Friday, August 16, 2013

A Dream of A Sanctuary and Votes Needed!

What prompted me to rush to publish my blog was this: I saw an article by The Huffington Post come through over facebook. It's about a contest, where you vote for the best painting by a chimpanzee who is living in a sanctuary. 

Chimpanzee Artists Are Competing For Your Vote now

Adorable, right? And SUCH a good cause! You can vote directly here if you like.

I was a little biased in my vote, but I'll explain why. I of course was very curious about all these sanctuaries, the one Leah is at was not participating. I clicked on the link for Save The Chimps, and have been in AWE ever since. Can you believe this place! While sanctuaries are still necessary, this is how all sanctuaries should strive to be! They are not in cages, but in family groups on three acres islands! My god, how I wish Leah could be in a place like that. I'm very thankful for the sanctuary she is in, mind you, but to be outdoors, with trees and live as much like a chimp? So much better. 

And how handsome is that Cheetah? He very much reminds of  Izzy in looks and manner. What a sweet guy. 

 By the way, if you're wondering if chimps do art "on purpose," I can say from my experience, I think they do. I think they had to have seen my Granny painting at least a few times. 

The sign for pretty was one all the chimps knew, and they used it often. Butterflies were pretty according to them, puppies, kittens, fresh mowed grass, and the humans they were connected to. 

 I once gave the boys paper and finger paints and they loved it. Sure, some of it was put in the mouth, but just initially for them to test what it was. They concentrated very hard and seemed to mull over what colors they wanted to pick. These beings have great capacity for artistic expression. :) 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

I Was Completely Beside Myself


I think most new blogs start out with an explanation of why and how they began. I'll conform and begin there too. I read a book, and it woke me up to a wonderful--and not so wonderful part of my life. I'll let the letter explain for now, and follow up soon with some filling in. Please subscribe to hear about the rest of our story. 

Note: the above image is my PawPaw Jim Cook.He is holding Uriah. Uriah has the dubious distinction of being the first chimpanzee born into a family household.

Dear Mrs Karen Joy Fowler,

I’ve waited my whole life to feel connected to a book. As an avid reader, quite frankly, it’s always ticked me off that of the hundreds of books I’ve read a year--I didn’t have that special connection to one. As a young mother watching Oprah, I’d be so envious of those women who appeared on the book club specials talking about how the book changed their lives, or turned things around in some way. Personally I was rooting for The Jane Austen Book Club. :)

Fast forward to two days in July as I’m lying here sick with pneumonia: Not ideal, but leads to some uninterrupted reading time for a busy mom of six. After a friend notices a possible connection with my past, I plow into We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

Fast forward to gut punches and kidney jabs as the blows come one after another as an Author seems to reach into my head: As a young girl, I have my own episodic memories. I’m at least four-years-old. Unbeknownst to the adults a large chimpanzee is pinching my behind as someone tries to photograph us. (us being my siblings and Tanya the chimp.) Tanya is the darling of my Granny, who is an Oklahoma transplant to a small Texas town. If my recall is correct, Tanya is around ten years old and was raised as a baby by my grandparents--a cross-fostered chimp from the University of Oklahoma and Dr. William Lemon through the Institute Of Primate Studies.

Unlike my oldest sibling, cousins and uncles--I didn’t care too much for Tanya. She was a hogger. If there were graduate students, she stole the limelight, and they thought her brilliant. She hogged my Granny’s time, who found it hard to find human children exceptional after Tanya, her over two-hundred signs and glorious physical feats.

Later, Tanya was introduced to Meschach the male she was to breed with. I’m told she signed that he was “dirty ape,” a sentiment everyone in the family probably agreed with as his favorite activity was to throw his poop at us.

Then came Uriah. I don’t remember his birth--he has the distinction of being the first chimp born in the US in captivity. My memories come to glaring life as another baby chimp Israel--or Izzy as we called him--was sent to live with my grandmother too. Since she’d been able to keep both Tanya and Uriah alive(who’d been removed from his mother at this time. She sat him down, which is a big no no.) they figured she could help Uriah and have two male chimps be raised together with experienced human chimp parents. I’m sure this made for convenient opportunities for more studies.

My first memories of the boys were of them riding my Granny’s pants legs. I’d never seen beings more vulnerable or cuter. I adored them. I wanted nothing more than to play with them and got my opportunity as they grew older. My cousins and I learned to live in a chimp world pretty quick! Weekends and holidays were spent learning this chimp-eat-chimp world. You either grabbed food, or one of the boys would get it first. You hauled ass to the swings and planted yourself there or one of the boys would dominate you before you could blink. You climbed trees faster, or tried to--or they pushed you out of those trees with gleeful hoots and hollers. My cousins and I learned to make pacts with one another. Someone was the early warning system, and everyone stuck their feet under the couch at once and put their arms under our bodies, as the boys charged through, jumping on backs--their favorite game being pinching and biting to see which human child would squeal and look up first.

Then Leah was born and my Granny got sick. I don’t remember the order of things here. As a nine-year-old it was scary seeing my Granny sick--this super-strong woman who resembled Rosie The Riveter getting weaker and weaker. Tanya died almost a year to the date that my granny did and everyone said it was from depression and grief. I believe it.

Things changed then. We barely came together for holidays, and if we saw our cousins on the weekends it felt more like happenstance than anything on purpose. My sisters and I continued to climb trees with the boys and play horse-back riding with them, but they were getting rougher. Soon they were installed into cages after some attacks on family members. Their cages were as pleasant as cages could be. They had both indoor and outdoor places, air conditioning and filled with trampolines and toys for thier enjoyment. When no one was around, my PawPaw let them out to run wild in the yard. We’d sometimes get to play in their cages, and I’d thought them kind of fun.

Leah was growing and being raised alone by PawPaw with early help from an aunt and uncle. He spoiled her rotten. She was his baby and could do NO wrong. I became a teen and life was hard for me. My mother moved us into a house several blocks from my grandfather and life was strange. Home life was horrible, but normalcy for me became a household full of chimps. Leah dominated the house by then and everyone around her. My sisters and I started getting dropped off the school bus at our PawPaws house. He fed us and taught us how to play poker and backgammon, and for me, he let me take over the care of the boys. I’d decided to major in primatology, and before me were the two best thesis fantasy inducing beings ever. I studied their behaviors during feeding time, trying my best to look at them as apes and not family members in jail. Taught them a few extra signs too. Read numerous books on primates learning scientific things by scientists that used words and described things that I’d never attributed to apes. Sometimes I laughed at their work--ridiculous that apes only mimicked languages and didn’t understand oral language--felt superior to others whose chimps didn’t learn as fast as the boys and Leah did. I was on top of the world in that environment. I was queen, and was given a pat on the head by PawPaw when I bossily said I’d be their caregiver forever. I was qualified of course in my mind. The boys got into some trouble though one day as they attacked a great-granddaughter. They were sent to live in a sanctuary. I was sad, but I still had Leah who was my sister and best friend in the whole world.

Leah was different. She was sometimes girly and compassionate. She could be distracted easily with cute things like kittens and responded with the best love ever if you were crying. Leah chewed my homework, and I got to tell one of the best “ ate my homework stories,” ever, backed up with a polaroid picture to my ninth grade English teacher. Besides a few good friends who knew--I’d never really told any schools about my unusual upbringing. I was instantly the favorite of the science teacher, sign language teacher and students who thought I was cool and worthy of getting to know. Any science project I did on the chimps got instant A’s.

Like all life stories, this one has a middle that seems like the beginning of an end: My human sisters and I are awakened in the middle of the night by my PawPaw’s girlfriend’s daughter. She says we have to hurry, my PawPaw is having a heart attack and the emergency medical team along with the girlfriend are frightened of Leah, who was sleeping in the same room when it happened.

The only thing I remember about the rest of that night is shock as I saw my PawPaws body on his bed, and Leah howling in the most unholy way--sounds I’ve never heard coming from a chimp. For the first time ever, I was afraid of her.

I don’t remember the rest, or even if I was helpful with Leah at all. I think possibly an Uncle arrived to lock her in the cage for her own safety.

My PawPaws funeral was three days later. I stayed behind with Leah. Not because I was afraid of funerals, but was afraid for Leah. She was despondent. She held onto my neck through the cage, and I don’t care what anyone says--she cried. I didn’t know how to console my sister. She would barely lift her head to look at me, just kept a grip on me as she whimpered. We were one in our misery.

I think it was the following day or maybe a few that she was taken. She was driven to a sanctuary near Austin called Primarily Primates. I was in shock. Shock. Shock. Shock. My sister, MINE was gone. The girl who bravely stood up to a jerky boyfriend of my mothers, hitting him because he raised his voice at me, my sister who ate granola cereal with me after school, who spoon fed me chopped up ice just because she shared like that, and my sister whose grip on my heart was absolutely complete. We weren’t human and chimp, just beings sharing simple, honest body language to communicate what the other needed--whether that was a hug, kiss and sometimes knock out fights, it was always honest and loyal.

I was pissed. I still am sometimes. I’m supposed to be okay that she’s in a sanctuary. Okay that she’s in the company of other chimps. All I can think of is that at HOME she’d be able to climb trees, have a puppy, and make choices--even if those choices were what to eat or drink. I’m about as happy she’s there as I would be if one of my sisters were in foster care. Sure, you might be grateful if you knew your sister were being fed and had a place to sleep, but it’s still foster care. It’s not home, the place she learned to climb curtains, ride ponies and strategically dodge acorns from a sling-shot. She’s not home.

My sister the ballsy badd-ass had to learn her place. She had to learn she was a chimp, but a female chimp, and she no longer had choices.

My life became black and white after she left. I stopped reading anything to do with chimpanzee studies. I quit school the following year, I stopped singing, I stopped everything because the two beings--my PawPaw and Leah--my lifelines were gone and I didn’t get a damn proper good-bye.

When you live an early life in a half-fairytale--it changes you. Where you once were special for having known that kind of life, the bare floor when the rug is removed is harsher than if you’d only had a bare floor to step on all along.

Reading your book didn’t tear open old wounds, it just exposed the one’s already there that are unhealed. And it did another thing too. It brought some peace. It brought thoughts of an adult perspective of my childhood. Looking back at forty, is much different than looking back at sixteen, twenty-five and thirty.

I see now how lucky I was, how privileged to get to know the bonds that beings can share even though they aren’t supposed to. I am lucky.

Your book brought up funny traits that to this day I share with chimps. At forty--I still pick things up with my toes. Half a room can be cleaned without ever bending down. I rock myself back and forth on a daily basis for self-comfort. I’m still selfish and want to do things before anyone can beat me to it. I trust loud and boisterous people, and am suspicious of quiet and shy. And I love--I still love regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion and even species.

Like you wrote in your book, most people who experience this feel the need to write a book, or tell someone about it. This is my way of telling someone. As I read your book, I was completely beside myself, forgiving myself, loving myself and my memories.

Leah is still alive. While I know where she is, and have seen recent pictures of her--mostly I try not to think of her. I think I can now, and maybe I can contribute in some small way to the sanctuary that has cared for now over half her life. I am ready to tell that animal experiments shouldn’t happen. I am ready to tell that as much as we love animals, they can love us back too, and we risk their emotional health just as much as our own when we try to cross boundaries like this. I’m ready to say that while I love my grandparents dearly, I wish I could spare the emotional pain of every chimp who was fostered this way. I too fantasize of building a sanctuary where humans are on the inside and chimps on the outside enjoying the trees, birds and living life. If people could really see how close we animals are, it would possibly give people a better understanding of the earthly connection we all share, how close we really are and how much we are alike.

Thank you

Traci Flores, sister to Leah who happens to be a chimp,Granddaughter of Jim and Wanda Cook