[Editor’s Note: Noella Wyatt is CHCI’s Docent of the Month for September, 2007. Noella has been a long-time dependable volunteer, and we can always count on her to help out. Docents are volunteers at CHCI who help make our Chimposiums possible: they greet guests, work the gift shop, give lectures, and guide guests during observations.]
CHCI: How did you become a docent? How did you hear about the program? What were your goals for your experience as a docent?
Back in 1987 I began working as the secretary lead for the Psychology department. At that time, Roger and Debbi and the whole gang were located on the third floor of CWU’s Psychology Building. I would often attended celebrations, would drop by food and other treats on the way to my office, and helped with projects like counting sweatshirts in the gift shop (which was little more than a closet at the time). Jane Goodall made a visit to Ellensburg in support of the new facility and I remember Debbi coming and getting me at the reception and introducing me to Jane. I felt like a blithering idiot – I could barely squeak out a “nice to meet you.” I was so overwhelmed at being introduced to her.
For years in the Psychology Building, people had wanted to visit. When the new facility was finally completed (in 1993), we would finally be able to accommodate such a project. Since I had known Washoe and her family for the past few years, when I was told they were going to start a Docent program, I jumped at the chance to stay involved with everyone. The Psychology building was lonely without them downstairs. Since I am kind of a chatter-box, it seemed natural for me to train as a Presenter and Observer Guide.
CHCI: What have you learned from the docent program? Has it changed your perceptions about yourself, chimpanzees, and other non-human animals?
I have learned that I just can’t accept that humans are the only beings with “culture” or a “productive” language. Even after 20 years, it still amazes me that I could understand what the chimpanzees are saying to the humans, and most importantly, to one another.
I have truly felt a change in my attitude toward animals. I was always a softy for an animal, but never past the point of cuteness, cuddliness, etc. Now I see things from a much different perspective, especially with regard to captive and endangered animals.
CHCI: What has been your fondest memory? What is your favorite comment or question from a guest? What has been the hardest part of docenting? The most valuable part?
Without a doubt, my fondest memory was the day the chimpanzees went outside (in the current CHCI facility) for the first time. Washoe ran over and greeted Roger and Debbie and then came to me and gave me a kiss through the glass. To this day, it makes my eyes water to remember that. I felt so honored by Washoe.
I guess my favorite comments/questions come from the children who visit. They are so open and inquisitive. There are too many questions to list.
The hardest part of docenting was when a CHCI employee called me at work to tell me Moja had died (in 2002). It was like losing a family member; it felt like a physical blow.
The most valuable part has been touching all of the lives that I have met through the years and bringing a little bit of understanding about the world and the place that humans and
animals have in that world.
CHCI: Anything else?
Working with CHCI and Washoe and her family is a chance many people will never have. If you have the chance, it is worth taking. It has been rewarding beyond words. If a person is afraid that they don’t know enough to be a docent, they can and will learn–it takes time, but it is time worth taking. When you have the chance to sit and interact with Loulis–play a game of tickle or just glance into those enormous, intelligent eyes, you realize your place in the world. God did not place us here to dominate the world – He put us here to share the world.