My first step from the warm sand on the beach at Kigoma was into an insanely crowded water taxi – not exactly an aquatic Uber — a 16-foot glorified wooden rowboat. I squeezed through women and kids, huge pots and color sacks of rice, sugar and tea; I carried cameras, they carried food. As we started out into Lake Tanganyika I looked for a lifejacket – just in case – nothing, just twenty pairs of eyes all staring at me, likely the only one who could swim.
Dr Jane Goodall with Chimp at Gombe Stream NP

Dr Jane Goodall researching chimps at Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania

I had come to meet Jane Goodall, and I had come to film the famed chimps of Gombe Stream. What I didn’t know was, like that day in 1960 when Jane first stepped a shore, chimps would also change my life forever. They would become the first great apes I every photographed in the wild. They were also the first other species that asked me to rethink my species. Jane was the first of my species to ask me to reconsider my species. What I also didn’t realize is how many times my future path and Jane’s would cross, most recently at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia, through the chestnut colored eyes of dear sweet Milla; a chimp firmly straddling the bridge connecting our two species.

Meeting Milla was like connecting two worlds, two times, two journeys. While I was at Gombe on my second trip, Jane was rescuing Milla from a very un-chimp-like life of tobacco and alcohol in a bar in Tanzania. While I was filming Fifi’s perfect family portrait, Milla was starting an imperfect chimp life over. Jane was flying her to Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, one of the few chimp sanctuaries for expat chimps at the time, and still today. Milla’s first couple years were like being sent to a detox addiction facility. Before she could become the chimp she never was, she first had to get nicotine free and dry out, both took time.

No water taxi was needed to find Milla in the dry Copperbelt of Zambia. Chimfunshi’s vet Thalita Calvi knew just where she was. Milla recognized Thalita’s aging blue Toyota 4WD instantly, and slipped into the night-building and extended her arm through the heavy barred window; her open palm bouncing up and down patiently, but insistently. Everything about the motion I had learned among the chimps at Gombe — please give me some, give me some, I’m patient, but please give me some. Milla is patiently insistent like no other chimps I’ve met. She has time on her side, nearly all of her 50 years depending on humans. Now she’s passing her days with three other adult chimps, all victims of their own unbridled curiosity. They are the Escape Artists.

Milla doesn’t need a big new forest enclosure to be a chimp, most of her life she has never been a chimp, rather a sentient ape stranded between worlds. My kind did that. She needs a forest and open sky because my kind owes her the hope Jane Goodall offered her 30 years ago by rescuing her and bringing her to Chimfunshi.

— Gerry Ellis

For more about Milla, and for more about the Escape Artists Enclosure Campaign.

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