To Hold a Chimpanzee, Part Deux

When I posted this photo of Lemba and me on my facebook profile two days ago, the response was overwhelmingly positive. My hug with Lemba even made the news back in Canada (thanks, Quillblog!). But since then, I’ve heard from a number of people who believe photographs like this one can have real negative consequences.

In wildlife conservation circles, these pics are called “Me With” photos, as in “Here’s me with a three-toed sloth,” or “Here’s me with a lion cub,” or "Here's me with an orphan chimpanzee." The worry is that these photos detract from the fundamental mission of conservation—which is, of course, to protect wildlife from the destructive hands of humans—by making people think it’s ok to cuddle with wild animals. The more people see images like this one, the thinking goes, the more people will think animals exist simply for our amusement.

These people have a point. Tourists in conservation hotspots can cause many more problems than their dollars can solve. They spread diseases to animal populations that lack immunity to them. They encourage local markets for cute and cuddly wild animals, who are often bought from poachers. And the moment they are no longer cute and cuddly, these babies face a dire fate, either sold to the highest bidder, slaughtered for their meat or simply abandoned.

But there is a difference between the typical “Me With” photograph and this picture of Lemba and me. Before I was allowed to set foot in Tchimpounga, I had to prove that I had been immunized against a whole raft of diseases, from polio to tuberculosis to measles to typhoid fever. I had to bring extra sets of sanctuary clothing, just in case the measles virus had hopped a ride from Pointe-Noire on my t-shirt. Every effort is made here to protect the orphans from human-borne diseases, and everyone takes this effort very seriously, to the point that JGI has started vaccination programs in nearby villages.

But there is one other point to make here, and it the most important one. It has to do with the very raison d’etre of Tchimpounga. Baby chimpanzees spend the first five or six years of their lives in constant contact with their mothers. Touch is as important to a baby chimp—perhaps more so—as food or water is. Through physical contact, baby chimps are soothed, they learn about consolation and trust, and they begin building their self-confidence. These are crucial experiences for a young chimpanzee who will eventually have to make her own way in chimp society.

So whenever a Tchimpounga orphan is picked up, carried or simply hugged by their human caregiver—or by a temporary visitor who understands the context and has had all his shots—that chimp is taking another small step towards their own rehabilitation. To refuse a baby chimp physical contact, and all the fun, adventure, education and comfort it entails, would be the worst form of neglect.

Visiting Tchimpounga is a rare luxury. Only a lucky few who have jumped through all the hoops and who have a real reason for being here (and an official invite) can have an experience like this; no tourists are allowed. Debby Cox, the interim manager of Tchimpounga and one of the most knowledgeable chimp rehabilitation experts in Africa, once refused president Museveni of Uganda entry to her sanctuary because he failed to provide proof of vaccination. To his credit, the president didn’t complain one bit, but he probably fired the staffer who forgot to schedule his shots.

Anyway, what do you think? Do you have any “Me With” photos in your albums at home? Looking back, do you think they’ve done more harm than good?

While you're thinking, here is Mombou with the most important person in his little world, his human caregiver/surrogate mother, Antoinette.