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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Life With Chimps

Air Date: Week of

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Africa’s bushmeat trade has claimed thousands of chimpanzees over the years, and left thousands more captive or orphaned. Sheila Siddle runs the largest chimpanzee refuge in the world, and is author of "In My Family Tree: A Life with Chimpanzees." She talks with host Diane Toomey about her efforts to save and rehabilitate the chimps of Africa.


TOOMEY: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Diane Toomey. There are times when animals are victimized by humans. And there are times when humans step into help. Such is the case in Zambia at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, the largest chimpanzee refuge in the world.

There, Sheila and David Siddle care for about 100 chimpanzees, rescued as orphans in the wild or from sometimes horrific conditions in captivity. Sheila Siddle has written a book about the refuge and her struggle to maintain it. It’s called "In My Family Tree: A Life With Chimpanzees." Siddle, now in her 70s, never intended to start a chimp refuge. But two decades ago, a baby chimp, she later named Pal, was brought to her cattle ranch. The dying animal had been rescued from poachers.

SIDDLE: And this baby chimp really and truly looked as though he was dying. His mouth at one side was split open two inches more than it should have been. It seemed as though they had tried to smash his teeth out with a hammer or something. And he smelled rotten. It nauseated me. But I took this baby and he put his little arms around me and I’m afraid it was love at first sight.

TOOMEY: Now, you had raised five children. So, you had a lot of experience in the nursery. But, how did you figure out how to take care of a chimpanzee?

SIDDLE: I knew absolutely nothing about chimpanzees. But he just acted like a baby. And, it was, obviously, he wanted love and attention. It’s just instinct. And I treated him like a human baby.

The first thing I did was started him on watered-down milk. And he went mad for that. And he developed this will to live again. And it was a roaring success from there on. Once he really got on well, once the smell had gone, and the infection had gone, he really made a lot of progress very fast.

TOOMEY: And how old was he when he came to you?

SIDDLE: We think he was probably about one and a half or two years old. He really was a baby.

TOOMEY: Chimps come to you in some pretty horrid physical conditions. And, if you could give me an overview of what you’re up against, physically, when these animals come to you.

SIDDLE: The real problem stems from logging, bush meat, and the things that are happening in Central and West Africa. The animals are all being killed for meat but they don’t eat babies.

The mother is shot out of a tree. She falls to the ground. This poor baby is grabbed away, probably shoved in a sack somewhere. They’re not fed properly. They’re obviously not given milk or anything like that. And they’re just carted around with people trying to smuggle them out of the country or sell them.

I mean the trauma for a little baby is terrible. And I’m terribly surprised that half of them live through it. But, in actual fact, they don’t. They say for every one that reaches me, there’s ten dead in the bush somewhere.

TOOMEY: Once the word was out that you were taking chimps, it seemed like the floodgates opened.

SIDDLE: [LAUGH] How right you are.

TOOMEY: So, tell me about those early days when you weren’t quite in the organized state that you’re in now.

SIDDLE: It was rather horrific. Suddenly, we got another chimp, then another, and another. In 1985, we actually had five chimps. We had no idea what to do with them. And we realized that this was far beyond anything we knew about. So we tried to find a home for them. We went to the Gambia and saw the Brewers who were rehabilitating chimps there, and asked them if they could take ours. And they said, "Very sorry, we can’t."

And we returned home and realized we were stuck with five chimps. So, the thought of keeping them in cages is not very good. So Dave designed this wall. And we built this seven-acre walled enclosure, which was open in 1988. And, at that time, we put 19 chimps into it.

TOOMEY: Today, with almost 100 chimps and counting, what would I see if I visited Chimfunshi?

SIDDLE: Around my house, you’d see a seven-acre enclosure, a fourteen-acre enclosure, a five-acre enclosure. But we have lots of youngsters slowly growing up, and forming family groups with them. New ones arriving I’m trying to integrate with these.

We cannot return them to their country of origin because they would just be eaten. If you go beyond the boundary of our farm, we have purchased 13,000 acres. And we have built two 500-acre enclosures. And, this is our way of trying to give them back semi-freedom. I know it’s not total freedom. But, it’s impossible to give them their total freedom now. They’ve been humanized. They’re four times stronger than a human being.

TOOMEY: Chimps are funny and dangerous. And sometimes they’re funny and dangerous at the same time. And I’m thinking here of Charlie, one of your biggest, if not your biggest, at the time, male chimp who went on a rampage. And, you thought that Charlie was going to attack your husband.

SIDDLE: Oh yes. We were moving them to this new five-acre enclosure. And, because Charlie was doing all these war dances and everything else, all the people that were with me got into one of the cages to keep out of his way. And then Dave walked around the corner. And Dave saw Charlie coming. And Charlie was getting bigger and bigger as he got closer to him. And Dave just put his head down. He wasn’t looking at Charlie. And Charlie goes rushing up to him, stops a few seconds, then throws his arms around him, and gives him a big hug and big kiss. It was a real anti-climax.

TOOMEY: You write about one beautiful moment where chimp Milla, who’s been living in a bar in Tanzania. She’s addicted to cigarettes and alcohol. And it’s been years since she’s seen one of her own kind. And I believe Jane Goodall, actually, brought her to you. And there’s a moment where she reaches out and touches--

SIDDLE: Sandy.

TOOMEY: Another chimp, Sandy. Tell me about that moment.

SIDDLE: They had been ignoring each other for a while. But, this particular day, she put her hand out. But, he jumped when her hand touched him. And, she did it again. Her hand sort of touched his shoulder, and he stood still. And then she started just slowly stroking him. It was wonderful to see.

And then I started to hear this giggling from the both of them. And, just to see her rows of fat wobbling about while she was laughing, did me wonders.

TOOMEY: And, the last time that she had touched another chimp, you surmise, was when she was touching the body of her dead mother.

SIDDLE: Who was in a meat market, yes.

TOOMEY: I’d like you to read a paragraph from your book. This takes place on the day you moved the chimps into the new 500 acre enclosure where you write, "The chimps would be able to get as close to freedom as was possible for them." In this passage, you’re about to release Pal, the first orphaned chimp that had come to you, and this is 18 years after that fateful day.

SIDDLE: It had been 18 years since he’d come to us. A desperate little chimpanzee, his face torn open, his teeth smashed, and his body racked by dehydration and diarrhea. God, I’ll never forget the smell. If death has a smell, that was it. Nobody thought Pal could survive.

And, on some of those lonely nights when I sat up nursing him or cuddling him through his nightmares, I had my doubts, too. Yet, there he was, big and robust, with only those scars and that droopy lower lip to remind us of how sad he’d once looked. My heart was in my throat. I can feel it there now.

As I placed a hand on the sliding metal door and peered into Pal’s cage, I leaned in close, "I promised you this," I whispered, "Now off you go." And with that, I pulled open the door and gave Pal his freedom. He stepped through the opening onto the sandy earth, followed very closely by Toby and Spencer, who immediately puffed themselves up to enormous sizes and began to display, waving sticks and stashing about as the crowd clapped and cheered.

Before Pal joined them, however, he turned to look back at me, staring straight into my eyes. And maybe it was my imagination but, for just one magical second, I believe he was thanking me.

TOOMEY: Tell me about Pal today. How is Pal doing?

SIDDLE: Pal is wonderful. He’s out there with all those other chimps, doing what chimps do best, displaying and, on occasions, challenging the boss. And, he’s got his girlfriends now. And, it’s just wonderful to see them walking out through the forests and then disappearing back into the forests again.

TOOMEY: Sheila Siddle is author of "In My Family Tree: A Life With Chimpanzees." Sheila Siddle, thanks for joining us today.

SIDDLE: Thank you very much for having me. I have thoroughly enjoyed it.


TOOMEY: To hear more of my interview with Sheila Siddle, and to see pictures of her chimps, go to our website at www.loe.org.


Audio Features

The power of family life – mp3 | realaudio

To those we couldn't save – mp3 | realaudio

My baby, the hippo – mp3 | realaudio

Mental rehabilitation – mp3 | realaudio



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