Chimps and Their Keeper


I saw a thick layer of gook in the bottom of the bucket when I finished feeding the patas monkeys. The overly ripe papaya and avocados had concocted a sludge with pineapple juice, wilted cabbage leaves and the seeds of watermelon and bell pepper. I turned the plastic bucket upside down and gave it a good thunk against the ground to dislodge the goo. This produced a louder sound than I expected. When I turned it back over, I saw a three-inch crack leading down from the rim. My heart sank. I’d just broken the only bucket neither missing a chunk nor glued back together into a misshapen bucket-esque container.

It was about three weeks into my month-long volunteer stay at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center (UWEC) in Entebbe, Uganda. Incredibly, there are only a couple wildlife rescue sanctuaries in this country teeming with phenomenal wildlife which includes many endangered species, and no facilities to rehab orphaned or injured animals back into the wild. A small plot of land on the shore of Lake Victoria shelters rescued animals of all species, displaying them in lush, semi-natural habitat enclosures after they are nursed back to health in quarantine. I overheard numerous Ugandan visitors ask questions such as, “What are the striped horses?” (i.e. zebras) and “What time are the gorillas fed?” (meaning the chimpanzees). The center was definitely providing some education. School children visited in droves, calling to the chimpanzees on their island by name, “Zacky!” “Sarah!” “Shaka!”

I came to the UWEC because I could realize a lifelong dream – working with chimpanzees – at an affordable price. The zookeeper, Kayondo, I learned later, had sized me up immediately with perfect accuracy when I arrived, and knew I would not enjoy cleaning the cages – the nighttime enclosure for the chimps, the two enclosures for the psychotic baboon, Ngugi, and the small cage for the injured patas monkey, Maria. Instead, I made porridge for the chimps’ breakfast and dinner, and cut boatloads of fruits and vegetables to feed all the primates.

When I tell my acquaintances I volunteered at a zoo in Uganda, many ask if it’s like the Denver Zoo, a state-of-the-art facility near my home in the U.S. While it’s a perfectly reasonable question, I’m at a loss as to how to answer. Where do I even begin?

Let’s start with, “No.” No concrete, only mud paths, washed out and crumbling. No lighting. I could walk around the entire zoo in 10 minutes. Animals escape, animals die without explanation. Food supplies are erratic, and no scales or measured containers to divvy it up from the food depot into milk crates. Padlocks are old, get stuck, and sometimes enclosures have to be abandoned because they are inaccessible. Only one knife with a handle still attached for cutting bucketfuls of produce for the primates. One spoon to stir the pots of porridge. All pots were dented and scorched or leaking. The gas cook stove had only one working burner. The observation chairs were broken and rickety. The hose to the baboon cage was punctured in numerous spots, patched with strips of rubber glove. And I had cleverly broken the one fully intact bucket in the chimp house.

The UWEC website touts the center as a “model institution” and one of the most “respected” of its kind in and beyond Africa. But they can’t even get an egg incubator to work – electricity cuts out daily in rolling black-outs, no generator, no batteries.

Every day we made porridge sweetened with sugar for the chimps and poured it into their eager open mouths. It wasn’t that they couldn’t figure out how to drink from a cup, they simply couldn’t be trusted not to throw porridge all over one another and fight viciously over the cups.

I begged my new friend, Robert, who was working as an intern zookeeper without pay, to skim off the chimps’ food, to serve himself a cup of their porridge, eat one of the bananas, but he never warmed to this idea. Instead, he often went without breakfast, cleaning cages, hauling crates of watermelon and cassava with his skeleton arms, raking and bagging cut grass on an empty stomach, maybe a little tea sloshing around in there to curb the hunger with caffeine.

I never understood how the zoo expected him to work all day for days on end and live without pay. He is one of the rare Ugandan souls to complete a university education. Yet this honor isn’t enough to land an honest job, he is to have several years experience first. A chicken and egg. Experience comes by providing free labor, which is a ticket only to a roulette’s chance for a paying job, as long as you have the right allies. He has no one to help him. This is Uganda. His parents barely feed themselves, sometimes they ask him for money which he cannot supply, hanging his head in self-punishing shame.

If I arrived early at the chimp house before the zookeepers, I sat outside next to the night enclosure where I could interact with the chimps through the metal caging. One of the first things that surprised me about the chimps was the feel of their bodies. The adults could fit their frighteningly strong, thick fingers with razor sharp fingernails through the caging, and five-year old Nepa could still fit her entire hand past the wrist to shake hands with me and play.

I didn’t expect their hands and feet to be so tender on the palms and soles. The tops of their fingers are calloused, but the insides are like calf-skin leather. I could reach in with my fingers and scratch the ears and backs of the chimps who pushed their bodies against the caging to receive my grooming. Their hair was coarse and thick, but did not, as many people have wondered, have any particularly strong smell.

Sometimes they would elongate their lips to reach my finger through the caging and suck gently (crosswise, no sane human would poke a finger straight toward their teeth, for they could bite it off) and their lips were indescribably soft, their warm tongues occasionally taking a tentative lick. This is when I could look directly into the chimps’ eyes as they sat waiting for porridge. I was surprised at how long they would hold my gaze as I looked into the brown depths of evolution.

An older chimp, Ruth, was fascinated with my tennis shoes. I put my feet up to the caging and she poked them with her finger, moving her head side to side rapidly with intense excitement and curiosity. One day I took my shoe off so she could access as much as is possible through the square holes of the caging. I was prepared for some damage to the shoe, but not for how difficult it would be to get it back … a human is lucky to win a tug-of-war with a chimp! When I told Robert about it, he widened his eyes, shocked that I would risk something so valuable.

After a few weeks, Kayondo asked me to write a couple paragraphs about what I had learned volunteering at the UWEC. I know he wanted me to say something about zookeeping, about handling the animals or the chores and logistics. But I only witnessed and participated in those things. What I learned about was chimpanzees. I learned to recognize them first by their idiosyncratic behaviors rather than by their faces, which takes a while to tell one apart from another.

Onapa, for example, the youngest male, is full of curiosity. If a chimp is playing with a turtle or a stick, or sugar cane, it will be Onapa. He strikes the most relaxed and most human-like poses, crossing his arms and legs. Aluma is habitually solitary on the island, passing the afternoon in the shade of a particular bush. Pearl is easy to spot because she is always clapping her hands to get attention. Nepa is always the chimp in the tire swing. As the littlest chimp in the group of eleven, she is often chased and harassed. One day I tickled her in the ribs and under her arms; she panted and laughed like a little girl.

Sarah is a champion hoarder. She fills her hands and folds a hairy arm to carry food in the crook of her elbow like a basket. When her arms are full, she walks along picking up carrots and chunks of cassava with her feet, tucking them under her toes until she can hardly walk, hobbling back to the bushes on her heels. She and Nepa were brought to the UWEC at the same time. Sarah was confiscated at the airport in terrible condition. She had been kept tied-up with a rope around her waist in a witch doctor’s house. Sometimes Sarah and Nepa romped around the night enclosure wrestling with each other, the sound of their heavy feet slapping on the cement floor echoing through the chimp house.

Few enrichment items existed for the chimps. We fashioned popsicles from plastic water bottles scavenged from the trash cans, filling them with sweet porridge and freezing. The chimps then had to extract the treat. (Zookeepers removed the discarded plastic from the island the following day.) We would make 13 bottles for 11 chimps, knowing that Matoke, the alpha male, would secure more than one for himself. I considered him the most beautiful chimpanzee in the group, so muscular and defined, with a gorgeous shaggy coat. And to think he arrived at the UWEC emaciated and covered in lice. He could be terrifyingly intimidating, but also tender with little Nepa. I was frightened by his raw power as he slammed open the metal door to access the island each morning, yet when sitting alone, he seemed to be the one most seriously contemplating life and his existence and what all these items around him in the world could possibly mean. He could stare holes into anything, waiting for enlightenment. Onapa was the most experiential chimp; Matoke was the most thoughtful.

At the late afternoon feeding, I would again beg Robert to skim a little off the top. Just a couple pieces of fruit or vegetable. Who would notice? Instead, he walked home on his pencil legs and lay in bed exhausted, many nights with an empty stomach, listening to his only personal enrichment item – a radio. The zoo provided lunch for its employees, which was often his one and only meal of the day. I still message him sometimes and say I hope he found a good dinner. Many times he replies, “My answer would only upset you.”

I told him once about an unfortunate incident that befell me. He said, “How I wish this could have happened to me.”

“I would never wish this upon you!”

“But you are too delicate to handle this circumstance. Whereas I can handle any situation life can throw at me.”

“Too bad it is not throwing you sweetened porridge,” I said. I couldn’t explain as I stood next to him that I wanted to chuck everything I owned into the moat around the chimps’ island to sink to the murky, mossy bottom, along with all the opportunities in America I can pick off branches like blossoms. Sometimes monitor lizards swam in the moat leaving beautiful, glassy ripples in their wake. One time Robert and another keeper caught fish in the moat to feed an injured pelican. They threw a net in the water, slowly hauling it back to shore. Robert’s dark black skin lay on the water’s surface, quivering as the net approached. He grabbed the trapped fish and threw them out onto the ground where they flopped around, restlessly suffocating. We found one with a mouthful of teensy tiny fish, smaller than lady bugs. A birthing ground right there in her mouth. What a world, I thought. Chimps sloshing porridge in their mouths; a fish’s mouth sheltering baby fish; and Robert’s as hollow as his reflection. We threw the mother back to the water.

Before I left, another American volunteer and I went to the outdoor market to buy clothes as enrichment for the chimps. We had read that primates love to play with clothing. When we stopped at a display where the ladies offered reasonable prices to the mzungus, we asked simply for the largest sizes they had. They scrutinized us, a couple of 120-pound girls, and held up more petite items until we explained the clothes were not for us. We selected two skirts in the largest sizes, and as we pointed to some blouses, the vendor ladies cautioned against our choices … that didn’t match at all, what about this one? We didn’t have the heart to tell them we were purchasing these clothes for chimpanzees and didn’t care whether or not they matched. On the side, I searched for a raincoat for Robert who showed up late for work any morning it rained, for he couldn’t afford to buy protection from this condition in a country with two rainy seasons.

Back at the zoo, we threw a shirt and skirt across the moat onto the chimp island. Onapa and Nepa rushed to claim and investigate them. Nepa held the shirt up to her face, and seemed to know immediately she should pull it over her head, though she first selected the arm hole rather than the neck hole. Soon Sarah leapt at Nepa, grabbed the shirt and sprinted toward a tree. Nepa chased her and they spiraled up the tree trunk. They fought up in the branches, and eventually Sarah disappeared across the treetops and down into the bushes. Nepa stayed up in the tree and cried. She cried and cried, her forlorn voice traveling far across the zoo grounds. The one toy she’d ever been given, stripped away.

Despite her sadness, Robert and I couldn’t stop laughing at Onapa and his enamored play with the pink skirt. We called to our favorite boy, “Onapa!” who was rolling in the grass on the island, imprisoned, some would say, in this dilapidated zoo that might garner pity or disapproval from Westerners. He had been rescued from near death and dehydration and nursed back to happy health; neither broken knives and padlocks, leaky porridge pots, power outages, nor emaciated zookeepers were of concern to Onapa. He kicked the skirt in the air, somersaulted beneath it, and caught it on his feet as it fluttered down.

We had saved some fresh mangoes, one of the chimps’ favorites, for a special afternoon snack for them. Robert fetched the fruit from the kitchen, shooing away the pesky vervet monkeys that roamed the UWEC grounds. He thrust his malnourished arm into the broken bucket, the crack now threatening the entire rim, felt the roundness and heft of a large mango, and threw it to Onapa, who caught it in mid-air like a baseball. We cheered. “These chimps,” he said to me, “they can do one thing that brightens your whole day.”




Published in The MacGuffin  Volume XXIX No. 3





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