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.
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.
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.
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.