Written by: Sandra Casti
This past October, I flew across the country on a mission to confirm my decision to apply for Central Washington University’s M.S. program in Primate Behavior. My dad and I planned a trip out west for me to visit Ellensburg, attend an Advanced Chimposium, and meet with my potential graduate advisor, Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold.
These monthly Advanced Chimposiums are open to the public for a reasonable fee, and provide participants with a very special in-depth look at the inner-workings of CHCI. Advanced Chimposium goers also attend the regular hour-long Chimposium earlier in the day. At the end of the regular Chimposium, the group was taken to visit with the chimps. As directed, I hunched over in a chimp-like sway, and made my way to the observation area. Tears filled my eyes when I saw the chimps burst outside to get a good look at their new visitors. I was initially surprised by the strength of their displays, and remained in the submissive HUG/LOVE pose, as a peace-offering in acknowledgement that this was their home and we were the intruders. I was relieved when the displays decreased, and the chimps went back to their original tasks. Before I knew it, the regular chimposium was over, and we were led out to the gift shop. After a brief intermission the Advanced Chimposium began. I was thankful to know that I would get more time in with Dar, Tatu, and Loulis later in the day. The group shrunk to about 10-12 individuals, and I got out my red notebook to take notes while graduate students gave presentations on topics such as primate conservation, captive vs. wild chimpanzees, the bush meat crisis, ongoing research at CHCI, and the possible future that awaits chimpanzees and other great apes. Everyone I spoke to at CHCI offered helpful advice, shared special anecdotes, and encouraged me to apply to the program.
We visited the chimps twice more during the Advanced Chimposium and each visit was more fulfilling than the last. The length and vigor of the displays lessened as Dar and Loulis got used to our presence; Tatu did not participate because she was preoccupied with a cooking video that one of the graduate students was playing for her on an iPhone. I was in absolute awe when one of the caregivers engaged Dar in conversation. She asked, “WHAT YOU DOING,” and he casually responded “CHASE.” The care-giver then signed, “CAN’T SORRY,” and Dar quickly lost interest when his request was not granted. Loulis then graced us with his presence at the observation window and began pointing out and downward towards the small crowd. We were told that Loulis is quite the shoe connoisseur, just like Washoe, his adoptive mother. He was asking to see our shoes! The people in the first row happily obliged, and before we knew it, shoes were off, and feet were up in the air, all for Loulis’ approval. He inspected each one, gave a bit of a shrug, then made eye contact with the next person, and pointed down towards the visitor’s feet. This interaction was truly a sight to be seen.
Dinner was included in the Advanced Chimposium fee, and we virtually dined with the chimps via video. We watched Tatu emphatically sign CHEESE and SANDWICH in anticipation for her meal. We were told that the chimpanzees have a daily schedule, and that dinner is served at the same time every day. Tatu and Loulis have the option of coming in for dinner, or they can choose to stay outside. Having options within a daily schedule gives the chimps freedom to make their own decisions within the inevitable confinement of sanctuary life. Loulis chose to skip dinner this particular evening, despite Tatu and the caregiver’s attempts to woo him inside with SANDWICH day.
As we left that evening, I felt an overwhelming sense of purpose. I was certain that I wanted to devote my time and energy to the lives of these unique beings. I am thankful to have met gentle Dar before he passed away, and, now that I will officially be one of Mary Lee’s graduate students this fall, I am prepared to meet the challenges that come with the prospective changes CHCI and Friends of Washoe will make in order to adapt to the social needs of Tatu and Loulis. The Advanced Chimposium solidified my decision to apply to CWU, and the interactions that day gave me the motivation and confidence to put my all into the application and qualification process. I will always remember that day, and I am still in shock that I will get the privilege to spend the next two years under CHCI’s roof.
I would recommend the Advanced Chimposium to anyone who wants to learn more about chimpanzees and yearns to gain a better understanding of our close relatives, the non-human primate. I hope many people will take advantage of the opportunity to experience a close connection with our fellow apes.