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)

My Time with the Chimps: An Introduction

In the summer of 2009, I spent ten weeks living and working at the Fauna Foundation, a sanctuary for abused and neglected animals just outside Montreal, Canada. Fauna is home to over one hundred animals of all shapes and sizes, but its most famous residents are a very special family of chimpanzees.

Fourteen years ago, these chimps were rescued from a biomedical laboratory. In the lab, they'd spent decades suffering through countless invasive surgeries like punch- and open-liver biopsies, dart-gun knockdowns and day after day of barren captivity. They’d been used as test subjects in vaccine trials, and injected with lethal human diseases such as hepatitis and HIV. Their lives had been utterly miserable and devoid of just about everything an ape requires to live a happy, dignified life. Some of them were driven psychotic by the experience.

But at Fauna, the chimps have begun to heal.  And what’s even more amazing it that they’ve begun to trust humans again. This is what my next book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, is all about. It’s a biography of the chimps and the woman who saved them, Gloria Grow, who continues to look after them to this day.

When I moved in to Fauna in 2009, thirteen troubled chimpanzees were living there. To honour that magic number, I'm going to post thirteen memories of my time with the chimps right here on The New Animalist, and on the Walrus Blog, as well. Posts will appear about once a week, as a countdown of sorts to publication. Come May, when the book will be in stores across North America, you should all feel a little closer to Fauna and the remarkable apes who live there.

Each post will be named after an individual chimp. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the mighty Jethro....