They say you’ll never forget where you were and what you were doing at momentous occasions in your life, but I honestly can’t recall the circumstances of October 18, 1983. I don’t remember if it was cloudy or sunny; I don’t know if I was working in the garden or feeding the geese. I’m not even sure what time it was. All I know is that I held a dying chimpanzee in my arms that day and it changed my life forever.
Pierre Fabel was an honorary game ranger who was also married to my daughter, Diana. I’d received a message around midday over the short-wave radio that he was on his way out to Chimfunshi, our farm along the Upper Kafue River in central Zambia, but nothing prepared me for what lay ahead. Pierre got out of his truck and approached, carrying this pathetic, terrified animal in his arms. It was a baby chimpanzee, but not like any chimp I’d ever seen before. What hit us first was the smell.
My initial reaction was one of nausea and horror, and Dave, my husband, felt the same way. This small chimp–a bag of bones, really–had badly smashed teeth and the right side of his mouth was slit open about two inches more than it should have been. His face and his mouth stank from the rotten flesh around the badly infected wounds. He was totally dehydrated and suffering from terrible diarrhea, and there were flies everywhere around him.
Pierre said the chimp had been confiscated from some poachers who were caught smuggling him into the country from Zaire. Although officially protected as an endangered species, chimpanzees flowed illegally into Zambia in those days, and we heard of quite a few people owning them as pets. Game rangers traditionally did nothing to confiscate the animals, since there was no facility in place for keeping them, and this was quite possibly the first time anybody had done anything in response to the black-market trade. The little chimp’s entire family had probably been killed for meat, and now he was headed to the market to be sold as a pet–though it seemed unlikely he’d even live that long.
Pierre was visibly upset.
“If you don’t do something to help him,” he said, tears welling in his eyes, “then I’ve got to do something about him myself.”
I hate to think of what Pierre had meant by that, but I knew he’d certainly seen plenty of terrible things as a game ranger, and the sight of him being so overcome by emotion came as a shock. I looked down at this poor, sad little chimp. His mouth flopped open in a gruesome grin, exposing the left side of his jaw and gums, and his teeth looked as though they’d been hammered to bits. His eyes were dull. His breathing was labored. It was obvious he was dying, and yet here he was, clinging to life.
Dave and I knew nothing about chimpanzees. We were cattle farmers, and even though we’d spent most of our lives in Africa and encountered all sorts of wildlife, this was like nothing we’d ever seen before. But it was obvious what we had to do. Because this chimp looked so much like a human baby, we immediately began treating him like one, and luckily, we soon found that once you’ve got a baby chimp in your arms, instinct takes over. We carried the chimp into the house, and the first order of business was to try to clean up his wounds. He struggled a bit, and my attempts at putting any sort of salves or disinfectants on the cuts were hopeless. In retrospect, I feel a bit stupid that I did not try to stitch the mouth closed at the edge, but at the time I was more interested in trying to simply clean him up as quickly as possible–and, anyway, we were fighting for his life. We were very scared for him then, so we decided to try to feed him with a bottle of milk. To say the chimp was overjoyed is an understatement. He sucked greedily on the teat, even though more milk kept pouring out of the gash on the side of his mouth than down his throat, but it was the most life he’d shown since his arrival.
Once the chimp accepted the bottle, it was easy to put antibiotic medication into the milk and there was no trauma in treating his infections internally. Thus began a vigil that lasted the rest of that first day, as the chimp alternately drank and slept, his breath coming so fitfully at times that we feared each might be his last. Once or twice he opened his eyes and seemed to get a clear look around at his surroundings, but then ex-haustion–or relief, perhaps–seemed to overcome him and he’d drift off again. Dave and I took turns holding him as he slept or preparing his bottle, and we even took him to bed with us at night. But I don’t think we ever stopped to think, “Well, now what?” We were running on instinct and there was no time to try and collect our thoughts. Just like a human child, this chimp responded to anybody who offered him a little tender loving care, and that’s what we meant to give him. We christened this brave little fellow Pal.
At the time, there was no way of knowing how completely our lives were about to change simply because we’d decided to help an injured chimpanzee. Before Pal arrived, Dave and I were looking forward to retirement. I was fifty-one years old and Dave was fifty-four, and our five children had long since grown up and moved away. Chimfunshi, the old fishing camp we’d bought in 1972 near the headwaters of the Kafue River and turned into a fifty-five-acre cattle ranch, was to be our final home, and we both had worked hard to make it the sort of place we’d always dreamed of. Our days were long but our lives were good, and some evenings, when we’d sit out under the big acacia trees and look west over the floodplains as the herds of antelope or elephants passed by, we told ourselves we’d found the last unspoiled place on earth.
But then Pal arrived, and suddenly everything else ceased to matter. Whatever routine and order we’d established on the farm was promptly forgotten, and our every thought centered upon the chimp and his well-being. If Pal awoke at 4 a.m., Dave and I awoke at 4 a.m. If he napped in the afternoon, Dave and I tiptoed around the house so as not to disturb him. There were warm bottles at dawn and warm baths at night. It was as if someone handed you your grandchild to raise as your own, and suddenly all the parenting skills you thought you’d stored away for good were being dusted off and put to use.
Pal weighed only fourteen pounds when he arrived, and our best guess from all that we read about infant chimps and the photos we looked at in books seemed to indicate that he was about a year old–definitely still a “baby” by anybody’s standards. Yet Pal’s youth seemed to contribute to his rapid recovery. Within weeks, those awful wounds on his face were almost entirely healed, and even though he would never lose the terrible scars that gave him that rather droopy look, it was not long before he seemed able to use his mouth and lips freely. We were also lucky that it was only his baby teeth he lost. Even his diarrhea began to wane. But while Pal’s physical recovery was impressive, his emotional recovery proved to be a long, slow, uphill climb. His sleep was always tortured and traumatic, and his nightmares were the worst. Some nights he awoke in such a state, screaming in terror and screeching so hard that he began to shake uncontrollably. Was he remembering his capture? The death of his mother? His own injuries? I had no way of knowing, of course, but I’d hold him close and stroke his fur until he calmed down and, more often than not, he would fall back asleep in my arms.
Pal grew quickly in confidence, and soon he was venturing throughout the house, pulling open cabinets and raiding the bookshelves. But he wasn’t a particularly destructive chimp, definitely not the sort to tear a house to pieces. Pal was just extremely curious. He was also terribly smart. He’d watch what you were doing, peering over your shoulder and looking intently at your face as you concentrated, then do a perfect imitation. He once spent an hour or so watching Dave cut wire with a pair of pliers, and, when Dave accidentally dropped the pliers, Pal swooped in and grabbed them, then scampered off to the nearest fence and began cutting the wire himself.
As I said, Dave and I knew nothing about raising chimpanzees. I think we had a copy of Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man around the house, but while the book offered fascinating insights into the behavior of wild chimpanzees, it said nothing about raising one in your own home. Neither did any of the textbooks or scientific journals we found, and since chimpanzees are no longer indigenous to Zambia, even locating someone who knew a little about chimps proved difficult. So we improvised. For instance, some animal experts say that you can’t possibly potty-train a wild chimp, but Dave and I had never heard this–so we did. We potty-trained Pal in a little over four months, just by sitting him on the toilet like you would a child until he figured out what we wanted. Once he was housebroken, you’d hear him go into the toilet and then there’d be this tinkling noise. And he’d wait because he knew you’d come after him, and then you’d look into the toilet together and pull the chain to flush it, and when the water would rush in, Pal would laugh hysterically. He thought swirling water was terribly funny.
We also found ways to include Pal in our daily routine, since Dave and I both had full-time jobs running the farm and couldn’t afford to spend hours watching him around the house. Zambian women wear what is called a chitenje, which is two meters of very colorful cloth that can be used for everything, including fashioning a sling of sorts so that one can carry a child on either one’s back or front. I owned a few chitenjes at the time of Pal’s arrival, so that was how we carried him around the farm. When I did my chores, I slung Pal up onto my back and carried him everywhere I went. And when I was unable to cope any longer, Dave took him everywhere else. Pal thoroughly enjoyed being carried around this way, and he would alternately grab at things over your shoulder and catch catnaps, when he would curl into a tiny ball of black fur. In the wild, Pal would have spent most of the day being carried around on the back of his mother, so I doubt that he felt this routine was unusual.
Pal was not the first primate at Chimfunshi, however. We already had a young male baboon at the time, whom we called Rocky because he’d been confiscated from some local boys who were trying to stone him to death with rocks. He arrived in terrible shape, too, but we gave him a lot of attention and love, and he recovered wonderfully. Rocky had a great personality. He was bitten by a snake once, and when I treated the wound, he was so proud of the bandage on his arm that he showed it off to anybody he could find. Rocky also used to ride around on the backs of my bullmastiff dogs as if they were horses.
So Pal joined our minimenagerie. I used to take them all out for walks in the nearby forests to get exercise, and we’d laugh because here I was with a chimpanzee, a baboon, and four large dogs–I know we were an odd sight. But I was pleased to see how quickly Pal reverted to chimp behavior out in the bush. He acted just like any other chimp baby would have: he played in the grass or leaves when we stopped, he climbed small trees, and he spent a great deal of time searching for his favorite fruits, like figs and cherries and msuku, a juicy green treat that is somewhat like a cross between an apricot and a grape. But mostly, baby chimps stay close to their mother, and since I was the mother figure, that meant he seldom let me out of his sight. In the daytime, because there were no other chimps around, Pal would often sit close to Rocky and allow him to groom him. Rocky would run his fingers through Pal’s fur, removing any pieces of dirt or dry skin, and both of them seemed to get such pleasure out of the process. All monkeys and apes enjoy grooming, and Pal would sit there motionless for an hour or more, with the most faraway look on his face. I often wondered what he was thinking about at those times–happy things maybe, or sad–but the experience clearly left him more calm and relaxed.
Pal often returned the favor, grooming Rocky, and later Dave and myself as well. He sometimes got annoyed with me when he found that I had hairs growing in the wrong place on my chin or pimples that needed squeezing, and would hold my face tightly in his hands and make disapproving grunts and click his teeth together. He used his lips and teeth to pull out the offending hairs, but the pimples he would squeeze very gently between his fingers, not releasing his grip on my face until he was satisfied I looked better.
Meanwhile, Dave and I came to regard Pal just like a child. We’d already raised five human children between us, so it was relatively easy in the early stages to cope with a single baby chimpanzee, especially since he acted just like our own children had. Pal would play with toys, take naps, throw tantrums, and pout, just like any little human. He ate at our table alongside us, and drank what we drank. He loved milk and tea, and even had sips of our beer now and again. For treats, we’d slip him pieces of chocolate, which he adored, and sugarcane. You might say we went a bit too far and nearly “humanized” him–something I am careful to avoid now–but in those days, we were basically just trying whatever worked. Meanwhile, Pal became quite adept at making himself understood. About two months after his arrival, he began bringing his cup to you when he wanted a drink. He’d thrust his cup forward, and there was no doubt what he was saying: “I want a drink.” And if I gave Pal a cup filled with water and he looked at it and gave it back, well, then we knew it was milk he wanted, or tea.
Pal taught us a good many lessons about chimpanzees, but nothing was more surprising than his ability to barter. He frequently got ahold of something he should not have, such as a cap or someone’s glasses, and since his favorite food is bananas, I learned to offer him a banana in exchange for whatever he had stolen. If he turned his back on me, I knew my offer was ridiculous. So I would increase it to two bananas–again the back treatment; then three bananas, and so on. Eventually, as we got closer to a deal, Pal would turn and stare me straight in the eyes, holding up the purloined item, until I got to a figure he could live with–usually five or six bananas. Then he’d make a soft, pant noise that signaled his agreement, and he’d slip the goods toward me with one hand while pulling the bananas toward himself with the other.
As he grew older, Pal’s ability to communicate proved uncanny, and there were times I’d swear he must have spoken to me telepathically. But nothing amazed me more than his reaction to a particularly nasty strain of flu that struck Chimfunshi once. Pal looked so pathetic that we honestly feared for his survival. For days, he lay about the house and yard, barely moving, refusing to eat any foods. Since chimpanzees do not cough or blow their noses as we humans do, they are very susceptible to a buildup of fluid in the lungs that can prove deadly. Pal looked utterly wretched one morning, with a big, hard blob of mucus hanging from his nose and his mouth slung open in a desperate attempt to breathe, and he refused both his milk and his medication. He looked at me through half-closed, bleary eyes that told me just how sick and miserable he felt, then slowly used his left hand to push away my offer of a cup of milk, while extending toward me a long piece of straw with his right hand. I was confused and offered the milk again, but Pal was adamant–he pushed the milk away while again appearing to hand me the straw. Suddenly, I realized he was trying to barter with me–but for what? I had no idea.
Pal kept repeating this gesture to me over and over, and he looked so bad and felt so hot and feverish that I was in tears.
I said to him, “Pal, my darling, I am so sorry but I do not know what you want.”
At that, he put the piece of straw down and went off looking for I-knew-not-what. He rummaged through some old tires and sacks, yet returned with another handful of straw and repeated the barter gesture, but I still didn’t understand and could only offer him a cuddle. Pal gently pushed me away and wearily moved off again, clearly in search of something, and then appeared to find what he wanted–a tiny piece of dried orange peel. He offered me the peel in the barter style, with a pleading look in his eyes.
“An orange?” I said. “You want an orange?”
It hadn’t occurred to me that something as simple as the vitamin C in citrus fruits would help combat a chimp’s cold–or that a chimp would instinctively know it–but Pal kept holding the peel up to me as if to emphasize the point, so I quickly went to the food storage hut and brought back three oranges. As I walked back, I heard this low, pleased panting, and Pal’s face was positively smiling. He accepted the oranges–and gave me the peel in return–then went off to his bed to enjoy the fruit. Just like a human being, he had a craving for something. He knew he needed it, and he made that need clear to me. Over time, I came to realize that chimps–and probably all animals, for that matter–know instinctively what they need to be healthy and happy. It’s we humans who get in the way and make a mess of things.
Around this time, Pal had his first fit. I heard this terrible crash early one morning and went to see what was wrong and found Pal unconscious on the floor. I shouted in shock and surprise and slowly Pal seemed to come to; then he struggled to his feet and staggered toward me with great difficulty. I pulled him up into a sitting position and found that his pulse was extremely rapid, and I could see that his head was still cloudy and his eyes were having trouble focusing. His heartbeat eventually slowed back down to normal in about fifteen minutes and Pal seemed none the worse for wear, but the incident left me badly shaken and I continued to watch him closely for the next few days. About three weeks later, it happened again, then again two weeks after that. Pal would just collapse into a heap on the ground, then lie there jerking and quivering spasmodically before passing out altogether. Yet he always came to when I shouted to him or wrapped my arms around him. Clearly something was wrong, but none of the medical experts I could find knew enough about chimpanzees to offer much help, and the best guesses were that he was suffering from a form of genetic disease such as epilepsy, or perhaps the beating he’d taken when he was captured had caused brain damage that prompted the fits. The strangest part was that Pal seemed otherwise fit and healthy and the attacks came on with no warning whatsoever–which meant that I was always on guard.
Despite the fits, Pal’s strength and confidence grew, and he started to regard Dave and me as his own–so aggressively that he acted horribly toward other people. He began getting jealous if anyone came near us. If someone got too close, he would bite that person, and children were a particular target. If you think about it, most children were about Pal’s size then, so I’m sure he came to regard them as a direct threat to his “family,” especially since his real family had come to such a brutal end. But chimps are also four times stronger than humans–even at that young age–and the possibility that Pal might seriously injure someone was very real. Our grandchildren were regular targets, and it reached the point where they no longer felt safe when they came to visit. One day, Pal bit a young girl’s foot very badly when she and her mother walked past where Dave and I were sitting, and suddenly we found ourselves with a problem chimp on our hands.
But fate intervened, on a couple of fronts. A lot of people seemed to own chimps in those days, mostly as pets, and it wasn’t that strange to find a chimp tethered to a tree in the backyard of some of Zambia’s finer homes. But after years of looking the other way, the Zambian government finally announced in 1984 that anybody owning illegal pets–such as chimpanzees, African gray parrots, Rosen parakeets, or other endangered species– had exactly one year to apply for a license to keep the animals, even if they’d owned them for years. I remember they ran large adverts in the newspaper and hung posters all over town, and it was the first time they’d ever put anything like that down on paper. Of course, it had been against the law for almost a decade, but now the Zambian government started to cooperate and enforce the laws established by CITES–the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. That’s when the black-market smuggling of animals also began to come under scrutiny, and suddenly all those chimps that border guards had once not bothered to collect were being confiscated–and Chimfunshi became the animals’ logical destination.
Which is why on April 20, 1984, barely six months after Pal had arrived, the game rangers confiscated another young chimp from smugglers and again Pierre came out to the farm, this time carrying a dehydrated female chimp that smelled terribly of diarrhea and was missing a toe on her left foot. This chimp was not as easy to handle as Pal, since she was older and bigger; we guessed she must have been about four or five. But even at that age she was still really only a baby herself. She would normally have been breast-feeding for her first four years, and certainly would have still been traveling and sleeping with her mother.
If Pal arrived in a sorry state, however, this chimp was positively wretched. She was so weak that she couldn’t even climb onto a chair without falling, and was so timid she refused to allow anyone to pick her up when she fell. Her balance was also probably affected by the loss of the toe, which we presumed had been shot off during her capture. But we did the best we could for her. We put an automobile tire on its side on a shelf in the bathroom off the living room and filled it with straw and blankets to make a bed for her. Although she never seemed nervous about us, the only movement she made during the first few weeks was to stick her bottom over the edge of the tire to defecate–and was that a mess! There’d be blood and feces and mucus all over the bath, and the stench was a clear indicator of how ill she really was. When it came time to eat, she’d slowly sit up and nibble on some food, then slump back into the tire and lie there again for hours on end. She never objected to my cleaning her tire or feeding and grooming her, but neither did she ever show any signs of curiosity. Given this chimp’s utter lack of ambition, Dave and I didn’t struggle in coming up with her name: Liza Do Little.
Liza did not look like any of the chimps I’d seen in pictures. Her face was quite round, but her forehead was flat and her shoulders sat well up beyond her ears, as if she had no neck. But even though we knew nothing about her origin, the fact that she looked nothing like Pal was the first indication to me that chimps from different areas might look different, in the same way that people do. We treated her no differently than we did Pal, however, slipping antibiotics and medication into her bottles of milk in order to fight off the infections that were ravaging her internally, and working slowly to build up her trust and confidence in us.
It was probably three weeks after she arrived that Liza one day hesitantly stuck her head around the door to see what was beyond the bathroom walls, then rushed back to her tire. This began to happen more and more often, until she eventually plucked up her confidence and came and sat with us for longer periods. Then, Liza and Pal became friends. We made a place for Liza to sleep at night and slowly it became easier and easier to leave Pal alone with her, and she more or less adopted him as a little brother. But when we eventually weaned him from sleeping in our bed, both Dave and I realized how badly we missed him. After having Pal in our bed for almost six months–and after so many nights spent holding him or bottle-feeding him while he slept–we suddenly found ourselves going to bed without him and something seemed wrong. We’d wake up in the night and instinctively say, “Where is he?” He taught us a lot about chimps and just how close to humans they really are–and how much closer they can become.
Once, as Dave and I prepared to go away for a trip to West Africa, I spent a great deal of time talking to Pal. I’d say, “Right, Pal, I’m going away now for a bit. Will you be all right until I come back?” I told him that my daughter, Diana, was going to take good care of him, and I told him it was only going to be four weeks. I went over all this with Pal again and again, because I didn’t know what else to do. We hadn’t been out of his sight since he’d arrived, and now we were talking about being away for a solid month. I also told Pal I loved him very much. He seemed to understand and was not particularly upset as we left. And we were told he took the first four weeks’ separation like a champ. But when we were delayed with plane connections in Nigeria and did not return until almost a week after we were due back, friends “greeted” us at the airport in Lusaka with the news that Pal was very, very ill. We rushed home, of course, and Diana came running out to the car and threw herself into my arms, sobbing. I obviously thought the worst and, steeling myself, asked grimly, “Where is he?”
Pal was lying on a bed, motionless. I assumed he was dead and practically fell on him, crying hysterically. Slowly, Pal opened one eye, looked at me, and turned his head away. Dave entered the room and Pal again opened an eye, looked at Dave, and gave him a very feeble greeting before once more turning his head away. Then Pal slowly sat up and weakly motioned for Diana to come pick him up. And for the next twelve hours, Pal would neither look at me nor even acknowledge my presence. Then, suddenly, he cried out and grabbed hold of me, as though meaning to never let go again. Whatever had ailed Pal seemed to have magically disappeared.
Diana told us that for four weeks he had been wonderful and really well behaved. Then, shortly after we were supposed to have returned home, he got listless, stopped eating, and could not be persuaded either to drink or to eat a thing. Diana was certain he was about to die. I’ve since read about orphaned chimpanzees in the wild who literally allow themselves to die of sadness after their mother is killed, withering away in a few short weeks. Pal clearly regarded Dave and me as his family, and when we stayed away too long, he apparently gave up on living as well. I really do believe he would have allowed himself to die. Common sense says that four weeks shouldn’t make any difference to a chimp, yet why did he do just fine over those four weeks and then suddenly get sick when we didn’t return? There was something very revealing there, and it taught me to respect a chimp’s intelligence–and devotion.
©2002 by Sheila Siddle and Doug Cress. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.