Written by: Tianna Hankins
Ever since I was a little girl, I knew that I wanted to work with animals. It wasn’t until my last year of community college that I realized that the animals I wanted to devote my life to were primates. I enrolled into the Primate Behavior and Ecology Program at Central Washington University and became an intern at The Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI). I had the distinct pleasure of enrolling in primate courses offered by two amazing professors, Dr. Lori Sheeran and Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold, who not only educated me in primate literature, but kindled a fire of passion and empathy for Homo sapiens’s closest living relatives. It was at CHCI that my dream turned into reality. I enrolled in PRIM 220, the introduction course that is a requisite to become an intern, and was placed into the duties of Clean and Berm. This means that you are responsible for cleaning the enclosures and enrichment and ensuring that the outside perimeter is not infiltrated, while taking observational data. While I was satisfied in helping with the maintenance of the enclosures, I wanted to be able to help in other ways. Once I passed sign reliability, a series of tests designed to ensure that you can reliably understand what each chimpanzee is signing, I was invited to begin as a Chimp Care intern. Being Chimp Care means that you are trained in safety protocol and procedures in serving meals to Tatu, Dar and Loulis, enriching their day-to-day activities by various games, and eventually becoming an accepted friend.
It is through this friendship that I have had some amazing experiences. One of my favorite times was when Tatu and I were hanging out and she asked me for a certain food item. I brought it out to the sound of Tatu’s food grunts and served it to her. While she was enjoying her treat I asked her “WHO ME?” She replied “FLOWER” and took her desired item off to be enjoyed in peace. About a week later, I was out on berm where Tatu came up to me and asked for an apple. She was about to be served lunch shortly and I knew that it could ruin her appetite so I tried to change the subject to distract her. Tatu, being the clever chimpanzee she is, knew what I was up to and repeated her request for an apple. I replied to her “WHO YOU” and was answered with “TATU”. I then asked “WHO ME” and she replied “DOG” and promptly walked away.
Two years have now passed and I have not only acquired two Bachelor degrees, but I have also gained the friendships of three amazing chimpanzees and that of their remarkable human caregivers. It is my time to say good bye to all of these lovely primates, human and non-human alike. I will greatly miss my conversations with Tatu, which mainly revolved around food, tickle time with Loulis and grooming sessions with Dar. I would like to express deep gratitude to the staff of CHCI for allowing me this opportunity and thanks to Lindsay Zager for putting up with my millions of questions while training me. All will be greatly missed.