My Time with the Chimps: Petra

Early on in the evolution of Fauna, Gloria received some sage advice from Dr. Jane Goodall when the famed primatologist and activist visited the Fauna sanctuary for the first of many visits.

“I was so embarrassed,” Gloria says now about that visit. “I had to show Dr. Goodall where the chimps were living. What would she think of all the caging, all the padlocks? She’d seen them at LEMSIP [the lab] already. In many ways, this place is still a prison.”

But Dr. Goodall was delighted. She spent the day interacting with the chimpanzees and speaking to Gloria and her staff. Her visit was a priceless source of inspiration during a very difficult time. “She told me we were doing the right thing,” says Gloria now, tearing up as she remembers the relief that came with this statement. “She also reminded us not to expect too much too soon.”

One other piece of advice proved instrumental. “Jane told me there are certain things the chimps might need from their past,” says Gloria. At first, this seemed to Gloria like odd counsel. How could there possibly be anything in their horrible past they might yearn for? But then it occurred to Gloria that many of her charges had lived very different lives before being sold into research. “Jane suggested I try to find things that will bring back good memories. So that’s what I did.”

Many of the chimps had been raised as humans before being sold into research. So Gloria started introducing human foods to the Fauna menu. And according to Goodall, inanimate objects could also remind the chimps of more comforting times. For example, from the moment Sue Ellen arrived, she took great pleasure in draping herself with human clothing. What’s more, the garden hose also seemed to have a mysterious sway over many of the chimps. Soon, Gloria discovered that even the most unexpected objects could provide solace for an especially troubled ape.

During her first few years at Fauna, Rachel refused to go anywhere without dragging a car tire behind her. Clearly, the tire that used to hang in her LEMSIP cage had become a surreal sort of security blanket for her, which makes sense when you consider that these tires were the only thing the chimps had to hide behind when the lab techs approached with their dart guns. Gloria recalls many incidents early on when Rachel desperately wanted to go somewhere in the chimphouse but couldn’t, because she couldn’t squeeze the tire in after her.

Of course, not all objects held positive memories for the chimps. When Donna Rae was presented with a guitar, she immediately went berserk, smashing it to pieces in her enclosure and jumping on top of the shattered remains. Why would a chimp react so irrationally towards a seemingly innocuous musical instrument? The answer lies in her past. As a child, Donna Rae had belonged to the Elizabeth Hammond Talent Agency. Her “job” had been to ride a bicycle and strum a guitar at private parties.

Despite the occasional misstep, and after many months and years of perseverance, Gloria’s relationships with the chimps gradually began to thaw. The introduction of human foods and special objects occasioned this gradual transformation. And late one night early on, Gloria had a moment with troubled young Petra that suggested maybe, just maybe, she was doing something right.

Petra is a beautiful young female chimp who, in addition to the physical and psychological torment, had been the brunt of some serious verbal abuse in the laboratory. Petra is very strong-willed. She was notoriously uncooperative and at-times malicious with the lab techs, grabbing them and slamming them into the bars of her cage whenever she could. She was also the resident escape artist, an expert at identifying malfunctioning padlocks. Along with Chance, Petra was known among frustrated employees at LEMSIP as “the bitch,” or alternatively, “the asshole.”

But at Fauna, Gloria figured out a way to reach Petra.

“It was nighttime, a very special time in the chimphouse,” she told me. “The lights were off, everyone had gone to bed. The craziness of the day was over. Every night around this time, Pettie would come down to the corner room and lie down on the ground. This was in the old days, when we had a space beneath the doors to slide food inside, and Petra would reach her arm through this space and stretch it out as far as she could. It was as if she just needed one part of her body to be completely free. And every time I looked her way, she would jiggle her fingers. I had no idea why she did this, or what it meant. This went on for weeks. And then one night, I was so tired and exhausted and alone, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m just gonna do it. I’m just gonna sit here on the floor next to Pettie and see what happens.’ So I sat down next to her, and she touched my knee. She scratched it softly, in the way they do. It felt so good. And then she reached up, her fingers still jiggling, and tried to grab the keys hanging around my neck.”

Now Gloria remembered the videos that Petra’s caregiver at the LEMSIP nursery, a woman named Nancy, had sent her. In these videos, Nancy always let Petra play with her bundle of keys. It always seemed to help calm the little girl’s frazzled nerves.

“I was still unsure of things, so I took my keys from around my neck and put them in my pocket. And then I let Petra touch the outside of my pocket. She loved it. We must have sat there for an hour, Petra patting my jeans, jiggling the keys inside. And that seemed to be the beginning of something really important for her and I. It was as if she was having a flashback to her childhood, a really good memory of a comforting time.”

Years later, Petra is now one of Gloria’s most trusted advisors in the chimphouse, and one of her dearest friends.

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

(photo: "Petra" by Frank Noelker)