In My Family Tree: A Life with Chimpanzeesby Sheila Siddle
Sheila Siddle's life was changed forever one fateful day in 1983 when a local game ranger brought a battered, malnourished chimpanzee to the door of her cattle ranch in central Zambia and asked her to do whatever she could to save it. As Sheila and her husband nursed it back to health, they treated the young chimp they would name Pal as if he were a human infant
Sheila Siddle's life was changed forever one fateful day in 1983 when a local game ranger brought a battered, malnourished chimpanzee to the door of her cattle ranch in central Zambia and asked her to do whatever she could to save it. As Sheila and her husband nursed it back to health, they treated the young chimp they would name Pal as if he were a human infant feeding him medicine and bottled milk, sharing their bed with him at night, and carrying him on their backs until he regained the strength to survive on his own. From these humble beginnings Sheila and David Siddle would go on to launch the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, an internationally acclaimed animal refuge that has grown to become the home for more than eighty chimps, one disarmingly domesticated hippopotamus named Billy, and a variety of other endangered animals. In My Family Tree is the inspiring journey of a woman who has dedicated her life to providing a refuge for chimpanzees in Africa and of the chimps that have become a part of her family along the way.
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In My Family Tree
A Life with Chimpanzees
By Sheila Siddle with Doug Cress
Grove Atlantic, Inc.
Copyright © 2002
Sheila Siddle and Doug Cress
All right reserved.
They say you'll never forget where you were and what you were
doing at momentous occasions in your life, but I honestly can't
recall the circumstances of October 18, 1983. I don't remember
if it was cloudy or sunny; I don't know if I was working in the
garden or feeding the geese. I'm not even sure what time it was.
All I know is that I held a dying chimpanzee in my arms that day
and it changed my life forever.
Pierre Fabel was an honorary game ranger who was also married
to my daughter, Diana. I'd received a message around midday
over the short-wave radio that he was on his way out to
Chimfunshi, our farm along the Upper Kafue River in central
Zambia, but nothing prepared me for what lay ahead. Pierre got
out of his truck and approached, carrying this pathetic, terrified
animal in his arms. It was a baby chimpanzee, but not like any
chimp I'd ever seen before. What hit us first was the smell. My
initial reaction was one of nausea and horror, and Dave, my
husband, felt the same way. This small chimp-a bag of bones,
really-had badly smashed teeth and the right side of his mouth
was slit open about two inches more than it should have been.
His face and his mouth stank from the rotten flesh around the
badly infected wounds. He was totally dehydrated and suffering
from terrible diarrhea, and there were flies everywhere around
Pierre said the chimp had been confiscated from some poachers
who were caught smuggling him into the country from Zaire.
Although officially protected as an endangered species,
chimpanzees flowed illegally into Zambia in those days, and we
heard of quite a few people owning them as pets. Game rangers
traditionally did nothing to confiscate the animals, since there
was no facility in place for keeping them, and this was quite
possibly the first time anybody had done anything in response
to the black-market trade. The little chimp's entire family had
probably been killed for meat, and now he was headed to the
market to be sold as a pet-though it seemed unlikely he'd even
live that long.
Pierre was visibly upset.
"If you don't do something to help him," he said, tears welling
in his eyes, "then I've got to do something about him myself."
I hate to think of what Pierre had meant by that, but I knew he'd
certainly seen plenty of terrible things as a game ranger, and the
sight of him being so overcome by emotion came as a shock. I
looked down at this poor, sad little chimp. His mouth flopped
open in a gruesome grin, exposing the left side of his jaw and
gums, and his teeth looked as though they'd been hammered to
bits. His eyes were dull. His breathing was labored. It was
obvious he was dying, and yet here he was, clinging to life.
Dave and I knew nothing about chimpanzees. We were cattle
farmers, and even though we'd spent most of our lives in Africa
and encountered all sorts of wildlife, this was like nothing we'd
ever seen before. But it was obvious what we had to do.
Because this chimp looked so much like a human baby, we
immediately began treating him like one, and luckily, we soon
found that once you've got a baby chimp in your arms, instinct
takes over. We carried the chimp into the house, and the first
order of business was to try to clean up his wounds. He
struggled a bit, and my attempts at putting any sort of salves or
disinfectants on the cuts were hopeless. In retrospect, I feel a bit
stupid that I did not try to stitch the mouth closed at the edge,
but at the time I was more interested in trying to simply clean
him up as quickly as possible-and, anyway, we were fighting
for his life. We were very scared for him then, so we decided to
try to feed him with a bottle of milk. To say the chimp was
overjoyed is an understatement. He sucked greedily on the teat,
even though more milk kept pouring out of the gash on the side
of his mouth than down his throat, but it was the most life he'd
shown since his arrival.
Once the chimp accepted the bottle, it was easy to put antibiotic
medication into the milk and there was no trauma in treating his
infections internally. Thus began a vigil that lasted the rest of that
first day, as the chimp alternately drank and slept, his breath
coming so fitfully at times that we feared each might be his last.
Once or twice he opened his eyes and seemed to get a clear
look around at his surroundings, but then ex-haustion-or relief,
perhaps-seemed to overcome him and he'd drift off again.
Dave and I took turns holding him as he slept or preparing his
bottle, and we even took him to bed with us at night. But I don't
think we ever stopped to think, "Well, now what?" We were
running on instinct and there was no time to try and collect our
thoughts. Just like a human child, this chimp responded to
anybody who offered him a little tender loving care, and that's
what we meant to give him. We christened this brave little fellow
At the time, there was no way of knowing how completely our
lives were about to change simply because we'd decided to help
an injured chimpanzee. Before Pal arrived, Dave and I were
looking forward to retirement. I was fifty-one years old and
Dave was fifty-four, and our five children had long since grown
up and moved away. Chimfunshi, the old fishing camp we'd
bought in 1972 near the headwaters of the Kafue River and
turned into a fifty-five-acre cattle ranch, was to be our final
home, and we both had worked hard to make it the sort of place
we'd always dreamed of. Our days were long but our lives were
good, and some evenings, when we'd sit out under the big
acacia trees and look west over the floodplains as the herds of
antelope or elephants passed by, we told ourselves we'd found
the last unspoiled place on earth.
But then Pal arrived, and suddenly everything else ceased to
matter. Whatever routine and order we'd established on the farm
was promptly forgotten, and our every thought centered upon
the chimp and his well-being. If Pal awoke at 4 a.m., Dave and I
awoke at 4 a.m. If he napped in the afternoon, Dave and I
tiptoed around the house so as not to disturb him. There were
warm bottles at dawn and warm baths at night. It was as if
someone handed you your grandchild to raise as your own, and
suddenly all the parenting skills you thought you'd stored away
for good were being dusted off and put to use.
Pal weighed only fourteen pounds when he arrived, and our best
guess from all that we read about infant chimps and the photos
we looked at in books seemed to indicate that he was about a
year old-definitely still a "baby" by anybody's standards. Yet
Pal's youth seemed to contribute to his rapid recovery. Within
weeks, those awful wounds on his face were almost entirely
healed, and even though he would never lose the terrible scars
that gave him that rather droopy look, it was not long before he
seemed able to use his mouth and lips freely. We were also
lucky that it was only his baby teeth he lost. Even his diarrhea
began to wane. But while Pal's physical recovery was
impressive, his emotional recovery proved to be a long, slow,
uphill climb. His sleep was always tortured and traumatic, and
his nightmares were the worst. Some nights he awoke in such a
state, screaming in terror and screeching so hard that he began
to shake uncontrollably. Was he remembering his capture? The
death of his mother? His own injuries? I had no way of knowing,
of course, but I'd hold him close and stroke his fur until he
calmed down and, more often than not, he would fall back
asleep in my arms.
Pal grew quickly in confidence, and soon he was venturing
throughout the house, pulling open cabinets and raiding the
bookshelves. But he wasn't a particularly destructive chimp,
definitely not the sort to tear a house to pieces. Pal was just
extremely curious. He was also terribly smart. He'd watch what
you were doing, peering over your shoulder and looking intently
at your face as you concentrated, then do a perfect imitation. He
once spent an hour or so watching Dave cut wire with a pair of
pliers, and, when Dave accidentally dropped the pliers, Pal
swooped in and grabbed them, then scampered off to the
nearest fence and began cutting the wire himself.
As I said, Dave and I knew nothing about raising chimpanzees. I
think we had a copy of Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man
around the house, but while the book offered fascinating insights
into the behavior of wild chimpanzees, it said nothing about
raising one in your own home. Neither did any of the textbooks
or scientific journals we found, and since chimpanzees are no
longer indigenous to Zambia, even locating someone who knew
a little about chimps proved difficult. So we improvised. For
instance, some animal experts say that you can't possibly potty-train
a wild chimp, but Dave and I had never heard this-so we
did. We potty-trained Pal in a little over four months, just by
sitting him on the toilet like you would a child until he figured out
what we wanted. Once he was housebroken, you'd hear him go
into the toilet and then there'd be this tinkling noise. And he'd
wait because he knew you'd come after him, and then you'd
look into the toilet together and pull the chain to flush it, and
when the water would rush in, Pal would laugh hysterically. He
thought swirling water was terribly funny.
We also found ways to include Pal in our daily routine, since
Dave and I both had full-time jobs running the farm and couldn't
afford to spend hours watching him around the house. Zambian
women wear what is called a chitenje, which is two meters of
very colorful cloth that can be used for everything, including
fashioning a sling of sorts so that one can carry a child on either
one's back or front. I owned a few chitenjes at the time of Pal's
arrival, so that was how we carried him around the farm. When I
did my chores, I slung Pal up onto my back and carried him
everywhere I went. And when I was unable to cope any longer,
Dave took him everywhere else. Pal thoroughly enjoyed being
carried around this way, and he would alternately grab at things
over your shoulder and catch catnaps, when he would curl into
a tiny ball of black fur. In the wild, Pal would have spent most
of the day being carried around on the back of his mother, so I
doubt that he felt this routine was unusual.
Pal was not the first primate at Chimfunshi, however. We
already had a young male baboon at the time, whom we called
Rocky because he'd been confiscated from some local boys
who were trying to stone him to death with rocks. He arrived in
terrible shape, too, but we gave him a lot of attention and love,
and he recovered wonderfully. Rocky had a great personality.
He was bitten by a snake once, and when I treated the wound,
he was so proud of the bandage on his arm that he showed it off
to anybody he could find. Rocky also used to ride around on
the backs of my bullmastiff dogs as if they were horses.
So Pal joined our minimenagerie. I used to take them all out for
walks in the nearby forests to get exercise, and we'd laugh
because here I was with a chimpanzee, a baboon, and four large
dogs-I know we were an odd sight. But I was pleased to see
how quickly Pal reverted to chimp behavior out in the bush. He
acted just like any other chimp baby would have: he played in
the grass or leaves when we stopped, he climbed small trees,
and he spent a great deal of time searching for his favorite fruits,
like figs and cherries and msuku, a juicy green treat that is
somewhat like a cross between an apricot and a grape. But
mostly, baby chimps stay close to their mother, and since I was
the mother figure, that meant he seldom let me out of his sight.
In the daytime, because there were no other chimps around, Pal
would often sit close to Rocky and allow him to groom him.
Rocky would run his fingers through Pal's fur, removing any
pieces of dirt or dry skin, and both of them seemed to get such
pleasure out of the process. All monkeys and apes enjoy
grooming, and Pal would sit there motionless for an hour or
more, with the most faraway look on his face. I often wondered
what he was thinking about at those times-happy things
maybe, or sad-but the experience clearly left him more calm
Pal often returned the favor, grooming Rocky, and later Dave
and myself as well. He sometimes got annoyed with me when he
found that I had hairs growing in the wrong place on my chin or
pimples that needed squeezing, and would hold my face tightly
in his hands and make disapproving grunts and click his teeth
together. He used his lips and teeth to pull out the offending
hairs, but the pimples he would squeeze very gently between his
fingers, not releasing his grip on my face until he was satisfied I
Meanwhile, Dave and I came to regard Pal just like a child.
We'd already raised five human children between us, so it was
relatively easy in the early stages to cope with a single baby
chimpanzee, especially since he acted just like our own children
had. Pal would play with toys, take naps, throw tantrums, and
pout, just like any little human. He ate at our table alongside us,
and drank what we drank. He loved milk and tea, and even had
sips of our beer now and again. For treats, we'd slip him pieces
of chocolate, which he adored, and sugarcane. You might say
we went a bit too far and nearly "humanized" him-something I
am careful to avoid now-but in those days, we were basically
just trying whatever worked. Meanwhile, Pal became quite adept
at making himself understood. About two months after his
arrival, he began bringing his cup to you when he wanted a
drink. He'd thrust his cup forward, and there was no doubt
what he was saying: "I want a drink." And if I gave Pal a cup
filled with water and he looked at it and gave it back, well, then
we knew it was milk he wanted, or tea.
Pal taught us a good many lessons about chimpanzees, but
nothing was more surprising than his ability to barter. He
frequently got ahold of something he should not have, such as a
cap or someone's glasses, and since his favorite food is
bananas, I learned to offer him a banana in exchange for
whatever he had stolen. If he turned his back on me, I knew my
offer was ridiculous. So I would increase it to two bananas-again
the back treatment; then three bananas, and so on.
Eventually, as we got closer to a deal, Pal would turn and stare
me straight in the eyes, holding up the purloined item, until I got
to a figure he could live with-usually five or six bananas. Then
he'd make a soft, pant noise that signaled his agreement, and
he'd slip the goods toward me with one hand while pulling the
bananas toward himself with the other.
As he grew older, Pal's ability to communicate proved uncanny,
and there were times I'd swear he must have spoken to me
Excerpted from In My Family Tree
by Sheila Siddle with Doug Cress
Copyright © 2002 by Sheila Siddle and Doug Cress.
Excerpted by permission.
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