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Cleo’s Family Escape Foiled by Hunger

One of the daily duties of the staff at Chimfunshi is to walk around each enclosure and check for broken fences, over-hanging trees or new chimpanzee inventions that might promote an escape. And in the case of Sandy’s new enclosure, that includes broken metal bars. Some days we are lucky and a break in metal frame of Sandy’s covered outdoor enclosure can be spotted and mended before anything can happen. But some days we are not.

One recent morning in September, the radio sounded the alarm: “Sandy and his group are out!” Innocent Mulenga, the manager, responded by asking where the chimpanzees had gone. “Sandy is by the enclosure,” came the response, “but Cleo, Colin and Chrissy are now where to be seen.” Innocent grabbed the dart gun and headed out to Enclosure 3, while the message was relayed to all the other enclosures, as the rule is to bring in all the chimpanzees should there be an escape.

Luckily, Sandy did not go far. He was found happily around near the enclosure, looking for something to get up to, and the staff kept a watchful eye on this large chimpanzee, who still tops the scales as Chimfunshi’s biggest at 75 kilos (155 pounds). The staff had tried many different ways to get Sandy back into his cage – food, treats, threats — but nothing worked. Sandy was enjoying his run-around too much. Innocent had no choice but to dart Sandy, and it was not long before before a sleeping Sandy was being carried back to his night cage. Relief could be heard in Sheila Siddle’s voice over the radio when she is told that he was safely back inside. “Well done,” she said. “Any sign of the others?”

Unfortunately, Cleo, her adolescent son, Colin, and her four-year old daughter, Chrissy (pictured above), were nowhere to be seen. Walking into the nearby forest, the staff called out to the chimpanzees, some using their names, some using hoots and pants. By nightfall, the search was called off as we knew the chimpanzees would be starting to nest for the night and the chance of finding them in the dark was slim. Night guards and neighboring people were informed of the missing three.

The staff split into teams and resumed the search the next morning, heading out in different directions with instructions to look for any signs of where the chimpanzees might have nested for the night. Yet our greatest advantage was the knowledge that Cleo is well known for her great appetite and for the vast amounts of water she drinks. September is not a great time to be wandering the forest at Chimfunshi as it is dry and hot out there and no wild fruits are available at that time of the year. Water is also scarce. The chance of Cleo having wandered off to far is very slim, and Colin has never ventured out into the forests, so we are sure he will not go far from his mother’s side.

Unfortunately, some of the staff set bush fires in the hopes that burning the long grass will make the chimpanzees easier to spot. But chimpanzees are afraid of fire and would probably run further away from the smoke and flames, so Innocent told the guys that this was not a wise move and ordered them to stop. By the end of the second day the heat has taken its toll, we are all exhausted and drained and at a lost as to where the three missing chimpanzees might be.

Day three began with us all feeling exhausted and worried, yet we headed out to search some more. Innocent and his team drove to the neighboring farm and begin to walk back through the forest, while I took a team from the Orphanage and headed down towards the flood plain and dambo through the forest. Jacob, one of our keepers, led a third team that walked through the burnt grassland, just in case.

At 11.30 a.m., the news came: “The chimps have being found!” Jacob and his team spotted the three walking slowly through the forest, and he called out to Cleo who stopped and turned, giving small pants of excitement as she saw he was armed with water and fruits. At first, Cleo just sat calling out, but Jacob knew he could not give her any water or fruits until she was safely back inside. Colin seemed to understand Jacob’s idea, though, as he pushed and pounded on his mother’s back as if to say, “Please, let’s go home.” Finally, Cleo got up and slowly followed Jacob back towards the enclosures, with Chrissy clinging to her back lest she be left behind. When Sandy spotted his friends coming through the forest, he called out in excitement, and Cleo gave a few soft hoots as she approached his night cage. It was then that Jacob threw the bottled water and some fruit into the empty night cage. Cleo hesitated, but the food got the better of her as she walked into the cage. It was a wonderful sound hearing the door close behind her.

But Colin decided otherwise, and bolted once again. Fortunately, the staff kept their eyes on Colin and managed to follow, and tracked him to a tree where he settled in among the highest branches. Innocent soon arrived with the dart gun, but since it is not possible to dart a chimpanzee high up in a tree – they could easily fall and be injured once drugged — Innocent played it cool instead. While Jacob spread fruit and water out on the ground near the tree, Innocent moved away and made himself comfortable in the shade of a nearby tree and pretended to be busy with something else. Although Colin kept one eye on Innocent, he could only ignore the fruit for so long, and after an hour, the chimpanzee is on the ground, sorting through the fruit. Innocent quickly hit him with a dart, and was soon being carried home. Cleo’s hoots and pants could be heard loudly as her sleeping son was place on a pile of grass in the empty night cage next to her.

Over the last 30 years, Sheila has always emphasized the need to educate the local communities about the wildlife and forests that surround us, and how important it is to preserve what we have left. On August 11, three of the men who were working on road-repairs came to the house carrying a small box, and when Sheila opened it, she found a baby rabbit. The men explained that while working on the road they noticed a big hawk above them, which suddenly swooped down and seemed to be aiming at something in the burnt grass. Upon moving closer, the men discovered the baby rabbit, lying very still. Not knowing if the hawk had injured the rabbit, they thought the best thing to do was take it to “Madam Sheila.”

It did not take Sheila long before a sky kennel was set up inside the kitchen with the normal type of bunny food. But after two days, Sheila became very worried as our little friend had not eaten any of the fresh carrots, lettuce, or apples. It was only then that we realized that a wild rabbit would not necessarily like these things, so we pulled some fresh green grass and it was not long before he was nibbling on the grass runners. Four days later we could see that our furry friend was in good health and could not see a reason for keeping him locked up, so after naming him “Bugs” we thought it would be a good idea to release him onto my green lawn. We opened his sky box door he hopped out and began to explore his new grounds. Meanwhile, my 14-year fourteen year old cat, Biggles, took an immediate liking to Bugs, as he thought it was a new playmate for him. Over the years, Biggles has become used to many different animals around him, and he and the rabbit chased each other around the garden all night long. The next morning, we gave Bugs some fresh milk and food, and after eating those he left for good.

So many people to thank once again for all the help and support you have all given to Chimfunshi. Each and every donation means so much and goes a long way in helping to feed the chimpanzees or fund new projects.

Hoots and pants from everyone at Chimfunshi.


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