My Time with the Chimps: Chance

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 cesarean 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.

Those first five years were torture for Chance. Taken from her mother immediately after birth, she was whisked away to live all by herself in a tiny baboon cage, with almost no contact with other members of her species. The only interactions she had were with the lab techs, who were usually either refilling her food or water or knocking her unconscious with a dart gun so that her cage could be cleaned. If it was traumatic to be shot with a dart-gun while surrounded by nine of your friends in the adult units, imagine what it must have been like to go through that experience completely alone.

Chance’s cage was in a room next door to the lab cage-washing machine, which apparently operated nearly 24-hours-a-day and made a terrible racket. Even today, Chance hates cleaning day at Fauna. The splash and howl of the pressure washer always sends her spinning in her cage, as if memories of her lonely childhood were suddenly flooding her mind.

At the age of five, Chance emerged from solitary confinement completely broken. She’d become intensely neurotic, aggressive, and to put it lightly, uncooperative. She was psychotic, biting her fingers, pulling her hair out, unable to reconcile her terrifying new surroundings – a windowless trailer filled with nine other manic chimpanzees – with the deprivation she’d suffered for so long. The ultimate irony of Chance’s story is that she was born lucky – blood tests eventually proved she hadn’t caught hepatitis from her mother. Her cruel incarceration had been totally unnecessary.

Chance looks different from all the other chimps at Fauna. Her hair has a beautiful silver tinge to it, which makes her body shimmer when she sits outside in the sun. Chance also sounds different from the others in a quite adorable way. She hasn’t quite mastered the Bronx Cheer, which Binky uses to perfection: when Chance wants to get your attention, she makes a strange blowing sound, like a child learning to whistle, as if she’s unable to press her lips together firmly enough. It is a sound all her own, and now it is just as effective at getting our attention as Binky’s mighty Pwbbt! or Tom’s clapping.

Having been told what she’d been through, when Chance tried to scare me through the bars at Fauna, I just tried to ignore it, or laugh it off. And I always stayed right where I was. Because when I stuck to my guns like this, Chance eventually stopped acting out and started to relax. Once she realized I wasn’t there to hurt her, Chancey-Pants began to lower the wall between her and me, the wall she’d been building, as a matter of survival, ever since she was born.

One day, I had made a trolley-full of tea for the chimps, and Gloria had decided to give Chancey first dibs in an effort to cheer her up. Chance had already had a couple of tough days. She’d been living in a large group of chimps for almost a week, and the stress was beginning to wear on her.

Gloria sometimes offers Chance the opportunity to live for a while with larger groups, to see if she can figure out a way to get along and perhaps achieve a small measure of social standing, but this time it wasn’t going well. Even the calmest individuals, like Tom and Pepper, had displayed at her through the caging just the day before, sending Chance into a tizzy. Now she had closed herself into a privacy room, signaling that she was desperate for some solitude, for a break from the relentless social obligations that come with life in a large group of chimpanzees.

Gloria rolled the trolley of carefully balanced tea cups over to Chance’s porthole. And just as Gloria realized her mistake, Chance reached out, grabbed the trolley by the corner, and gave it a violent shake. Hot tea went everywhere. Recyclable cups clattered to the floor, and Gloria jumped back, just missing a scalding. “Chancey!” Gloria roared, her emotions overcoming her usual control. “Why would you do that?” Unperturbed, Chance simply let go of the trolley and dropped to the floor to inspect the river of tea flowing into her room.

Gloria returned to my side of the counter, clearly infuriated. But as she flicked on the kettle to boil more water, I could hear her muttering something over and over under her breath: “She’s in control. She’s in control. She’s in control.” Among the many mantras Gloria relies on to get through difficult moments, this is one of the most important. Because it doesn’t matter how frustrating her day is, or if any of her plans actually reach fruition. Her goal, above all, it to make the chimps feel, every single day, like they have more control and agency over their own lives. Chance had the opportunity to spill a trolley-full of tea that day, and she did so, much to her amusement. The fact that Gloria and I then had to mop the floor and remake the tea is inconsequential.

Gloria eventually returned to Chance’s porthole, this time with just one cup of tea on the trolley, and Chance happily took it and placed it on the resting bench to cool. Then she and Gloria spent the next fifteen minutes playing tickle-chase together.

This post is part of a series called "My Time with the Chimps." For an introduction to the series, click here. To read more about my book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, click here.

(photo: Frank Noelker)