It is December the 23rd and I am thinking of a roast turkey with cranberry sauce and a steaming pile of delicious Brussels sprouts. Outside, through the frosted window pane is a world of the purest white, while inside, amongst the stacks of pillows, exists warmth, homely comforts and soft familiarity. Christmas presents lie stacked under a molting tree, guarded by my Golden Retriever. She lies curled up next to the fire with her nose inches away from a gift-wrapped bone. I am thinking of carols, snow flakes, walnuts and wine, but most of all, I am thinking of my family. I won’t be seeing them this year – again.
Usually I feel contented and privileged to wake up to the booming calls of Great Blue Turacos as they run around the canopy above my wooden hut. I always imagine that they must have just heard the funniest joke. What else could make a bird laugh so raucously? The early morning cat-like wails of crested hornbills and the pumping baritones of a distant male mona monkey serve to remind me that this will be another exciting day in the beautiful rainforests of West Africa.
It is Christmas, however, and I would rather be at home in England.
The primate sanctuary for which I work lies deep within the Nigerian forests, a place dedicated to the care and conservation of our world’s dwindling wildlife. Here we breed rare drill monkeys in multi-hectare forested enclosures. Lines of solar-powered electric fences keep the monkeys from crossing into the adjacent Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, but eventually the fences will come down and our residents will be free.
As well as the drills, we offer sanctuary to eleven chimpanzees, all of them orphans, wrenched from their mother’s dead or dying bodies by bush meat hunters when they were still just tiny bundles of fluff with outsized ears.
The chimps that made it to the sanctuary are lucky, I suppose, though it took each one a very long time to get through the psychological trauma of the terrible event which brought them here. They lead a pretty good life now within their big forested pen, and have friends to play with and trees to climb. They can paddle in forest streams, forage for bugs and throw rocks at passing fish and locals.
I want to send my parents a unique gift for Christmas but alas, the nearest shop, seven hours away by a 4×4, sells nothing but canned sardines and candles. This is not a region famed for native arts and crafts, but never fear – I have a plan.
I once read a magazine article about a series of experiments involving captive chimps, paint pots and paper. What a great idea. I will send my folks a Christmas card drawn by one of our guests. And so, armed with a notebook and a fist full of colored pencils I make my way towards the chimpanzee pen.
They greet me with the usual cacophony of excited screams and hoots, knowing that something entertaining is about to occur. I open the gate, enter, and make myself comfortable upon the dusty ground. It takes a few minutes before the chimps stop rushing back and forth like kiddies on Christmas Eve, but eventually, after a few minutes, they all calm down. We can now get down to the serious business of art. This is going to be fun.
I am soon surrounded by eleven fascinated animals as I demonstrate what it is I want them to do. They watch intently, mouths agape in concentration as, slowly, I draw a delicate flower. Osang, a six-year-old male, is the first to have a go. He gently takes the pencil from me and pulls the piece of paper towards him. “Bingo,” I think, “He’s got it.” But then he disappoints me by pushing the pencil up his nose and screwing the paper up into a ball (which he then consumes).
Then Jackie, who is ten, takes her turn. She is, in general, far smarter than the younger boys, and I have high expectations from her. I hand her a blue pencil and a fresh sheet and she starts to draw some scribbles. It’s not a Rembrandt but it’s nice in an abstract sort of way.
The rest of the chimps are now all huddled around Jackie in order to get a better look at her masterpiece. She is a shy animal by nature and all the attention is starting to make her a little nervous. She turns her back on the crowd but they persist, jostling for position and reaching out to touch the paper and pencil.
When Murphy, the biggest male, tries to snatch her work away she finally loses her cool, freaking out with a volley of kicks, punches and ear-splitting screams. The tranquility is broken as the other chimps abandon their reserve and bundle into the melee. I desperately try to calm the situation, but chimps are excitable animals, and refuse to listen to my pleas for order.
Osang grabs the paper, and thinking he must be in possession of something very important, sprints up the nearest tree, eight other chimps in hot pursuit. As a result, the artwork is totally destroyed and flutters to the ground like Christmas snow. Jackie, upset by this turn of events, takes her rage out on the remaining pencils, and before I can retrieve the pieces, Murphy has eaten them.
I salvage the largest scrap of paper from the ground; it has a few scribbles on it and is wet with chimpanzee saliva. Well, it’s not much, but at least I have something to send to England.
From now on I will limit my interactions with our chimps to observations. Chimpanzees, by their very nature and intelligence, have much to teach those who take the time to watch them, and they don’t need to learn anything new from the likes of me.
On the other hand, I could try pottery next time.