Confessions of a Docent

Experiences from the other side of the glass
by Cindy Marks

One late summer weekend in 2002 I was traveling with my long time friend from college. As usual she had several library books and with a twinkle in her eye she handed me one.  My fascination with the great apes started early, as an only child  I wanted a chimp sibling. My wise mother never relented on that one! In the early 70s a very popular college elective was Physical Anthropology, a combination of primate behavior and human evolution. For me it was transformative. Before In The Shadow of Man was published we were privy to Jane Goodall’s work and were fortunate to watch some films of her early adventures.  Chimps have been a part of my being ever since. I still have an article from the Seattle Times describing the young chimpanzees who had just moved to Ellensburg in the early 80s. It is safely tucked into my signed copy of Next of Kin.

Cindy and Lou play the feet game

Cindy and Lou play the feet game

So it was that Next of Kin from the library that kept me up all night. I was mesmerized. I had tangentially known about Washoe for years – but here was a personal account of decades with her. I knew about Chimposiums but never made it to one. When I read about community docents I wondered how far one could stretch “community”, more than 100 miles?

Upon returning home I immediately found the CHCI and FOW websites and was stunned learn that Moja had just died. I realized waiting was not an option, I needed to get to CHCI soon. I cajoled and convinced that same friend to spend a day the next spring at both a regular and advanced chimposium. By the end of that moving day I knew my life would never be the same. If I wanted to drive 250 miles round trip on summer Sundays I too could be a docent. I spent the rest of that summer training. I managed to wrestle successfully with the gift shop cash register, get comfortable with the classroom presentation and observe and become familiar with the chimps so I could eventually sit as an observer guide.

By the end of the summer I presented and finally sat in front of the group during an observation. Loulis sat quite close on the floor in the East Playroom and caught my eye. He held my gaze (it seemed like forever) and drew me closer.  Instead of a playful punch his lips pressed the glass and I received a kiss. I was accepted! I tearfully turned to the guests totally tongue tied!

One summer a docent had some friends visit with an infant. We were in the outside area. Dar was in his usual east playroom cargo net.  Upon seeing the baby he gracefully and hastily swung down and bolted quickly outside.  He came to a screeching halt at the window and made himself appear small – a feat for Dar! His eyes turned into pools of chocolate sauce and his face glowed softly with what seemed like gentle awe. He brought his large hands to the glass and with deliberate tiny movements signed “chase” so delicately it was meant for the baby who he obviously adored.  He then moved slowly and carefully along the window turning to make sure his “pursuer” was bouncing along after him!

I had the opportunity to spend 10 years slowly and steadily accumulating experiences and interactions with our special friends.  Each spring, especially with rising gas prices, as I make my first pilgrimage east I wonder, yet another year? Like clockwork, that first day Loulis did something silly or special and our friendship resumed as if no time has passed and every year I say “I’m snookered yet again for another year!!”

A meeting of the minds

A meeting of the minds

Being a docent has been a joy, an honor, a privilege and sometimes a trial – I have written all this while sitting in interminable traffic crawling west on I-90! I am so glad I persisted.  This has been a transcendent experience, fulfilling childhood dreams and adult passions! I am eternally grateful for the opportunity.

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