My Time with the Chimps: Yoko

Yoko has a bit of a reputation. He’s the smallest chimp at Fauna, but he more than makes up for his size with his outsized "personality." You see, Yoko has bitten off more chimpanzee digits than anyone else at Fauna. As Gloria says, “If Yoko was a warrior in some ancient tribe, he’d be the one wearing the necklace of severed fingers and toes.”

But as Gloria also points out, “Yoko is so much more than a bully.” I learned this first-hand one afternoon, after a long cleaning day, as I was watching Binky explore one of the outdoor island habitats at Fauna.

Yoko appeared in the chimphouse doorway. I said hello to him, but he wasn’t paying any attention to me. He had spotted Binky, who at that moment was climbing the stairs to one of the play structures. Yoko seemed spellbound by the sight of Binky, who was oblivious to Yoko’s presence.

Binky and Yoko have a bit of a history. They get into quite a few fights with each other, and some of these fights can be very rough. Knowing this, I began to fear the worst as Yoko slowly loped his way over to the bottom of the play structure.

By the time Yoko got there, Binky had turned to face him. For one long moment, the two chimpanzees just stared at each other. I instinctively reached for the walkie-talkie on my hip. Any second now, I thought, I’ll have to report a fight breaking out.

Binky slowly descended the stairs. Yoko didn’t move. The spell between them remained unbroken until Binky reached the grass. And then, as if someone had blown a whistle, Binky started chasing Yoko. Yoko didn’t stand a chance. Binky caught him in just a few steps. And it’s what happened next that convinced me the chimps of Fauna sanctuary might know more about relationships than us humans.

Yoko threw himself onto the grass and rolled over onto his back. Binky grabbed one of Yoko’s back legs. And for the next ten minutes, Binky dragged the diminutive Yoko around the island habitat by his leg. Whenever they passed me, I could hear both of them huffing their glorious chimpanzee laughter. The two were playing with each other. They were having a ball. And as they did so, Yoko appeared the furthest thing from a warrior.

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)

My Time with the Chimps: Jethro

One day, Jethro and his buddy Regis sought me out to play. This was the first time a chimpanzee at Fauna showed any interest in having fun with me, and I was very touched. After weeks of wondering if I belonged at Fauna, Jethro and Regis took it upon themselves to make me feel welcome.

The pair, who at around 20 are two of the youngest chimps at Fauna, were already playing when I arrived on the scene. They were marching through the playroom together, on all-fours and in single-file, taking turns as the Pied Piper. But when they saw me, they came over to the caging that separated me from their world. Regis hung languidly from the bars in front of me, while Jethro slumped his massive frame to the floor and watched me intently. Then, once it became clear they had my attention, off they went again, huffing with laughter as they marched through the playroom.

Chimpanzees communicate many of their thoughts and feelings through gestures. One has to watch them very carefully to understand them. And when I saw Jethro and Regis occasionally looking back to see if I was following them, I knew they were subtly inviting me to play. Sadly, I couldn't follow. Humans are not allowed in the playrooms. So when the pair returned from one of their countless jaunts, I came up with a way to play with them.

As Regis and Jethro both watched, I slowly opened the sliding door that led outside to the inner courtyard. As I did so, Regis pulled back from the bars, a look of intrigue on his face. Then, as quickly as I could, I disappeared outside. I ran down the outside wall of the chimphouse in an awkward crouch. Then I popped my head up in the playroom window.

Regis was still looking out the door, wondering where I went. But Jethro, poor guy, spied me immediately. His huge body erupted in excited convulsions. His great belly shook with delight. Arms flailing, feet bobbing, head going in circles, Jethro tried to push himself up onto all fours, but his enthusiasm proved too great. As if tethered to the earth by his tremendous size, he fell backwards into the caging with a crash. Regis looked over at his floundering friend, but Jethro was still too excited to direct him my way.

For one glorious moment, Jethro the chimpanzee was completely speechless.

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)