One of the most difficult parts of mothering an orphaned chimpanzee is really that you become just that -- a mother.
While I was at the Primatology Congress in August, I got to sit down and have a nice lunch with my mentor and one of the busiest women in primatology, Debby Cox. It was she who first sent me to Goma, scared, alone, to take care of three little chimps who were also scared and alone.
Although I bonded with all of my chimpanzees while I was in Goma, the first chimpanzee to ever approach me was Etaito. He was the only male chimpanzee we had at the time, named for the district he was confiscated in.
You should always realize when you meet a chimpanzee who is aggressive and scared and protecting him/herself that it has already had a hard life. Infant chimpanzees are typically sheltered by their mothers -- protected and nursed and not weaned until the age of 4. They live in cohesive communities, and never have to worry about the outside world outside of their families.
But Etaito -- only a year when I first met him -- was viciously scared. He would approach any strangers with a fortitude that merely masked the fear he felt when they “invaded” his home.
In the morning, I would sit out on the front porch as the chimpanzees were eating, eating myself. I liked apples -- and they were easy to get at the local market. Etaito liked apples too, and would sit on my lap, often just taking pieces of apple from my hands, or from my mouth! Some days he’d come to the window of my room in the afternoon, and watched as I cleaned up or did my little exercises.
Etaito was the first. Not the only, but definitely the first. The first real chimpanzee that I felt trusted me as much as I trusted him.
I found out during my lunch with Debby at IPS that Etaito had died. Of meningitis, a curable disease in a chimpanzee. He had died right after I left the sanctuary, but no one had told me.
I’ll admit, I cried into my sandwich. It was unexpected, and the grief still lingers with me, welling in my eyes as I look through my photos to pick ones to go in this entry.
This entry is for Etaito. And for all the infant chimpanzees that are orphaned, and don’t make it.
There will be many more chimpanzees I take care of in my career, but Etaito will always be the first.
Etaito during morning feeding
Exhausted after an afternoon of play!
Chimpanzee Pedicures are the best kind