The rescue and care of an orphaned chimpanzee in an effort to save his life and hopefully return him to the wild one day.
One day in November 2012 I was working on a presentation in my hotel room in Guinea Conakry while struggling with the beginning stages of what felt like malaria or the flu. I received an urgent e-mail from Dr. Jill Pruetz, a professor of anthropology at Iowa State, who had been studying the behavior of a population of chimpanzees in Senegal for the past 10 years. One of her adult female chimp subjects, Tia, had suddenly died from what appeared to be a snake bite. When Jill’s research assistants found Tia on the ground she was already dead. Her baby, Toto, only 2 months old at the time, was lying nearby wriggling and crying. Standing in the hallway of the intensive care unit of a Texas hospital, Jill was in the midst of her own life trauma caring for her mother who was in her last days of life. Unable to come back to Senegal at the time, she asked if I could help with Toto, if in fact the relevant Senegal authorities approved her idea of taking him from the site of the accident. Without any thought of how I was going to fit this into my already full life I answered without hesitation, and in retrospect probably a little delirious with fever: “Yes, sure, of course.”
At the age of two to three months Toto was totally dependent on his mother; needing round-the-clock nutrition and care. Unless an already lactating mother took responsibility for Toto, staying with his natal group was not a possibility. Jill’s research assistants observed Toto from early morning until late afternoon. During this time there was no sign of the group his mother Tia usually traveled with. Only Aimee, Toto’s older sister, was nearby. But at the age of 4½, Aimee was still a youngster herself and not old enough to take on the responsibility for such a tiny infant. It was clear to all of us that Toto’s chances of survival were virtually non-existent if he was left on the ground; he would most likely die from exposure, starvation or a predator in the night.
Over the next three weeks, while I recovered from a bad flu, Jill’s research assistants cared for Toto under my instructions and with assistance from Dr. James Mahoney. When I finally got to Kedougou, Toto was close to three months old. He looked smaller than I had imagined. He was totally dependent, unable to walk or to even crawl. Unlike most baby chimpanzees I had known, he had no scars, no wounds and he was not emaciated. To the contrary, Toto was in great physical form and fully engaged in his world; active, alert to his surroundings and very vocal. Watching him, my mind went back to images of Beng, a one-month-old orphaned chimp from Guinea, the last chimpanzee to be confiscated in The Gambia and the last infant that I raised. That was 1994, nearly 20 years earlier. Although The Gambia’s chimpanzee rehabilitation project, where I worked since 1977, received several chimpanzees after Beng, none were confiscated in The Gambia and all were more than a year old. By 2002 we no longer accepted orphans for rehabilitation or release as it had become near to impossible to safely integrate them into the already existing social groups on the islands. I therefore thought my days of physically caring for orphaned chimpanzees were behind me. But life holds many surprises for us and Toto is definitely a case in point.
Although I have not had any experience with human motherhood I have spent an enormous part of my life raising and living with many chimpanzees. I have loved them deeply as individuals from close and afar, smiled inwardly at their struggles of coming of age, felt immense pride at their recovery and accomplishments, and sadly grieved their passing. I presume my emotions parallel those of my human relations for their own children. And so, from the moment I took Toto in my arms, the threads of my past came back to me quite naturally. Having children is like riding a bike, they say.
In the days that followed I was reminded of one important dimension of the child-rearing experience that had faded with time. I had definitely forgotten the amount of time and energy involved in caring for an infant. Serious sleep deprivation set in after several consecutive nights of bottle feeds every two hours. I quickly fell into the habit of sleeping in the same clothes I worked in all day. I yearned to take an unrushed shower and to feel squeaky clean and smell like myself again. My other work deadlines started to pile together as time itself became irrelevant. The urgency and desire of responding to Toto’s every need was all consuming.
There is no doubt in my mind that I could not in any way or form have been a working mother. I have total admiration and regard for anyone who can accomplish those two very competitive dichotomous roles. But I take my hat off to mother chimpanzees who, exhibiting saint-like patience and tolerance, make child care look like a breeze. In all my years of watching mother chimpanzees care for their babies I never saw a single one lose patience with her baby, or exhibit anything that approached frustration, much less smack her child. If a baby reached for something that he shouldn’t touch, the mother would calmly take the object away or move the baby’s hand. This same sequence could be repeated as many as 20 times with the mother remaining super cool the entire time. If she ever felt the slightest frustration she never showed this. Whenever I was tired or frustrated, I would remind myself of what Toto was missing. Very early on I hired two competent men to help take care of Toto. Both Ousmane and Pellel had worked with me in Guinea monitoring wild chimpanzees. We divided up the day to ensure that Toto got the best that we could offer ensuring that he would not spend any time in a cage…even for sleeping.
Despite all our efforts Toto’s life as a wild chimpanzee was seriously compromised with the death of his mother. Although collecting Toto was obviously a gesture of saving his life, his survival, even with our assistance, was by no means assured. In the early days, Toto struggled to adjust to the milk formula we fed him and to our foreign and clumsy way of caring for him. He suffered through two respiratory infections despite our stringent hygiene protocol of wearing a mask and uniforms that were only worn with him. We reduced as much as possible his exposure to humans, and once he was old enough, we took him on trips to the forest to trigger his memories and expose him to his natural habitat.
Although we successfully jumped the hurdles of providing for his physical and emotional needs we still had questions for his future. Jill and I spent hours debating what was the better option. Dakar, the capitol of Senegal, has a zoo with several chimpanzees but there was no facility for the intensive care of an infant chimpanzee. Senegal did not yet have a sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees. The sanctuary in The Gambia was full. The closest sanctuaries were in Guinea Conakry and Sierra Leone, both bursting at the seams caring for orphaned chimpanzees from their own countries. The final and definitely most humane option was releasing Toto back to his natal group when he was older. We were aware that this option was fraught with difficulties and would depend on a number of variables related to his development, including his age, proficiency at feeding himself in the wild and his orientation towards humans. But based on previous experiences we had reason to believe that there was a slim possibility this would work.
In 2002, I had successfully released an 18-24 month old chimpanzee, captured and held in captivity for a month, to what I thought was his family group. I was monitoring chimpanzees along the Diarra River in Senegal and my research assistant found an adult female dead and her baby nearby. The baby was captured by a villager who contacted me. With permission from the Senegal authorities we returned the baby to his family group. We observed his acceptance, and the baby was later seen on several occasions within the group of chimpanzees whenever they returned to the site. I tried this two more times in Guinea; both times the babies were at least 18 months of age, had been in captivity for not more than six months and were released near the site they had been captured. On both occasions, the chimpanzees were accepted after a great deal of screaming and histrionics within the group. In January 2009, at the age of only 10 months, Aimee, Toto’s sister, was captured by a group of teenage youths who were hunting warthogs in the area with dogs. Once retrieved from the youths, Aimee was successfully released back into her group after only days in captivity.
Both Jill and I are realistic enough to know that the months of wild experience the previous releases had was a critical factor in their successful release. This would be Toto’s main weakness. He had only two months of experience in the wild and no matter how precocious he was this would definitely put him at a disadvantage. Although we still have questions, and Toto is not yet old enough to evaluate his candidacy for release, we do feel we are headed in the right direction. Now a year old, Toto is physically healthy, emotionally secure and mentally alert. He exhibits no neurotic or stereotypical behaviors that many abandoned babies display. Due to his reduced exposure to humans he does not respond positively to the appearance of unknown humans. His reaction is one of fear, discomfort and alarm. This is exactly what we were hoping would be the case. With the rainy season almost finished Toto, Ousmane and Pellel will move to a quiet location of natural habitat, preferably one near enough to chimpanzees to hear their vocalizations. The next six to eight months – during which Friends of Animals is contributing to his care – will reveal whether Toto has a fighting chance to go back to the wild. We will keep you posted.