My Time with the Chimps: Sue 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.

It is a disturbing experience to spend fifteen minutes chipping week-old feces off the cymbals of a plastic tambourine (it helps, by the way, to let it soak first). But it is altogether more disquieting when you can feel two pairs of chimpanzee eyes boring a hole right through you while you do it. Sue Ellen’s best friend is an intense little chimp named Pepper. They go everywhere together, and Pepper seemed to share Sue Ellen’s fascination with me. “Pep and Susie are like two words in the same sentence,” Gloria told me. “They’re like the Fauna two-for-one deal.”

One day, as I struggled to liberate an especially foul tennis ball from the folds of a rank beach towel, I looked up to find Pepper peacefully grooming Sue Ellen’s shoulders. Sue Ellen, meanwhile, wore a long string of plastic pearls around her neck and had managed to get herself stuck inside a particularly tight-fitting tube-top. The bright red number was stretched up and over her head and one of her shoulders, but she hadn’t been able to squeeze her other arm through. As Pepper tried to calm her, Sue Ellen sat staring in my general direction, a look of supreme annoyance on her face.

Washing dishes provides a person ample time to think. As the revolting pile continued to grow by my side, I couldn’t help but wonder at the absurdity of the situation I found myself in. Sue Ellen is a full-blooded chimpanzee, of the species Pan troglodytes, endemic to the deepest rainforests of equatorial Africa. But she is also a connoisseur of inexpensive fabrics and plastic jewels, and once upon a time carried the human immunodeficiency virus in her veins. How did we come to this place, us humans and chimpanzees? How did all this begin?

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)