Written by: Lizz Stewart
I was thirteen the first time I went to a chimposium at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute with my eighth grade class. My science teacher had been talking up the Chimposium trip for the better part of the school year, and though I was excited, I had no idea what to expect. Up to that point I’d had limited exposure to primates.
I’m from Cle Elum, WA and as you can imagine, we don’t have a lot of primates up there, or rather we didn’t at the time… now we have some chimpanzees too! I had seen chimps and gorillas, and various monkeys at zoos before, and logged many an hour watching Animal Planet specials on TV, but seeing chimpanzees who could use American Sign Language… that was something I could not wrap my thirteen year old, know-it-all brain around. I counted down the days until our trip was scheduled.
I remember seeing Tatu, Dar and Loulis for the first time. Loulis displayed, his hair standing up, rocking in front of the window. We were in his house and he wanted us to know it, but just as soon as he started he was finished, and began systematically pointing out members of my class wanting to see their shoes. Tatu approached the guide at the observation window and signed CHEESE. The guide apologized and said she couldn’t give her cheese. Tatu asked once again, this time with more of an emphasis and quite a lot more sass. The guide apologized a second time and said no. Tatu promptly turned her back and ignored us for the remainder of the tour. Dar sat in a cargo net high in the enclosure thumbing through a magazine quietly to himself.
I was smitten.
Six years and many, many, many chimposiums later I am an undergraduate student at CWU studying Primate Behavior & Ecology and Anthropology. I made up my mind that day at my first Chimposium that what I wanted to do more than anything was to serve Tatu, Lou and Dar and this last fall I became an entry level intern at CHCI. The more time I spent there, the clearer it became to me that every single person working and volunteering at CHCI, whether in the front for the tours, or in the back cleaning, loves and respects these chimpanzees. They always come first, and we aim to make every day as stimulating and exciting for them as we can.
I am thrilled and so proud to be able to say that I am now training as a Chimpanzee Caregiver. It will hit me sometimes while playing chase or tickle with Loulis that I am really here, and these are the same chimpanzees that I was so excited learn about six years ago, and now getting to know them on a personal level. This afternoon while serving lunch, Lou gave me a kiss on my wrist. I will admit it, I was so happy I squeaked. I feel like I am being accepted as a new friend, and it is one of the greatest feelings in the world. My goals right now are to complete my Chimp Care training in the near future, and to become a presenter and observation guide at the Chimposiums (maybe I can inspire a thirteen year old animal lover, just like I was).
Being at CHCI I feel like I am part of a team working along side like-minded, positive, fun people, all to benefit two of the coolest folks I have ever met, Tatu and Loulis. It is an incredible experience. I hope to one day make a career working at a primate sanctuary that operates with this level of respect and care. I love CHCI and I am so glad every single day that I am here.