Despite our meager attempts to enrich their time in the 100 square meter two–story rebar cage, one still knew that these four chimpanzees’ circumstances were not sustainable. At each end of the cage are two concrete block houses with barred windows and iron doors. The interiors are concrete. The chimpanzees, known as the Escape Artists – Milla, Cleo, Chiffon and Colin – show signs of animals which have been kept contained too long in a confined space. You see, they remain confined because they have mastered the skills of escaping from the large fenced enclosures and are a safety risk to the surrounding community and themselves – requiring Chimfunshi to contain them temporarily in a small high-security enclosure. These four Escape Artists deserve a large secure space.
The keepers, like Felix and Dominick, are caring and passionate about the chimps. They live on the Chimfunshi property, as do their families. Their children go to school at Chimfunshi and there is a health clinic. Caring for these chimpanzees is the keepers’ life work and they are good to the chimps. But there is only so much they can do with the facility they have to keep these four chimpanzees healthy. The keepers take extra special care and provide the Escape Artists fresh straw, water, a varied diet from the Chimfunshi farm and surrounding vendors – fruit, mealie, vegetables.
The volunteers from Africa Impact visit the Escape Artists as frequently as possibly, as the Escape Artists have a high priority for enrichment. As volunteers in March of 2018 at Chimfunshi, my family and I were instructed and tasked with developing enrichment activities for the Escape Artists. We had to imagine what would be interesting to a chimpanzee, design it and then build it – suspended logs, tire swings, plastic discs with bottle caps sewn to the rim, oversized nuts and bolts were just some of the creations to stimulate the intellects of these four chimpanzees. Magazines, sunglasses or plastic mirrors were a favorite of Cleo. Colin loved to use tools to retrieve puzzles from outside the cage. Chiffon had his own likes and dislikes frequently climbing high in the cage to observe. Milla was attached to her blanket which she would carry with her throughout the enclosure. What she enjoyed most from what we designed and built for her, were lengths of nylon cord which we knotted into daisy chains; we hung them in various places in the enclosure and she would immediately seek them out, find a resting position and begin to untie the chains of braided cord. Her long fingers were dexterous as they pinched each strand and pulled it loose. It occupied her need to sit and untie something – like someone knitting or weaving – Milla sat and occupied herself with this simple task for hours. But we knew then, and know now, that it’s not enough. The intelligent, sentient gazes from the chimpanzees will forever mesmerize me – and these gazes remain in my imagination. We share so much DNA – 97-98% – and the gazes from these four Escape Artists have imbued in me a passion to get them their new enclosure.
Puzzles, tricks, and countless hours of work from caring keepers and passionate volunteers helps these chimpanzees cope with their confinement. It has been a little over a year since CUSA was formed and here is our first of many challenges – raise funds to support the construction ofa larger and yet highly secureEscape Artists’enclosu
— Colburn Shindell
Photo courtesy ©Colburn Shindell