Janine Lazarus

JANINE LAZARUS goes ape over her new teacher

I learned a lesson two weeks ago, but struggled to put my thoughts into words even though I teach communication skills. The nature of this discourse is the language of man’s unspeakable cruelty.

My teachers share more than 98% of my DNA, but their eyes have seen much more hardship than any human being could endure. There are 33 tutors in all, now living out their remaining years in a risk-free environment that is as close as it possibly can be to their natural habitat.

They have been given human names like Jessica, Thomas, Charlene and Tony, but have been treated anything but humanely. These are the orphaned inhabitants of Chimp Eden, the only chimpanzee sanctuary in South Africa, part of renowned primatologist Doctor Jane Goodall’s landmark work in redefining the relationship between humans and animals.

These great apes all have their own story – one that they communicate through their graying fur, their palpable mistrust of human beings, and their oddly stunted bodies. Heroically rescued from some of the most dangerous places on earth, they are the lucky ones. Each of these grizzly inhabitants has survived the bush meat trade, the illegal pet trade, countless zoos, circuses and medical research facilities.

And it is here within the 1000 hectare Umhloti Nature Reserve, a few kilometers from Nelspruit that they are provided with the attention they desperately need to recover from the searing trauma each has suffered.

Jessica is the graying chimp who holds my attention. She balances on a piece of wood that spears the mid afternoon sky, gnawing at a piece of sugar cane. She is 26 years old – relatively young when compared with Jaoa who, at approximately 67 years, is the oldest chimpanzee at the sanctuary.

Possibly used for advertisement purposes on television, Jessica was locked in a small cage in a dark back room of a South African circus owner. She stayed there for several years. She has three fingers missing from her right hand, probably as a result of her becoming too large and too dangerous to handle.

I decide to ‘adopt’ her. Her story is no more or less traumatic than that of her peers, but I’ve always hated circuses and she stands out as my reason why. Adopting Jessica means I am blessed with the unique opportunity of seeing her for a few seconds every day via wireless cameras that constantly follow the chimpanzees to assist in research rehabilitation techniques. I also get an ‘Adopt-A-Chimp’ certificate which, fills me with pride.

Like the other rescues, Jessica arrived at the sanctuary in a terrible condition. She had lost a lot of her fur and was starving. Her survival instincts kicked in rapidly as it took only a week for her to demand food from her caretakers. She has since displayed excellent social behavior and become a mother figure to some of the noisy infants.

Other primates haven’t adapted as easily to their surroundings as easily. They are still understandably mistrustful and wary. Amadeus had been kept chained outside a petrol station in Luanda to attract customers, and Nikki was forced to eat at a table with cutlery and wore specifically designed chimp costumes. Many of the orphaned apes arrived either as raging alcoholics or nicotine addicts.

As we snake our way down the sandy mountain pass, the bitter-sweet reality of the place sticks in my throat. I can still hear the pant-hoots of the chimpanzees and see their sweeping physical gestures and strange facial expressions in my mind. And it dawns on me: There is more to communication than speech. Much more …