What Can Chimps Teach Us About Care?

LA MERE: Amy Hanes, Heller MA’11, PhD’19 (left), interviews a fellow caregiver while a young charge plays.
Karena Tilt
LA MERE: Amy Hanes, Heller MA’11, PhD’19 (left), interviews a fellow caregiver while a young charge plays.

The first night Amy Hanes, Heller MA’11, PhD’19, spent in a rural sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees was memorable. It was 2015. Hanes, now a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at Brandeis and a Charlotte Newcombe Fellow, was undertaking fieldwork at the 225-acre Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue, one of several chimp sanctuaries she worked in before finishing her field research in mid-2016. Deep in Cameroon’s Mbargue Forest, the remote outpost had no electricity or running water but plenty of scorpions and poisonous insects, as well as black cobras and green mambas, which are among Africa’s deadliest snakes.

Sweaty, tired and hungry, Hanes arrived at the sanctuary after a seven-hour train ride from Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, and a long drive into the forest. She set up a mosquito net in her small cabin and collapsed into bed. That’s when the sounds began.

“When I lay down, something screamed,” she says. “It was a pig’s squeal, a hawk’s screech and a human’s scream all melded together.” Hanes later learned the screamer was a hyrax, a small mammal that looks like a husky guinea pig. Once the hyrax stopped yelling, the chimps started, and their screams were louder, longer and even more terrifying.

“I reviewed my options,” says Hanes, who was worried a group of chimps was headed her way. “The lock on my cabin door was something a chimp, or I, could easily snap in two. It was the first of many times I asked myself, ‘What in the hell have I done?’”

The next day, Hanes casually asked a Cameroonian caregiver if any chimps had escaped their night cages. He laughed and explained that, like humans, chimps cannot see in the dark. One chimp had probably rolled over onto another, disturbing his sleep. Although night fights can turn into mayhem, eventually everyone settles down.

Hanes studies what happens when humans care for and about another species — in her case, chimpanzees. Her research was indirectly influenced by a Peace Corps stint she did a decade earlier in Niger, where she worked on education-based projects in a small town. Over time, she came to the view that many, if not most, development organizations were failing to make lasting change. She no longer wanted to work in development — she wanted to question it.

“I chose anthropology as a discipline because of its methods,” she says. “Whether we study human-chimp relationships, violence in prison or love in a virtual world, we gather data by participating in whatever it is we want to understand.”

Since chimpanzee sanctuaries are relatively new in Africa (most have been around for 20 years or less), humans are still trying to figure out what it means to care for a species so similar to and yet so different from our own.

Hanes reasoned that taking care of chimps herself, in addition to observing and interviewing other caregivers, would give her a valuable vantage point. People from all over the world converge at chimp sanctuaries, some because they have dreamed of working in Africa, others because they need a job, still others because they are fascinated by the animals. As a result, these sanctuaries are a living laboratory in which to study the different ways people understand care.

“Care” is a complex concept. On her first visit to Cameroon, Hanes noticed the word crept up constantly in conversation. “Some declared their devotion to a cause and its attendant values when they said things like ‘I care about wildlife conservation,’” she says. “People tried to shape each other’s behavior by claiming, ‘If you cared about us, you would treat us better.’” She would hear Cameroonians ask, “Do whites care more about wildlife than about us?” Westerners would ask, “Do Cameroonian staff care more about their salaries than the animals?”

Over the course of three extended trips to Cameroon between 2013-18, Hanes spent about two years caring for infant chimpanzees orphaned by the illegal bush meat, exotic-pet or entertainment trades. She and Cameroonian caregivers would tutor infant chimps in “chimp skills,” such as social cues and vocalizations.

In the sanctuary, it was often chimps, not humans, who directed care. Infants insisted on certain kinds of touch and refused others — soliciting hugs when frightened, scratching or even biting when angry.

One of Hanes’ most memorable charges was Gnala, a 1-year-old female. “Caring for Gnala was like being responsible for a human toddler hyped up on Mountain Dew and chocolate, who could run faster, climb higher and bite harder than you,” she says.

Still, a deep connection grew between Hanes and Gnala. “Sometimes I sat in disbelief — we were two great apes who, using chimp vocalizations and gestures, could communicate with each other,” Hanes says. “I was not supposed to know Gnala’s favorite fruit or which areas of the forest she liked to explore. I was not supposed to know how to groom a chimpanzee. We were not supposed to be together. She was supposed to be with her mom, and that made it all deeply sad.”

At Ape Action Africa, the second sanctuary Hanes did fieldwork in, she became the primary caregiver for a 9-month-old chimpanzee named Little Larry. “For two months, we were together 22 hours a day,” she says. They spent their days in the forest with two other orphan chimps, 2-year-old Daphne and 1-year-old Paula. The animals’ interactions showed Hanes that what chimps expect from one another in terms of care is as complex and nuanced as it is for their human counterparts. At night, Little Larry slept on a small mattress next to her bed.

“When you are together for that long, you develop rhythms,” says Hanes. “I knew how he preferred to be carried. He battled the other infants for sugar cane, then came to me for reassurance when he lost. I sat nearby when he wanted to play alone, and he hit me on the back of the head when he wanted to be chased.”

The Cameroonians called Hanes “la mère de Little Larry,” or Little Larry’s mother. “I had heard them do this with other caregivers, but it was startling when they did it for me,” she says. “It gave me pause and made me question who I was to him.”

Eventually, Little Larry was transferred to a full-time Cameroonian caregiver. Nevertheless, when her fieldwork ended, Hanes considered staying. She knew Little Larry would soon transition from human care to an all-chimp group, where he would be the youngest and the smallest.

Yet she realized that “even if I did see him through his transition, we would still have to part ways,” she says. “I was not his mother. I was his human.”

Simon Goodacre is assistant director of communications and marketing at Brandeis’ Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.