Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper: Coming Back Home

by | February 11th, 2015

Just when I’ve started to feel I’ve found my place here at Lola ya Bonobo, it is already time to depart. I truly miss my pets and the animals I care for at Oakland Zoo, but I really wish I had a little more time here. Particularly since I don’t really speak any French, it was hard to get to know people initially. However, after a week or two, we all became comfortable enough to fill in language barriers with hand gestures. Plus, I’ve picked up a little more French during my stay. It’s more than enough to build friendships. I’ve also become more comfortable to jump in and offer help when I can.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

On grounds, there is a never-ending supply of bamboo, I can’t believe how big it can get! The diameter of the bigger stalks is too large for me to reach both of my hands around and have them touch. In the past at Oakland Zoo, I’ve cut bamboo and drilled holes into it to hide peanut butter and jam for the sun bears and siamangs. The cost of these food items is very expensive in DRC, it is not realistic for me to suggest that. However, the bonobos do receive a daily supply of peanuts. I suggested making peanut puzzle feeders with sections of bamboo. Raphael (veterinarian) and Emile (keeper) help me to do this.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

While the sanctuary does have a drill on hand, there is no saw. Emile takes a machete to cut the bamboo sections. I want to offer to do it, so Emile can get back to his work and not have to baby-sit me. Raphael asks him in French if I can do the chopping. Emile’s translated reply is, “Sure, if you want to cut yourself, no problem.” He’s teasing…a little bit. I think. It’s also definitely a cultural issue, women don’t use tools like machetes here. I want to protest, but I am pretty accident-prone anyways. I’m just going to let this one go.

When we have seven bamboo sections of different sizes, Emile leaves and says it is okay for me to drill the holes. There are several other keepers in the area and I am uncomfortably aware they are all watching me drill, which isn’t easy. The dull bit isn’t big enough to make a good size hole for the peanuts, so I have to drill several times for one hole on the curved surface of the bamboo. Sometimes the power button on this ancient device gets stuck and the drill keeps going at full blast, all on its own. When I finish and Raphael and I are inspecting the holes, Nsimba, one of the women who prepares the bonobo diets here, says, “Strong!” and points to me, flexing her arms. I thank her and try to be cool about it, but I’m secretly giddy, hoping I’ve inspired female empowerment. If only a little bit.

Untitled3Raphael and I take the bamboo to the juvenile nursery, after filling them with a lot of peanuts. The reaction varies quite a bit. Some of the juveniles immediately use the bamboo to display or as a ladder to climb. A few immediately find something better to do, but four are all about them. It’s pretty amusing to watch when they accidentally get several peanuts to fall out, as you can see them realize what it’s all about. Singi spends a good 25 minutes with his (an eternity for a juvenile bonobo mind). This young male is referred to by the Mamas as being “cray cray,” some American slang they’ve picked up. Before the adult female, Kisantu (mentioned in an earlier blog), was put into the juvenile enclosure to recover from illness, it was safe to go in with the juveniles. Well, sort of. These bonobos are around 4-6 years old and are not only getting really strong, but also *realizing* how strong they are. They’re relentless and Singi is the roughest. I only went into the juvenile enclosure once before Kisantu was moved there- Singi gave me quite the run for my money. Anyone who thinks it is a good idea to have an ape as a pet should have to spend one hour with Singi. They’d opt for a goldfish pretty quickly.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Now, to see Singi thoughtfully turning over the bamboo, poking at the hole where he knows the peanuts could come out, he is a different animal. After the first minute or so, in proper bonobo fashion, he has sex with it. After that, his entire focus is on turning it over and over, at different angles, to get the peanuts.

My last full day at the sanctuary is a Sunday, which I’m happy about because it is bread and butter day. During a time when the sanctuary was getting charged astronomical prices for produce (see previous blog post that talks about the seed distribution program), they needed a way to make sure the bonobos were getting enough calories. The bonobos were supplemented with bread rolls and butter. By butter, I mean a very soft margarine that comes in bulk tubs and is produced in Kinshasa. The bonobos *love* it. Now that the sanctuary is getting a better deal on produce, they still offer the bread and butter one time a week as a special treat. Similar techniques are used in zoos as well. For example, at Oakland Zoo the sun bears get a treat mix sprinkled throughout their exhibit that contains peanuts, dried fruit, plain popcorn and cereal. This encourages foraging behavior and makes it worthwhile for the bears to put forth the effort to seek it. Also, who doesn’t like getting “fun food” every once in a while?

Bread and butter day!

Bread and butter day!

11

A Group 1 bonobo hits the jackpot on the bread treat.

Here at the sanctuary, the bonobos definitely go a little nuts on bread and butter day. When the media talks about bonobos (which is pretty rare), they love to refer to them as the “Make love, not war ape.” This is very much an oversimplification based on bonobos using sex to diffuse social tensions, but no one would use that phrase on bread and butter day. While there still are a few bonobos having sex and no serious violent aggression breaks out, it is mostly every bonobo for his or herself. The most dominant bonobos can be seen carrying handfuls of the torn-up rolls. The keepers try their best to make sure there is enough for everyone and spread it out as far as they are able, but there is still a lot of displaying and loud vocalizations. The human equivalent would be someone sprinkling a large amount of money over a busy city street.

I can’t put into words how grateful I am for my short time here. The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t for everyone. There are a lot of political issues, cultural tensions and frequent violent outbursts in the country to protest the government. The U.S. government travel warnings’ website continues to advise Americans not to come here. You also have to worry about illness, like the multiple strains of malaria found here. One form, cerebral malaria, attacks the brain and kills you in days if not caught and treated properly. Even smaller things, like sitting on the porch at evening to eat dinner means you have to be okay with bugs the length of your hand possibly flying blindly right at you and bouncing off your head. However, I feel I’ve only become a better person for being exposed to a style of living very different from the country I grew-up in. Also, at least for me, the benefits of being here far outweigh the costs or risks.

Untitled11The conservation status of the bonobo is bleak. Their remaining range is only one section of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is estimated there are 5,000 left, but no one can say for sure as it is too dangerous to complete a wildlife census in parts of their range. While hunting or keeping a bonobo comes with a severe punishment (10 years in prison and/or an $8,500 fine), it’s a big country with a lot of other issues going on to deal with. Bonobos continue to be actively hunted and slaughtered for meat, witchcraft practices and to capture young infants to sell on the black market. Being the only sanctuary available for orphaned bonobos to go to, Lola ya Bonobo is truly a place worthy of recognition and support. If you would like to learn more about the sanctuary or find out how you can help, please visit: www.friendsofbonobos.org.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper “Lola ya Bonobo” Paradise of the Bonobos

by | February 4th, 2015
One of the many beautiful Congolese plants.

One of the many beautiful Congolese plants.

A fledgling we found water-logged in the water filtration pool, he was unable to get out. He sat very calmly on my finger, until he had preened his feathers dry.

A fledgling we found water-logged in the water filtration pool, he was unable to get out. He sat very calmly on my finger, until he had preened his feathers dry.

I’ve been here almost two weeks now and still have not really established a daily routine. The nursery bonobos are always in need of some socializing and that’s pretty much my favorite thing I’ve done in my life thus far, so I always make time for that. However, seeing how the keepers manage the adult bonobo groups is also a great learning opportunity. Bonobo society is so complicated, the behavioral signals they send to each other are so subtle. From a glance, you are just watching a group of bonobos lounging after a feeding and it looks like they’re lazily hanging out together. Watch them more closely and you will notice a male is several feet outside the inner group and that he looks up quickly whenever someone approaches him. He is low-ranking and is never sure when someone will come to remind him of this. Towards the center of the group, young bonobos play wrestle with each other, but all of a sudden it gets too rough for the little one and she cries out in protest. An adult female picks her up and they have sex. It is still weird for me to see bonobos use sex in this manner, regardless of gender or age, to calm tension. Next one young bonobo picks up a plastic bottle (used by the keepers to hand the bonobos water through the fence when they want to draw them in for closer observation). The bonobo leans on the plastic bottle and runs right by the group, pushing it against the ground like a child pushing a toy car. This is a display to show-off and it makes a really loud noise. Some of the bonobos look, but none react. They’re all taking note though.

A species of egret found all over the sanctuary

A species of egret found all over the sanctuary

The path surrounding the perimeter of the sanctuary.

The path surrounding the perimeter of the sanctuary.

Another perk of walking the 1.5 miles around the sanctuary to observe the adult bonobos is seeing the other wildlife that lives on the grounds. Lizards, bugs, birds and amphibians are everywhere. One of my favorite species of snakes, the Gabon viper, can also be found here. They are very shy and usually hide under forest brush, camouflaging perfectly. In ecology, the usual rule of thumb is that the larger the individuals in a species are, the fewer there are and the more spread out they are. Another reason seeing a Gabon viper is unlikely, as they are a large snake and therefore more rare. They only get up to around 3 feet in length, but have a very thick girth, as do other terrestrial snakes.

One species that I would say is as socially complicated as the bonobos, just in a different manner, are the army ants. When I spent three months in Uganda, they were there as well and I honestly didn’t care for them much.

One of the many butterfly species found here.

One of the many butterfly species found here.

Some mushrooms growing through the crack in a bench.

Some mushrooms growing through the crack in a bench.

We would usually find a place to sit and watch the chimpanzees, but if you didn’t notice the army ants marching through, they would be climbing up your legs and before you knew it, you were getting bit everywhere! Here at the sanctuary, the grounds have well-kept paths and so the ants’ presence is much more obvious. When on the move, the ants form a long line and the workers stream by. To protect them, guards are posted all along both sides of the line, with huge pinchers poised and ready. It’s easy enough to jump over the line, but even walking within a couple feet of it will cause the guards to break away from the line and fan out to charge the intruder.

An African millipede.

An African millipede.

A small frog, the size of a dime.

A small frog, the size of a dime.

A skink, hiding in the leaf litter.

A skink, hiding in the leaf litter.

Besides critters, you also see some crazy looking plants in DRC. I would never describe myself as a “plant person” per se, my repeated disastrous attempts at my balcony garden back home confirm this.Here though, some of the flowers look like they are straight out of a Dr. Seuss book and should have names like “Snarfalamdoodle.” They’re bright, beautiful and crazy! Competing with the flowers are the caterpillars. They come in every neon color, with insane hair designs, signaling to predators that they are toxic to eat. Seeing a neon orange caterpillar with a black mohawk, you think, “I get it: No touchy.”

Depending on the time of day, walking the perimeter can mean seeing many bonobos or none at all. In the afternoon, they usually go into the forest to rest where it is a bit cooler. I have yet to consider the walk a waste of time though, as the local wildlife never disappoints.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 8

by | February 3rd, 2015

It was another quiet day at the sanctuary. I went down to the daily morning meeting with all the staff, as a sign of respect mostly. The meeting is in French, so I don’t get much out of it. I sort of notice the director, Pierrot, has a lot to say this morning, but I don’t catch any of it and today no one offers to translate. Not that big of a deal.

From left to right: Claudine Andre (founder), Fanny Minesi (manager), me and below: Raphael Belais (veterinarian). The poster is in Lingala and is stating that being convicted of killing a bonobo is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $8,500 fine (a new law instated two months ago).

From left to right: Claudine Andre (founder), Fanny Minesi (manager), me and below: Raphael Belais (veterinarian). The poster is in Lingala and is stating that being convicted of killing a bonobo is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $8,500 fine (a new law instated two months ago).

I head to the nursery for a little bit, but then decide to be present for the Group 1 feeding. I sit on the bank of the large pond that runs alongside one perimeter of the enclosure and watch the bonobos interact. They’re all hanging out and waiting to be fed, but no keepers come. I’m not entirely sure what is going on, but it probably is not note-worthy. Nothing really happens at a set time in Congo. Pasha, the head groundskeeper, comes up and says hello. He knows about as much English as I do French (aka basic phrases), but he always comes to talk to me anyways. With the help of hand signals, we exchange a little back and forth about the bonobos. He then asks when I am going back to America, I tell him in one week. He’s quiet and then says, “Congo, Congo, Congo.” I reply, “J’adore Congo!” (“I love Congo!”). His face is very serious when he says, “Problems. Congo est difficile.” Congo is difficult. I nod empathetically, but I’m not sure what to say. It seems like he wants to discuss something, but we have no way to do it. It’s frustrating, because I’m dying to know what’s on his mind. Is he just referring to the turbulent history of the country? We’re both quiet for a minute or two and watch the bonobos, then he tells me he is leaving and we say goodbye.

Later that night, Gaspard and I are talking before dinner and I ask if he knows if Fanny is coming back from Kinshasa that night still. He says no, she decided to stay in town with her daughter and keep her home from school, because of the demonstrations. “Huh?” I ask, feeling like a ditz. Then Gaspard tells me what Pierrot had been telling all the staff that morning.

As mentioned in a previous blog, President Kabila is under strong international pressure to step-down at the end of his current term, which ends in December 2016. He’s not happy about this. On Sunday, there was supposed to be a vote in Congress on a new law that states a nation-wide census must be completed before the next presidential election. The Democratic Republic of Congo is huge, the second largest country in Africa, and a census has not been completed since the 80’s. To organize and complete a census will take years and only then would the campaigning for the presidency be able to start. Students in Kinshasa were planning to protest during the vote, but the government quickly did the vote on Saturday instead of Sunday and it passed. Today was Monday and people are angry, there have been protests. So far, it hasn’t escalated too badly. Several protesters were shot with rubber bullets and sent to the hospital, one police officer was stoned to death and one grocery store was looted. Traffic in the city is at an all-time high, most public transportation isn’t running (the reason why there was so few staff in the morning). All in all, it sounds pretty similar to protests that were happening all across the U.S. when I left, but being in a country that I haven’t lived in and having it happen somehow makes it seem worse. However, the sanctuary is far from Kinshasa and in a rural area. It’s safe here.

After dinner, Gaspard and I decide to walk around the perimeter of the sanctuary to look for wildlife that comes out at night. In particular, I really want to see a snake. We head off with head lamps and flashlights, but the night guard stops us. They speak in French for a long time, I don’t have any idea what’s happening. Finally, I learn that because of the tensions in the city, the military that are in the area are on high alert. The sanctuary’s guard doesn’t want us to walk along the perimeter, he’s worried we will run into one of them. He’s referring to the same military that we passed on our way to the lake a few days before. Apparently, they haven’t actually been in this area for very long and no one knows why they are here. Most of them come from eastern DRC, where a lot of people speak Swahili, not French.  These guards also don’t speak Lingala, which is the local language in this area that all the Congolese use to converse. I suddenly feel pretty stupid for saying, “M’bote!” to all the guards the day before, the Lingala word for “hello.”

We head back to the cabin and decide to ask the director about it the next day. I’ve learned that no matter how many people you ask about the conflict, you always get a different variation of the answer. Some are very nervous and full of warning, while others shrug it off and say it isn’t a big deal. I’m not sure if the situation is being blown out of proportion or if people are desensitized to the violence, because this happens every time there is any type of vote. I think it at least in part comes from no one knowing what will happen. Things can change so quickly or it can all blow over just as fast as it started. In some small way, I’m grateful to be exposed to the uncertainty, as I think I will be a better person for it. That being said, if my mom is reading this, I’m playing it on the safe side and staying in my room tonight.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 7

by | February 2nd, 2015

The past two days have been national holidays and so the staff at the sanctuary is at a minimum. For the initial week, the sanctuary had many people: Board members from the U.S. based Friends of Bonobos, a Belgian woman working with homeless children and of course Fanny, Raphael and Claudine. After the bonobos go to sleep, there has been so much to do in the evenings, quite the party. Now it is just Gaspard and I and the sanctuary seems very quiet. We make plans to do a couple day trips outside the sanctuary, as we’ve pretty much just been in our own little world here.

Lac de Ma Valle

Lac de Ma Valle

Claudine had suggested we go see the Lac De Ma Ville, a nearby lake with a walking path around it and a small restaurant. Papa Jean, who is in charge of the kitchen, is going into the nearby village to shop at the market, we tag along with him so he can show us the way.

I’m really excited and a little nervous. Everything I read about the DRC before coming here was largely negative. When I spoke to people who had already been here, they reassured me current conflict was in the eastern part of this huge country. It would be like worrying about going to California because of conflict in New York. However, if you look at travel warnings posted by the United States’ government, it basically tells you not to go to DRC. Everywhere you look in the Kinshasa area, you see armed guards, who are well-known for making up “fees” to pass certain places. I feel like I have no sense of what it is
really going to be like, with so much conflicting information. We have Papa Jean with us for the beginning part, so that’s good enough for me.

The First Black President of The United States of America

There is a fee to enter the lake area, 1,000 Congolese Francs, which is a little over one U.S. dollar. Gaspard and I take a $20 bill to exchange at the market, as that is the only size currency either of us have. Papa Jean goes to his usual market stand and after a lot of discussion, the woman exchanges the money for us. We also buy 5 mangostains from her (a tasty Congolese fruit) and she puts them in a plastic bag for us. I look at the picture on the bag and am surprised to see a familiar face: President Barack Obama. Underneath his picture and title, it reads, “The First Black USA President!!! Priemier Naicra USA President!!” I recall when I was in Uganda a few years back, there was also Obama merchandise everywhere. The woman selling us the fruit sees my reaction and laughs, saying, “Oui, Obama.”

There is a road that leads to the entry of the park, Papa Jean is going to walk that part with us as well. I’m really glad he does, as I look over under a tree and meet eyes with an armed guard who says sternly to me, “Vous-allez vous?” He wants to know where we are going. When Papa Jean intercedes and explains, the guard says in English, “It’s okay.” We continue to the entrance to the lake area and say goodbye to Papa Jean.

Vital’o, a Soda Bottled

Vital’o, a Soda Bottled

After walking another long, winding road, we come to the lake. It is beautiful and twisted, with lots of break-off points. We learn later it is an artificial lake, created by missionaries for whatever reason. We’ve already walked quite a long ways by the time we get down to the lake and we come to the restaurant. A woman appears and quickly ushers us to sit down. We weren’t planning on it, but decide to anyways and each order a Vital’o, a soda bottled in Kinshasa. It’s neon pink and tastes like artificial strawberry with a lot of sugar. In the scorching heat and after such a long walk, it’s delicious.

We’ve already walked a decent amount and it is 6km to walk around the entire lake. Not that bad, except it is so hot and muggy. Along the shoreline at the restaurant, there are some of the ricketiest looking pedal boats I’ve ever seen. They appear to be completely made of metal. They float? After some quick discussion, we opt to rent a boat instead of doing the walk. With each turn of the foot pedals, the boat makes a rusty metal noise that sounds like a dying animal, begging to be put out of its misery. It’s a blast and also somewhat cooler to be out on the water.

After the lake, we walk back down the road to the village. Instead of walking the rest of the way back to the sanctuary, we decide to buy a ride on a motorbike. I have reservations about this. I took a couple in Uganda and I know how fast the drivers can go. The roads here are so bad, I’m amazed anyone drives a motorbike on them at all. We face huge puddles and potholes, as well as broken debris on a muddy, slick road for the whole route. I decide to view it as an adventure and go for it. Also, I don’t feel like walking anymore that day.

We make it back safely to the sanctuary and the ride is actually quite pleasant, as the driver goes slow. Maybe it’s because of the dangerous condition of the road. Or maybe it is because my fingernails are digging into his side the whole way.

The pastors.

The pastors.

Inside the church. The men in the lighter green tops are the altar boys.

Inside the church. The men in the lighter green tops are the altar boys.

The next day, Gaspard and I attend church with Didier’s daughters. His job is assistant cook and commissary manager, so he gets in early everyday to get a head start. He walks us to his home, which is probably about two miles away. When little kids see us, they shout, “Mndele!” This is Lingala for “white person.” There is a different Lingala word for a person of Chinese descent and that is because there is a large Chinese presence in the Congo.

 

When we reach his home, it is sort of crazy. A woman is raking their dirt yard, while two little kids run around. One of them is only wearing a pink reflective vest, like something you would wear in America to be seen at night. Many adults come out of Didier’s home to see us, then disappear back inside. The home is cement and the same size as my studio apartment back home. How many people live there?

Two young women, teenagers, come out. Like most Congolese, they are dressed very well. One girl is all in white and is spotless. How on Earth does she do that? It is very humid here, but still. Everywhere you walk is a reddish clay-like dirt. I step outside and I’m instantly dirty and sweaty, but personal appearance is highly valued in the Congo. Everywhere you go, in the poorest areas (which is most areas), people are still wearing clean, well-fitted clothing. The women have the most colorful garments, either traditional or Western-style.

Didier had assured us his daughters go to church every Sunday, but that is not the vibe I am getting from them. Gaspard tries to converse with them in French, but they give short answers and seem a little annoyed. He translates to me only that they said, “It’s a really long walk.”

An hour and a half later, we have covered a lot of distance, all uphill. I feel like I am going to pass-out. It definitely was worth it though. The whole walk was well away from the main road, we follow small footpaths through many rural villages. Chickens and cats run freely everywhere, every so often someone has a stand out with goods to sell. Everything is so busy and alive, I wonder where everyone is going. A couple people ask Gaspard who we are and what we are doing. When they ask me, I just look to Gaspard as a way to ask for help. We later joke that people probably assumed we are a couple and come from a country where the woman isn’t allowed to talk to strangers.

along the walk to the church. The green hills in DRC remind me of the hills in Rwanda.

along the walk to the church. The green hills in DRC remind me of the hills in Rwanda.

By the time we are nearing the top of the hill, I feel so miserable that I’m no longer paying attention to saying “M’bote!” to those we pass. Gaspard nudges me and points up. A giant church steeple is coming out from the trees ahead. Thank.. Goodness.

On the way, we had passed several churches with people singing. They were all built like Didier’s home, looking more like a  cement shack than anything else. I had secretly yearned to just attend that church. Why did we have to walk so far?? Now I see why. The church is huge and beautiful, clearly coming from missionary funding. It is a Christian Catholic church. Being from Minnesota, I was raised Lutheran, but I have attended a few Catholic masses before and this one is very similar to those. The big difference is the dancing and color, a definite African flare on a Western tradition. Multiple pastors an altar boys come down the aisle at the start of the ceremony. A huge choir sings and sways in place, while the altar boys dance in a way that reminds me of my favorite 90’s boy bands. Any misery I was feeling is swept away in awe.

Another difference is audience participation in the songs. In the West, the congregation all firmly  clutches their hymnals and follows along with the song. Here, everyone knows the words to all the songs and they clap along. I try to follow along, but it is more complicated than clapping on the beat.

One of Didier’s daughters taps me and makes a motion  that says I can take pictures. Cool! We had been warned not to take pictures of anyone we saw in the village. I think the majority of Westerners that come to Congo are journalists, seeking a story that is probably too elaborate or complicated to make a 3 minute news clip. Probably because of this, most of the locals think foreigners who take their picture will sell them for thousands of dollars back home and so they get really mad if they see someone taking their picture. Apparently, that rule doesn’t apply to the church. When I glance around and see other congregation members taking pictures, I go for it.

The church we attended.

The church we attended.

When the service ends two hours later, we head back home. I can really tell the girls are eager to be rid of us. They walk in front of us and gossip in quiet Lingala. The journey back is much more pleasant, as it is all downhill. It only takes us about an hour to get back to the sanctuary. The girls walk in with us, looking to say hello to their father. Gaspard and I sit down and guzzle water. He offers them some and they take it, but neither drink . Hoooow are they not dying of thirst?

All in all, it is a trip that is definitely worth the effort, but maybe just one time. I in fake seriousness ask Gaspard if he wants to go again next Sunday and his smile freezes, but then we both break into laughter.

sk Gaspard if he wants to go again next Sunday and his smile freezes, but then we both break into laughter.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 5

by | January 30th, 2015

During my first tour of Lola ya Bonobo, I met the bonobos in Group 1 and Group 3, but it was getting too dark to walk out to Group 2’s enclosure. I was in such a daze from my arduous journey and in shock from actually being with the bonobos, I think I just happily trailed behind Fanny (the manager) and Raphael (the veterinarian) with a doofy smile on my face. Gaspard, the Belgian student staying at the sanctuary, was telling me about the sanctuary’s history, why different husbandry decisions had been made, etc. I tried to take in as much as I could, but I was far from my full-functioning mental capacity.

From left to right, Mama Yvonne (in charge of the nursery and a soon-to-be head keeper), me and Susie, ethologist on staff.

From left to right, Mama Yvonne (in charge of the nursery and a soon-to-be head keeper), me and Susie, ethologist on staff.

I thought we were headed back to the veranda of the kitchen area for dinner, but instead we went into the night house of the Group 1 bonobos. During the day, each group of bonobos has acres and acres of land to wander, but at night the bonobos are called into indoor quarters with hammocks. This is partially a safety issue, since there is only one keeper at night to keep an eye on all the bonobos and the night house is more secure. It also provides a good opportunity for the staff to get a closer look at the bonobos for medical reasons. While bonobos are known for being much more laidback and less aggressive than chimpanzees, they are still wild animals and still sometimes settle disputes with physical aggression. Females are the dominant sex and if an up-and-coming male gets a bit too big for his britches, the females will join together to correct the situation. It isn’t unheard of for a bonobo to get a serious bite wound or lose the tip of a finger in such an altercation. It is an important lesson for keepers to know, not to forget what an adult bonobo is capable of if they get frightened or upset by something.

However, we did not enter to the night house to see Group 1, as they had not been called inside yet. We were stopping by to check on Kisantu. This 16 year old female had recently fallen very ill. The keepers first noticed on December 22nd that she was walking in an odd fashion- she swayed, almost as if she was drunk. This caused some panic, as when a bonobo contracts EMCV (described in a previous post), she will show this exact symptom and the virus has historically been fatal within hours for bonobos at the sanctuary. Kisantu was brought inside with her daughter, Liyaka, and separated from the rest of the group so Raphael could get a closer look. She did not die, but her symptoms worsened and having her daughter present became too complicated. Although Liyaka would have “aunties” to look after her in Group 1 (other females in the group, who form very close bonds), the staff was hesitant to put a young juvenile back in the group without her mother keeping an eye on her. It was decided the daughter would be placed in the juvenile group of orphans while Kistantu was being treated.

As the days passed, Kisantu continued to worsen, eventually being too weak to get out of her hammock. There were suspicions that she had contracted a parasite that attacks the brain, which would explain her neurological symptoms. She was given the medicine for this, but still, nothing was for certain. Raphael decided he needed to get a sample of her blood to send to a company with the proper equipment to analyze, but to do so safely, Kisantu would need to be anesthetized. She was darted and the procedure was quick, but two hours then passed and she was not waking up, an unfortunate risk of anesthesia. Suddenly, she stopped breathing. Raphael had to physically breathe for her by standing behind her, placing his fingers under her ribs and moving the rib cage to work her diaphragm and lungs while someone ran to grab an oxygen tank and mask to give her very high levels of oxygen. Miraculously, it was successful and she recovered from the anesthesia. For several days, it seemed as though she was even improving.

This was about the time I arrived at the sanctuary. Kisantu had just begun to go down-hill again. The first time I saw her in her night house, she was laying in a hammock and was clearly very restless. She did not have the strength to get up and walk, but continually tossed and turned in her hammock, reminding me of a human who could not fall asleep. Every once in a while, she would involuntarily twitch. When her name was called gently by Fanny, her eyes followed the voice, but then she would look straight up, not really focusing on anything. Everyone was very worried and frustrated. There is no place in the Democratic Republic of Congo to send bonobo blood for medical testing. Bonobos share 98.7% of our DNA, so they do not receive medicine used on cats or dogs and blood tests are not analyzed in the same manner as domesticated animals. They are analyzed the same way as humans, illnesses are treated with human medicine. However, labs in Kinshasa that analyze human blood refuse to analyze non-human blood, as they feel it is a contamination risk. Kisantu’s blood samples have to be sent all the way to Europe and it takes weeks to get the results back. There is very little the staff can do, but wait and hope. Kisantu is so weak, she is unable to feed herself, so the staff risk going in her enclosure with her to hand her food directly. Sometimes, she finds the energy to attempt to aggressively grab at Raphael’s hand. Being the veterinarian is not an easy job. Raphael is responsible for treating the bonobos’ ailments, but they typically just remember him as the man who does awful things to them. He has to not take it personally, despite his obvious love for them.

We leave Kisantu to rest, but the thought of her stays with me. The next day, I visit her again when Fanny goes down. She is even worse today, laying on the floor in a twisted manner and rolling over repeatedly in frustration. It is heart-breaking. I cautiously ask Raphael if he has ever had to euthanize a bonobo. He hasn’t, but Kisantu has come back once already from a bad state. He wants to give her more time.

The next day at lunch, Claudine is at the sanctuary and she asks me if I have visited Kisantu yet that day. I say I haven’t, I wasn’t sure if it was okay for me to go in that area, I didn’t want to step on toes while she is being treated. “My dear, you are a zookeeper! You can go anywhere that you like,” she replies in that alluring French accent.  “Besides,” she adds, “she is bored. It will be nice for her.” My empty chair wobbles in its place, as I am already on my way.

Today she is a bit better, back in the hammock with food remains underneath her. She’s eating! I gently call her name and she looks at me, making a single bonobo squeak. It is heartbreaking. The expression on her face is one of exhaustion and frustration. Raphael comes in and I optimistically state the obvious, that she is doing better. He tells me she hasn’t drank anything, she is refusing the bottle from anyone who offers. This isn’t really surprising, as she has been darted frequently and also given food and water with bad tasting pills inside. These are attempts to treat her and ease her suffering with pain medication, but to Kisantu, it is more misery. She’s done.

“I want to try something,” Raphael says.  He brings back a bottle of water and a bottle of milk and hands them to me, then asks me to try to get her to drink and he leaves. Being the vet, Kisantu is clearly agitated whenever he is near, suspecting he is going to try some new shenanigan. But I’m a new person, Kisantu has no affiliations of me and medical procedures. I sit quietly, gently calling her name. Most of the time, she ignores me. Every once in a while, she squeaks a reply or glances over at me. I switch between offering milk and offering water. Nothing.

Kisantu (on the far right) in the juvenile yard, eating sugarcane.

Kisantu (on the far right) in the juvenile yard, eating sugarcane.

All of a sudden, she grabs the side of her hammock and with every ounce of strength she can muster, slowly pulls herself up. She reaches for a bar on her enclosure, her hand is shaky. Once she manages to hold herself in place, she awkwardly leans forward to the bars and places her lips on the mouth of the bottle that I am holding between the bars. Then she drinks. And drinks. And drinks. I dare not move a muscle, I just keep holding the bottle up. Finally she fills her mouth with milk and collapses back into the hammock. She holds the milk in her mouth and some of it streams out the sides. It looks like she is savoring it. “Rafi! She drank!” I shout down the hall to the lab, where he is working. He pops his head out and is clearly stoked, but does not come down to see. Kisantu is back for water this time and he doesn’t want to distract her.

It’s almost as if she has just realized how thirsty she was. She continually makes the strenuous effort to pull herself up and have another go, each time completely filling her mouth before she collapses back into the hammock. I stay with her all afternoon and she drinks 3.75 bottles of water and 1 bottle of milk. She starts to climb from her lower hammock she has been in, to the upper hammock and back down again. Being hydrated is making her feel a lot better. I try to lure her to the adjoining enclosure, where she can have a clean hammock and not have to sit in her food remains. Very slowly, she finds her feet and though wobbly, she purposefully marches to the clean hammock and collapses into it. From the outside, I push the door between the two rooms shut, so Kisantu’s old room can be cleaned and giddily hurry to tell Raphael. Soon Fanny arrives from Kinshasa with Gatorade (very expensive to get here) and Kisantu drinks 2 bottles of that. Everyone is celebrating, Kisantu is recovering.

 

I know I’ve mentioned this previously, but the people at Lola ya Bonobo are the kindest ever. Everyone compliments me and gives me far more credit than I deserve. Even Claudine says, “I heard you saved my Kisantu. Thank-you.” Basically, I got to swoop in and be the good guy, I wasn’t here for the arduous treatments that have been occurring for weeks. Poor Rafael has slept overnight in the night house on Kisantu’s worst nights, checking on her hourly. However, I would be a liar if I didn’t say it felt really, really good to be a small part of Kisantu’s recovery.

Kisantu (looking at the camera) relaxing outside in the juvenile enclosure, with Liyaka playing to the left.

Kisantu (looking at the camera) relaxing outside in the juvenile enclosure, with Liyaka playing to the left.

The next couple of days, Kisantu gets better and better. Susie, the ethologist, makes the call that it is time for Liyaka to be reunited with her mother, but just for one night. When that goes well, Kisantu gets to go outside for a few hours in the juvenile group, along with Liyaka. She is still very weak and only walks when necessary. The rambunctious juveniles are not very sympathetic to her condition and Kisantu is separated to give her a chance to eat in peace. As of yesterday, Kisantu is now living with the juveniles 24 hours a day. Every day she gets a bit stronger, but it will probably be a while before she can be reintroduced to Group 1. Currently, there are a few coming-of-age males in that group who are eager to show-off their strength. The females keep them in-line, but it is better for Kisantu if she has her strength back before she has to deal with all the drama. Seeing her lounge in the sun, munching on some sugarcane with her daughter playing nearby is pretty special. With so little money and resources, Raphael and the staff have truly accomplished a miracle in Kisantu’s recovery.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 3

by | January 20th, 2015

An infant bonobo laughing while getting towel-dried after her morning bath.

Mama Esperance giving the infant bonobos a bath.

At present time, there are five infant bonobos in the nursery. They range from 2 years to just over 4 years. During the night, they are kept together in an indoor enclosure. In the morning, the Mamas come and let them into their outdoor enclosure, where they will supervise them the entire day. Before this can happen, each bonobo receives a bath from a Mama. Sometimes, the babies get colds (just like us) and receive some vapor rub after their baths to help with the symptoms. They additionally get an oil rubbed all over them to help keep their skin healthy.

After each bonobo receives a post-bath bottle of milk, they are brought outside. The enclosure has a very nice set-up, with a jungle gym, a small pool and many tire swings. There is also a trampoline and this is where the bonobos are given three feedings a day, the same food the adults are receiving. The reasoning behind the feeding location is to help (somewhat) contain the food mess, so it can be cleaned up very thoroughly each night and rodents are not attracted to the area. This is a pretty common concern for keepers worldwide, but it is especially important at Lola ya Bonobo. Rats here carry a virus called Encephalomyocarditis virus, more commonly referred to as EMCV. This dreadful virus is found worldwide, although it comes in different strains which have different symptoms and levels of severity.  When apes in sanctuaries contract this virus, it is fatal and there is no known cure. Here at Lola alone, two bonobos have died from EMCV. From the first sign of symptoms (off-balance, unable to walk straight), it takes only two hours until an individual dies. It is constantly on the mind of the staff here.

Infant bonobo enclosure.

Socialization is crucial for the young bonobos to be psychologically healthy and well-developed.

Surrounding this play area is an electric fence, but the trees on both sides of the fence are plentiful and tall. The bonobos can easily climb up and onto other trees outside the fence. For the past few days, this has been very common, as there is a mango tree just on the other side of the fence and they are in season now. The first time I saw the babies going on one of these adventures, I urgently tried to tell the Mamas. They reassured me it wasn’t a problem. At this age, the young bonobos are still very dependent on the Mamas and may venture for a bit, but always return. This is proven any time a loud, unexpected noise occurs. The babies will rush to the nearest Mama and into her arms.

 

Practicing nest building.

The babies’ energy often seems endless, but there are slower times when things quiet down and the babies rest by the Mamas. Like any species of infant, they are curious about the world around them and sit and observe bugs crawling, make a game with a stick or just sometimes randomly break into somersaulting.

An offered kiss, a common sign of affection amongst bonobos.

Being here reminds me of the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This is absolutely true of bonobos as well. I spoke with Susie, the ethologist (animal behavior researcher) on staff, about why it is so important for many people to interact with bonobos during this young stage. She explains that the bonobos are so social, that they need constant interaction during these crucial first years. Is it as good as having a real bonobo mother and community to interact with? No, of course not. In this awful situation so many orphaned bonobos find themselves in, it is the best replacement possible. Around the age of 3-4 years, the bonobos are slowly introduced into the juvenile group and weaned off the Mamas. They learn to shift into night houses (where they will now have visual access to adult bonobos) and become more dependent on each other. By the time they are ready to enter the adult groups, they are well-adjusted adolescents. Each of these steps is a very important piece of fulfilling Lola’s ultimate goal: Returning bonobos to the wild.

Susie, ethologist on staff.

Susie, ethologist on staff.

Of course, not all of these bonobos will be brought to Ekolo ya Bonobo, the release site in northern Democratic Republic of Congo. Part of Susie’s job is to have a strict list of requirements a bonobo must fulfill, such as does not seek interaction with humans over bonobos, socially confident in their community, can form alliances well with others. While the vet, the sanctuary manager and the keepers will have an input, ultimately Susie is the one to make the call if a release will be attempted for an individual. At this time, 15 bonobos have been released at Ekolo and three infants have been born to females in this group. The Ekolo community is followed daily by rangers to guard them, similar to what is done with the famous mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda. When Ekolo was originally chosen as the release site, not only had the bonobos been wiped out, but most of the wildlife as well. It was an empty forest. Now, with the presence of the bonobos, other wildlife is returning to the forest.

One thing you will notice about the bonobos currently in the nursery: They have all of their fingers and toes. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog entry, there is a common belief in DRC that giving a human infant a bath in water with a bonobo bone will help them grow-up strong and healthy. Meat is also very expensive. Congolese poachers will therefore kill an entire community of bonobos, except for the infants. Big money can be made selling the infants to rich families as pets or into zoos and circuses in Asia. However, every bit of bone you can get is also worth a lot of money, so infants have come in missing fingers. Lola ya Bonobo and Ekolo ya Bonobo has worked very hard to educate the public and it is clearly paying-off, as less and less bonobo infants are coming in with missing digits. While foreign tourists must pay money to come to the sanctuary, national Congolese are given a big discount and school groups pay nothing. This is Claudine Andre’s philosophy, as she knows education (in particular to children) is the best thing that can be done to protect the future of the bonobo.