she thrust Tara’s foot through the bars of the cage to show Shelia. When Donna had a thorn in her foot, Rita was first on the scene, placing her hand on Donna for reassurance as she prodded the tender area.

In 1990, Jane Goodall contacted the Siddles, asking if they could take another chimp. Milla had been a barroom attraction at an Arusha hotel in Tanzania. They arrived in a single-engine plane with a UK vet. Jane and the vet rode in the back of the truck on a pile of sugarcane , wrapping blankets around Milla’s cage to keep her warm. Milla “went one better: She pulled the blankets through the bars and wrapped herself in them.”

Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary

Milla was discovered in a meat market in Cameroon when she was a very tiny baby, tethered alongside the body of her dead mother, and was bought by a very generous British couple, who brought Milla to Kenya and looked after her as their own child until she was about five years old. When the Brit couple had to leave the country, they left Milla with caretakers in Arusha, where she was introduced to the bar lifestyle, smoking and drinking.

Shelia’s description of Millla’s adjustment to Chimfunshi is tremendously emotional—she eventually  integrates, retaining her curious habits of walking upright on two legs, and carrying her blanket with her everywhere. Milla found several uses for her blanket—once flicking it through the bars of the cage to hit a dog who had his nose in the chimps’ food. She would also flick peacocks or geese if they were out of reach. Once she filled her blanket with six sweet potatoes, two guavas and an orange. She neatly folded the corners up and made the blanket into a small parcel so she could pick up her meal and find a quiet place to eat away from the other chimps.

When Billy the hippo arrived, Shelia could no longer be surprised at the evolution of her life and purpose.  Local hunters had killed the mother, and at 10 days old, survival in the wild would have been impossible. The crowd that had gathered has inflicted several wounds and severe gashes on the baby with sharp sticks. With little guidance on how to care for a hippo, Shelia and Dave bravely attempted to help her thrive. In three months she weighed 330 pounds and followed Shelia around like a dog, wagging her stubby tail. Most of the older chimps were terrified of Billy, but she grew incredibly fond of The Infants—Trixie, Diana, Doc, Zsabu and Violet. Billy adopted the chimps as her own and nap beside them or  would be found “gazing happily at them through the wire mesh.” The chimps would slap her hide playfully, pull her ears, and jump down from the trees onto her back.

Billy also became attached to the dogs at the sanctuary. She would mimic their behavior and grab automobile tires like chew toys, flinging it around as the dogs did with their smaller toys. Her closest companion was Gretchen, a Rottweiler who she slept with at night. When Gretchen died in her sleep Billy was inconsolable. She kept nudging Shelia, begging her to do something to revive her friend, Gretchen. For two days Billy refused to eat or take milk and “kept a silent vigil near the kennel.” In her lonesome state, Billy broke into Shelia and Dave’s house three times looking for comfort.

Then there was Ole, a tiny barred owl who had fallen from his nest. For two months he’d swoop tentatively around the livingroom of Shelia’s house, test-driving his new found wings. Ole soon learned how to dive bomb their dinner plates as well, grabbing fried eggs and currant bread to eat from the safety of his curtain rod perch. Eager that he return to the wild, Shelia left all the house windows open, and Ole took short flights to neighbouring trees, always returning to the safety of the house. His longest sojourn was three nights, and then the days between his visits stretched even further with only rare appearances around their house.

Billy eventually discovered his wild instincts too, and when Shelia finally successfully coaxed him into the Kafue River she was like a porpoise. Shelia lured her further into the water while she sat in a boat (nervous of crocodiles, otherwise she would have been in the river herself). Billy soon established a pattern of roaming, joining other hippos in the Kafue, feeding and courting with them as she should.

Not all of the animals that arrived at Chimfunshi survived, and the stories of abuse are tragic. More often though, hope is renewed in chimps like Leben and Choco who arrived from the Tel Aviv Zoo. When they first arrived they were both sullen and unresponsive and “clung to each other like magnets. Only when a visitor from Israel spoke to them in Hebrew several months later did they spring to life and begin hugging one another and laughing out loud. It turned out that they spoke Hebrew, not English.”

In 1995, Sheila and Dave bought a neighbouring farm , a 13,000 acre property. The thick jungle, fruit groves and open grassland would allow the chimps to establish territory, and roam as they would in the wild. It would be the largest area ever set aside for captive primates. “It wasn’t freedom—we knew that—but in a world where chimpanzees are hunted for meat and forests are decimated daily, it was probably as close to freedom as any of our chimps might ever get.”

When it came time to release the chimps into the acreage, Sheila was only able to focus on one chimp, Pal.  Nobody thought Pal would survive, and his scars and droopy lip reminded her of how he arrived 18 years before, desperate, with his face split open and broken teeth.

“My heart was in my throat as I placed a hand on the sliding metal door and peered into Pal’s cage. I leaned in close. “I promised you this,” I whispered. “Now off you go.”

Before Pal rushed off with the others, Tobar and Spencer, he turned to look back at Shelia. He was “staring straight into my eyes. And maybe it was my imagination, but for just that magical second, I believe he was thanking me.”

In My Family Tree is a remarkable book that reminds us of how moments that seem accidental can change the course of our lives. Thank you to the Shelia and Dave Siddle for their unswerving determination to provide a safe haven for orphaned and abused chimps (and even a darling hippo) to frolic and thrive.

David Siddle died  in June 2006, at age 78. “We shall miss David terribly, of course, perhaps no one more than I,” said Sheila Siddle. “But we must keep working for the chimps. We must make sure they are well cared for. That’s what David would have wanted.”

More about Chimfunshi:

Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary:

Where I’ll be in July (J.A.C.K., Congo):

And, for more info about the woman who introduced the world to the plight of the chimpanzees:

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

Chumps and Chimps

October 13, 2008

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


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

Sunday, peeling carrots

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

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

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

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