Chimpanzees and me

I know this is an albatross diary, but I want to explain why I am traveling to Los Angeles and leaving my albatross observation for the next 11 days in the capable hands of my sister, Cindy.

For 27 years I have been a docent at the Los Angeles Zoo.  The docent training program there is one of the best, if not the best in the country, a 23-week training course taught in conjunction with UCLA Extension.  If you are the kind of person who is interested in all types of animals, this is the perfect type of education; you also meet other people with the same interests, the sort who love to watch those nature shows about animals most people have never even heard of and don’t care about.  We zoo people care!

I go back to Los Angeles twice a year to get some volunteer hours in and to catch up with the latest zoo collection events: births, deaths, acquisitions.  I also go to visit my friends, both human and chimp.  Since I started as a docent, I have worked primarily with the chimpanzees.  I began as an observer for ChimpanZoo, a project run by the Jane Goodall Institute to study the behavior of captive chimps, and then I moved into enrichment.  With other volunteers I worked to provide novel experiences for the chimps, usually connected to the search for food.  For example, we stuffed little holes in dead tree limbs with food items, then left branches to be modified as tools for digging the treats out.  The two best at this were Toto, the old man of the exhibit, and little Gracie, just a few years old.

Toto died a few years ago, leaving his many human admirers missing his toothless smiles and exuberant greetings.  He loved to race people from one wall to the other in the back of the exhibit, but he habitually cheated by running back to the start before touching the wall.  I once joined a group of people for an evening behind-the-scenes tour at the chimp exhibit.  Toto scanned the crowd, saw me, and did a double-take, as though he could not believe his good fortune at seeing my familiar face.  Immediately he started into his pant hoot routine, beginning with slow, soft hoots, ending with a loud, raucous display.  I felt deeply honored.  I understand that when Jane Goodall met Toto, she was totally charmed.

This is a photo my friend took last year when I visited the chimps.  The one on the right is Jean, Gracie’s daughter.  Gracie is now in her early twenties.  Jean always comes over to sit by me when I am at the exhibit.  Zoe is the other chimp, and she is looking at her reflection in my mirror.  They are both pretty young ladies, teenagers as of this year.  I remember them as babies, just as I remember seeing Gracie for the first time with her mother, Pandora.  Gracie had another daughter this year; I am looking forward to seeing the two of them.  And I will sit with Jean, and whoever else might join her.  I don’t need to say anything to Jean, she seems to just enjoy my company.

Did I say I am a very lucky person?

Cathy, Zoe and Jean
photo by Anita Machlis

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One Response to Chimpanzees and me

  1. Mona Gardner says:

    Enjoy your trip. Sounds wonderful!

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