Making New Friends

I began my journey to Ellensburg in August of 2010. After a trip to South Africa I decided that I needed to learn as much about primates as
possible and Central Washington University was the place for me. Not only do they offer a bachelors degree in Primate Behavior and Ecology, but they also have
three chimpanzees on campus at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication
Institute. 

When I began my first
quarter at CWU I was enrolled in Prim 220, which is where I first learned
about Washoe’s story and how the chimpanzees came to be in Ellensburg. It was
an amazing story and I felt honored to be able to help make these chimpanzees’
lives better. I learned about chimpanzee behavior, vocalizations, and how
to tell the differences between each chimpanzee. It seems like it would be
easy but trust me, at first, it’s very difficult! Now I can tell them apart
just from their posture. When you start out at CHCI you are what they call a “Clean & Berm Intern”; you help with the daily upkeep of the facility, clean enclosures, prepare enrichment and meals, and also keep an eye on the outdoor enclosure’s perimeter to make sure there aren’t any pesky college
students trying to take a peek! As you do your shifts at CHCI you learn a
little bit about each of chimpanzee’s personality. You do not have contact
with them while at this stage, but you certainly get to observe their
behavior. You very shortly come to love Tatu, Dar and Loulis and the little cleaning
that you do becomes almost a treat.

During my first
quarter I also signed up for an American Sign Language (ASL) course. I learned that
if I have some experience in ASL and I show that I am responsible and
can care for the chimpanzees, I could be invited to be a “Chimp Care Intern” which
means I would learn to work directly with the chimpanzees by serving meals and interacting.  I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
After my first quarter, the staff at CHCI asked me if I’d like to be a Chimp Care
intern and of course, I said “yes!” But first, I had to pass sign reliability. To be “sign reliable” I had to be able to
demonstrate proficiency at translating the chimpanzees’ signs from videotape. 

After I passed sign reliability,
I had my first 3 experiences face to face with Tatu, Dar, and Loulis. It was
the most amazing 3 days of my life! I’d seen them sign a little before but to actually
watch a conversation and see them interact with the people who were training me was
amazing! After those first 3 interactions, I was began to learn to assist with meals. I slowly learned all the techniques and how to keep myself and the
chimpanzees safe. Safety can be a huge issue when working with chimpanzees but CHCI has really made it a simple yet effective safety setting. I
remember one of my first times serving vitamins to the chimpanzees. My hands
shook like crazy. Lisa (who is one of the staff chimpanzee caregivers) told me “Don’t
worry, once there isn’t someone watching you, you won’t shake one bit” and she
was right! She also said the chimpanzees won’t laugh at me for shaky hands,
which was actually comforting. I didn’t want them thinking “Wow, this girl is
weird. Stop shaking and give me the vitamin already!”

After assisting with meals I moved on to the observing phase. This comes about when the staff and trainers have
seen a trainee improve and follow the proper safety precautions as well as build a
relationship with Tatu, Loulis, and Dar. During the “observing” phase, I learned to to serve meals and interact with the chimpanzees while being
observed by a trainer. The trainer is there to help you if you have any
questions, as well as to make sure you are doing things safely. At this point
in training you really begin to form your own personal relationship with each
chimpanzee. You slowly learn about each of their personalities. I learned that
Tatu, no matter how bossy she is, will always be willing to spend a little time
with you. I’m
pretty sure I could sit for hours and groom Tatu if she let me. Loulis is
always up for a good round of chase. Dar, although he’s shy at first, has
his moments of silliness that make you enjoy any little bits of time you get to
spend with him. And when Dar surprises you with his amazing summersaults, it
makes any bad day instantly great.

Before you know it, your trainer moves into the kitchen so they are close by for questions and you and the chimpanzees alone for the
first time. I felt like I was
having meals with great friends for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was fun
learning what each chimpanzee likes and dislikes. Dar is a starch fan, he loves
bread and rice, which is very different from most dieting adults I know. Tatu
is the, no pun intended, Dairy Queen! She loves anything with dairy, cheese,
milk, yogurt, ice cream, the list goes on and on. Sadly for her, she’s lactose
intolerant. Loulis, is pretty easy to please, he’ll eat almost anything. One
day, we served grapes for breakfast. Plain ol’ green grapes and they were SO
excited. We served them and Loulis was so excited he hooted. I tell ya,
it really is the simple things in life, for both humans and chimpanzees alike! When
you are alone with the chimpanzees, you really feel like you are hanging out
with friends.

I moved to the next stage of my training right before I left for California for a summer internship at the Oakland Zoo. I have two  shifts left before I complete my training. I am
counting down the days of summer so that I can return to my chimpanzee friends. Now, how many college students do you know who WANT
summer to be over? Moving from California to Washington was a very daunting
event in my life but after meeting Tatu, Dar, and Loulis I couldn’t be happier
that I made that leap. It was the best decision I’ve made in my life and I
can’t wait to get back there in September to hang out with three awesome
individuals.

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