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Alumni Profile

What can chimpanzees teach us about care?

Kimbang, a two-year-old female chimp, dives into the middle of an interview between Amy Hanes (left) and Henriette, a chimpanzee caregiver in Cameroon (Photo Credit: Karena Tilt)
Kimbang, a two-year-old female chimp, dives into the middle of an interview between Amy Hanes (left) and Henriette, a chimpanzee caregiver in Cameroon (Photo credit: Karena Tilt)

By Simon Goodacre

The first night Amy Hanes, MA’11, PhD’19, spent in the Sanaga-Yong sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees in Cameroon was a memorable one. She knew it was deep in the Mbargue Forest with no electricity or running water.

“I could handle rural. I did rural in the Peace Corps. However, I had never done rural in a Central African forest,” she says. After a seven-hour train ride from Yaoundé, the capital, she arrived at the train station in Belabo at about 2:00 in the morning, where a driver was waiting for her. They drove for over an hour into the forest.

Finally, at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue, their destination, Amy spent an hour fumbling in the dark in a small cabin, trying to find a change of clothes, bug spray and sheets. She finally managed to set up her mosquito net. “When I laid down, sweaty, tired and hungry, something screamed. It was a pig’s squeal, a hawk’s screech and a human’s scream all melded together. I remember saying out loud to no one in particular, ‘Are you SERIOUS?’ I nicknamed whatever made the noise ‘murder bird.’” (Amy learned later that the screamer was a hyrax — a small mammal that looks like a husky guinea pig.)

Once murder bird stopped, the chimps started. Their screams were louder, longer and more terrifying than murder bird’s. It was clear they were coming, probably an entire troop. Amy said, “I reviewed my options. The lock on my cabin door was something a chimp (or I) could easily snap in two. I did not know if any other humans were nearby and I was pretty sure that if I used the head torch it would lead them to me, so I just lay there.”

The next day, Amy — playing it cool — asked a caregiver if any chimps had escaped the night before. He laughed and explained that, like humans, chimps cannot see in the dark. He said one chimp probably rolled over onto someone else who was asleep. Night fights can turn into mayhem, but eventually everyone settles down. “It was the first of many times that I asked myself, ‘What in the hell have I done?’” Hanes says.

Click here to read more and listen to an interview with Amy Hanes.

Categories: Alumni Profile
Date: November 19, 2018