My Time with the Chimps: Tom

Tom arrived at the Fauna sanctuary in 1997, with a very serious injury on his foot. Just before he’d been scheduled to leave the lab, he’d got into a vicious fight with Billy Jo, during which his foot had been badly bitten. The chief veterinarian had kept Tom back at LEMSIP for a few extra weeks to give his foot a chance to heal, but when he did finally arrive at sanctuary, the skin on his foot was still very fragile. He was constantly catching it on things and opening up the wounds, which meant he needed to be given antibiotics to combat infection. Unfortunately, the antibiotics gave Tom terrible diarrhea, so Gloria had to stop the dosing. Soon, the skin on Tom’s foot was seeping with infected fluid. The wound needed to be cleaned, and a topical ointment applied. But how would Gloria do this without knocking Tom unconscious?

She called Richard at the clinic. Richard gave it to her plain. “Tom’s just gonna have to do it himself.”

Gloria called Tom’s best friend in the human world, Pat Ring. When Pat arrived at the farm, he and Gloria set to work. Gloria locked down the enclosure next to Tom’s and put a children’s chair and a bowl of water on the floor. Then they let Tom into the room.

“Pat asked Tommie to sit on the chair and stick his foot in the bowl,” says Gloria. “It sounds crazy to say it now. And we were completely shocked when Tom just did it, no questions asked. Then Pat asked Tom to give him his foot. And Tommie just lifted his leg. It was incredible. All Pat had to do was reach through the bars and pat the foot dry with a paper towel.”

Then Pat smeared a glob of antibiotic cream on Tom’s hand, so the chimp could smell and taste it (this is an important step in introducing a new substance to a chimpanzee). Pat dabbed some of the cream onto Tom’s foot, rubbed it in a little, and they were done.

“We were bursting inside,” says Gloria now. “Bursting with love for this amazing, intelligent, sweet and gentle soul who was doing everything we asked, who was helping himself to heal, and saving us the stress of having to do it for him. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a chimp would ever cooperate like that.”

Pat and Tom continued their cleansing ritual for three days, and Tom’s foot began to improve. But then Tom started asking for the materials himself. “He wanted the spatula with the medication on it,” says Gloria. “And then he started applying the stuff to his own foot. So we made him a tray with everything he might need – paper towels, tissues, the spatula, the ointment in a Dixie cup. We even gave him the iodine sponge, which people warned us he might try to eat. He didn’t. He just started to treat his own wound, the way he’d learned from Pat.”

Apparently, Tom was a very conscientious nurse.

“Thorough, thorough, thorough,” Gloria says now with a laugh. “Scrub, scrub, scrub, scrub, scrub. Rinse and dry. Then apply. We could see how serious he was about it. His mouth got into it, like he was concentrating real hard. He made sure the cream got into all the little cracks and crevices in his foot. Soon we just put the cleaning stuff on the food trolley for him, and he’d treat himself.”

Tom’s foot eventually healed, and today the only sign of the injury is a patch of light-pink skin. But the impact of those days is still palpable in the chimphouse. While Tom was learning how to heal himself by watching Pat, the other chimpanzees were learning something else by watching Tom.

Tommie was the first chimp at Fauna to regularly submit to medical attention offered by a human. The chimps witnessed this, and over time, a few of the more brave individuals began following his lead. “Without Tommie showing his trust in Pat,” says Gloria, “who knows if the others would ever have started trusting the rest of us?” Chimpanzees learn by watching others. Tom has always been the sanctuary’s greatest teacher.

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: "Tom" by Frank Noelker)