My Time with the Chimps: Toby

Nobody knows where Toby was born. Some say he was wild-caught in Africa, while others say he was born in a zoo in small-town Quebec. Either way, Toby spent much of the first 24 years of his life at the Saint-Félicien Zoo, on Lac-St.-Jean, Quebec. The zoo bought him to be a companion to their young male, Benji, who had recently been rejected by his own mother, Samba. Luckily, Toby and Benji hit it off, and soon they were 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 wrist 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 home in small-town Quebec) must have been immense, by all accounts Toby was a relatively well-adjusted ape. And when the 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.

In 2000, zoo officials decided they wanted out of the chimp business, so they called Gloria to see if she’d be willing to make room for three more chimps. Gloria was very willing, of course – perhaps a little anxious about mixing zoo chimps with lab chimps, but willing nonetheless. The problem was, she couldn’t do so without breaking the law. The Agriculture Commission, in an attempt to calm tensions caused by the arrival of the HIV+ chimps a few years earlier, had changed their land-use laws, and now it was illegal to house exotic animals on farmland in Quebec. Here is another small irony of Gloria’s situation: because chimpanzees have already been allowed at Fauna, Gloria is prohibited by law from accepting any more.

Gloria had to say no. Soon after, Samba died of pneumonia, leaving the boys motherless once again. Gloria received another phone call, another plea from Saint-Félicien, but nothing had changed. She was powerless to help.

Then, the following summer, tragedy struck once more. With their regular caregiver away on vacation, Toby and Benji were locked outside during a terrible heat-wave with no water. The next morning, the keepers arrived to find a distraught Toby clutching the body of his adoptive brother. Benji had died of severe dehydration.

Toby spent the next three days screaming and tending to the corpse of his best friend. Gloria received another phone call, and this time she couldn’t say no. She had to get Toby out of there, so she mobilized a few of her most influential friends. Jane Goodall wrote a letter appealing to the government to force the Quebec Agriculture Commission to make an exception to their exotics law. Roger Fouts did the same. Against such high-profile firepower, the government relented. They granted Gloria a transfer permit for Toby. Soon Toby was unconscious in a cage in the back of a truck, headed for sanctuary.

It is hard to underestimate the trauma Toby was suffering upon his arrival at Fauna. Having lost everything of meaning in his life, he sank into a deep depression. While hugging himself, rocking from side to side and displaying a permanent fear-face – lips pulled back to expose his teeth and gums – he screamed almost non-stop for the first four days. Housed alone in Jeannie’s Room, he could see his new housemates lurking all around him, but now he was an extreme outsider. Considering how a community of chimps usually deal with foreign interlopers – that is, extremely violently – Toby was likely petrified by his new status.

Having never lived in a community of apes, having never learned the intricate set of interpersonal and social skills so fundamental to group-living, Toby was profoundly out of his element. He’d been partially raised as a human; the dimensions of his life had been defined entirely by human-made constructions. A primatologist would call Toby a “highly enculturated” ape. His identity lies somewhere in the netherworld between chimpanzee and human. Toby is a member of that strange new tribe of beings that we have forged from the formal shape of the wild chimpanzee, that new hybrid fashioned in human laboratories, circuses, movie sets and living rooms over the past one hundred or so years. Toby is, for all intents and purposes, the confused and conflicted Humanzee of lore. And although he may not have known it when he arrived, so were his new housemates.

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)