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Category Archive: My Time With the Chimps

No. 10: Pepper

From a series of posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary
PepperFrank NoelkerPepper

My Time with the Chimps appears simultaneously on The Walrus Blog and Andrew Westoll’s The New Animalist. To read more about Andrew’s book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, click here.

In the early years, Gloria invited some of the lab technicians who used to work with the chimpanzees to visit Fauna. Although these visits were ostensibly for the good of the chimpanzees — some of them had built genuine friendships with the techs — Gloria had an ulterior motive for them. She wanted to know the truth about life inside biomedical laboratories, the truth the researchers and companies don’t want the public to hear. And she quickly discovered that when lab workers are off the clock and experiencing extreme emotions, they often feel like sharing.

“When people come here, they tell me stuff,” she says. “Horrible stuff. Chimps with no fingers left because they’ve chewed them all off. Chimps with concussions from hitting the ground after being darted. Chimps who have such horrible wake-ups from anesthesia that they nearly kill themselves as they thrash around their room. Did you know the only time the chimps were allowed pain medication was after they’d had their vasectomies? They weren’t even allowed a Tylenol, because it would interfere with the science.”

Gloria collects these stories obsessively. They are crucial pieces of ammunition when it comes to swaying public opinion and getting the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act passed into law. But she also collects these gruesome tales because she is terrified that no one else will.

“Over the last twelve years, I’ve realized you can’t force people who worked in the lab to speak out publicly,” she says. “You can’t. Because they live in purgatory, in their own little hell. Most of them will never be able to deal with what they saw, what they did, what they were a part of – the crimes they committed against the chimps.” (more…)

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Meet the Chimps

Video trailer for Andrew Westoll’s forthcoming book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

Two summers ago, journalist, primatologist, and friend of The Walrus Andrew Westoll moved in with the chimpanzees of Quebec’s Fauna, a non-profit sanctuary that provides rescue and shelter for chimpanzees that have been subjected to laboratory research, including infection with HIV. Andrew’s current series for The Walrus Blog, My Time With the Chimps, published simultaneously on his own The New Animalist, introduces readers to some of the amazing creatures in his forthcoming book. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary will be available for sale on May 3. In the meantime, we invite you to enjoy its video trailer — and read Andre Mayer’s book review from The Walrus’s May 2011 issue.

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No. 9: Tom

From a series of posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary
TomFrank NoelkerTom

My Time with the Chimps appears simultaneously on The Walrus Blog and Andrew Westoll’s The New Animalist. To read more about Andrew’s forthcoming book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, click here.

Tom arrived at Fauna Sanctuary in 1997, with a very serious injury on his foot. Just before he’d been scheduled to leave the lab, he’d got into a vicious fight with Billy Jo, during which his foot had been badly bitten. The chief veterinarian had kept Tom back at a LEMSIP for a few extra weeks to give his foot a chance to heal, but when he finally arrived at the sanctuary, the skin on his foot was still very fragile. He was constantly catching it on things and opening up the wounds, which meant he needed to be given antibiotics to combat infection.

Unfortunately, the antibiotics gave Tom terrible diarrhea, so Gloria had to stop the dosing. Soon, the skin on Tom’s foot was seeping with infected fluid. The wound needed to be cleaned, and a topical ointment applied. But how would Gloria do this without knocking Tom unconscious?

She called Richard at the clinic. Richard gave it to her plain. “Tom’s just gonna have to do it himself.” (more…)

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No. 8: Petra

From a series of posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary
PetraFrank NoelkerPetra

My Time with the Chimps appears simultaneously on The Walrus Blog and Andrew Westoll’s The New Animalist. To read more about Andrew’s forthcoming book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, click here.

Early in the evolution of Fauna, Gloria Grow received some sage advice from Dr. Jane Goodall when the famed primatologist and activist arrived at the sanctuary for the first of her many visits.

“I was so embarrassed,” Gloria says now. “I had to show Dr. Goodall where the chimps were living. What would she think of all the caging, all the padlocks? She’d seen them at [NYU’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates] already. In many ways, this place is still a prison.”

But Dr. Goodall was delighted. She spent the day interacting with the chimpanzees and speaking to Gloria and her staff. Her visit was a priceless source of inspiration during a very difficult time. “She told me we were doing the right thing,” says Gloria, tearing up as she remembers the relief that came with this statement. “She also reminded us not to expect too much too soon.”

One other piece of advice proved instrumental. “Jane told me there are certain things the chimps might need from their past,” says Gloria. At first, this seemed like odd counsel. How could there possibly be anything in their horrible past they might yearn for? But then it occurred to Gloria that many of her charges had lived very different lives before being sold into research. “Jane suggested I try to find things that will bring back good memories. So that’s what I did.” (more…)

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Nos. 6 & 7: Spock and Maya

From a series of posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary
SpockCourtesy of Kim BelleySpock

Every summer, to keep the infuriating cockroach populations under control, the Fauna chimphouse is fumigated. Before this can happen, though, all the chimps need to be coaxed outside, where they will live for an entire week on the sanctuary’s islands while their home is pumped full of toxins. This is an enormous challenge, because once the chimps figure out what is happening — and trust me, they figure it out real quick — they tend to become rather stubborn about staying put. When I was at Fauna, “Operation Cucarachas” began with an entire day of primal mind games, as the staff and I struggled to lure each chimpanzee outside.

None of the chimps gave us more trouble than Spock and Maya.

Before they arrived at Fauna, Spock and Maya had lived together for more than twenty-five years at the Quebec City Zoo. Their outdoor enclosure there was tiny, and the concrete floor slanted downwards on an infuriating angle, and there was nowhere to hide from the prying eyes of the paying public. But compared with being locked up inside the main building, the chimpanzees adored their outdoor home. So every night, when the zookeepers arrived to coax them inside for the night, Spock and Maya would team up. One would sit just inside the door and take all the treats their keepers were offering as reward. Then the chimps would switch places.

This strategy meant they both got to stay outside a lot longer, and they each got a fair share of the increasingly delicious treats. More importantly, it meant Spock and Maya had regained a small measure of control over their own lives. This daily game at the zoo became an important source of enrichment for the chimps. And now, after more than twenty-five years of refining their methods, Spock and Maya had become experts at manipulating humans. (more…)

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No. 5: Toby

A series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

Nobody knows where Toby was born. Some say he was wild-caught in Africa, while others say he was born in a small-town Canadian zoo. Either way, Toby spent much of the first twenty-four years of his life at the Saint-Félicien Zoo on Lac-St.-Jean, Quebec. The zoo bought him to be a companion to its young male, Benji, who had recently been rejected by his own mother, Samba. Luckily, Toby and Benji hit it off, and soon they became as close as brothers.

When they were young, the youngsters were often taken home on the weekends by one of the zookeepers. It was on these excursions that they learned to wear children’s clothes, use utensils, eat potato chips, drink soda pop, and colour in colouring books. Partially raised by humans, Toby still enjoys donning a cool pair of sunglasses every now and then, or wrapping his wrists in bracelets.

Although the psychological consequences of being from one world (the jungles of Africa), living in another (a low-budget zoo in central Quebec), and occasionally visiting a third (a private home near the zoo) must have been immense, by all accounts Toby was a relatively well-adjusted ape. And when the Saint-Félicien keepers arrived one morning to find that he and Benji had broken back into Samba’s enclosure, and that the three of them were living peacefully together as if Samba had never abandoned Benji in the first place, the zoo allowed the three to live together as an adoptive family. In no time, Samba was treating Toby as her own. (more…)

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No. 4: Sue Ellen

A series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

From a series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

Sue EllenFrank NoelkerSue Ellen

Sue Ellen has a weakness for large, bearded men. This could be a remnant of her childhood spent in the circus. Gloria suspects that at some point in Sue Ellen’s difficult life, she enjoyed a deep and loving friendship with a broad-shouldered man who preferred not to shave, and that’s why she warmed up to me faster than any of the other chimps at Fauna. Apparently, I was just Sue Ellen’s type.

For the first week or so, my job in the Fauna chimphouse consisted of two simple tasks: stocking the dinner trolleys and washing dishes. And for the entire week, every time I looked up from my work, Sue Ellen was in one of the privacy rooms, sitting on one of the resting benches, adorned in whatever fashion statement she’d been able to rustle up, making eyes at me. Sue Ellen, otherwise known as Susie or Susie Goose, loves to drape herself in human clothing whenever she can. This is another legacy of having been reared by humans.

Whenever I approached her to say hello, which I did approximately twenty times a day, Sue Ellen would press her face against the caging between us and literally shake with excitement. She would purse her lips and squeeze them between the bars, offering a kiss. It didn’t take long for her to figure out that I wasn’t allowed to return the gesture, but Susie was not one to be deterred. She usually just left her lips out there for a while, thin and pink and mottled with black, and I could hear her stuttered breathing as she attempted to control her pleasure at my presence. (more…)

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No. 3: Chance

A series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

From a series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

During my stay at Fauna, some of my relationships with the chimps were much more demanding than others. Take my friendship with Chance, who along with Rachel is one of the most disturbed chimpanzees at Fauna.

At first, I thought Chance hated my guts. This is because she was always trying to scare me. Whenever I approached her room, or simply walked past it, Chance made this loud puckering sound with her lips and juked her shoulder at me as if she was about to charge. Even though there was thick caging between us, her aggressive feints and angry noises always made me jump. But as I learned more about her personality and her awful childhood, I came to understand that when Chance tried to frighten me, she was actually doing all that she could to reach out to me. Chance was, in fact, desperate for her existence to be acknowledged, and she had been this way since the day she was born.

Chance was born by Caesarean in the lab in 1983, to a mother who had already been infected with, and tested positive for, hepatitis B. Babies born to infected mothers stand a 50/50 chance of getting the disease, which takes up to five years to show up in blood tests. So in order to protect the other infants in the lab from accidental infection (which would ruin their scientific value as “clean” test subjects), it was decided that the new infant would be housed alone, in a separate room from all the other chimpanzees, for the first five years of her life. The staff decided to name her Chance, a reference to her odds of infection. (more…)

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No. 2: Yoko

A series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

A series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

Yoko has a bit of a reputation. He’s the smallest chimp at Fauna, but he more than makes up for his size with his outsized “personality.” You see, Yoko has bitten off more chimpanzee digits than anyone else at Fauna. As Gloria says, “If Yoko was a warrior in some ancient tribe, he’d be the one wearing the necklace of severed fingers and toes.”

But as Gloria also points out, “Yoko is so much more than a bully.” I learned this firsthand one afternoon, after a long cleaning day, as I was watching Binky explore one of the outdoor island habitats at Fauna.

Yoko appeared in the chimphouse doorway. I said hello to him, but he wasn’t paying any attention to me. He had spotted Binky, who at that moment was climbing the stairs to one of the play structures. Yoko seemed spellbound by the sight of Binky, who was oblivious to Yoko’s presence.

Binky and Yoko have a bit of a history. They get into quite a few fights with each other, and some of these fights can be very rough. Knowing this, I began to fear the worst as Yoko slowly loped his way over to the bottom of the play structure. (more…)

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No. 1: Jethro

First in a series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

First in a series of posts about the chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

In the summer of 2009, I spent ten weeks living and working at the Fauna Foundation, a sanctuary for abused and neglected animals just outside Montreal, Canada. Fauna is home to over one hundred animals of all shapes and sizes, but its most famous residents are a very special family of chimpanzees.

Fourteen years ago, these chimps were rescued from a biomedical laboratory. In the lab, they’d spent decades suffering through countless invasive surgeries like punch- and open-liver biopsies, dart-gun knockdowns, and day after day of barren captivity. They’d been used as test subjects in vaccine trials, and injected with lethal human diseases such as hepatitis and HIV. Their lives had been utterly miserable and devoid of just about everything an ape requires to have a happy, dignified life. Some of them were driven psychotic by the experience.

But at Fauna, the chimps have begun to heal.  And what’s even more amazing it that they’ve begun to trust humans again. This is what my next book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, is all about. It’s a biography of the chimps and the woman who saved them, Gloria Grow, who continues to look after them to this day.

When I moved in to Fauna in 2009, thirteen troubled chimpanzees were living there. To honour that magic number, I’m going to post thirteen memories of my time with the chimps right here on The Walrus Blog, as well as on my own blog, The New Animalist. Posts will appear about once a week, as a countdown of sorts to publication. Come May, when the book will be in stores across North America, you should all feel a little closer to Fauna and the remarkable apes who live there.

Each post will be named after an individual chimp. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the mighty Jethro(more…)

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