[monkeywire] Alamedan spent summer babysitting chimpanzee
joshg1973 at yahoo.com
Sun Dec 28 15:58:16 EST 2003
Alamedan spent summer babysitting chimpanzee
By Kristin Bender, STAFF WRITER
THIS SUMMER, Alamedan Kate Beck caught a cold from a chimpanzee. When you spend 24 hours
a day with a chimp -- feeding, bathing, entertaining and grooming it -- all those nasty
germs are bound to spread.
Chimps share 98.4 percent DNA with humans, which make them closer to people than gorillas
Their likeness also apparently gives them the ability to spread colds to their two-legged
friends, said Beck, who is somewhat of a chimp expert after spending three months
volunteering at the Jane Goodall Institute's Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in
Uganda's Lake Victoria.
The 40 baby and adult chimpanzees who live at the sanctuary year-round have been rescued
from poachers who try to kill the adults for meat and attempt to sell the babies as pets.
During her stay, the 30-year-old Beck spent four weeks caring for Bili, a 4-year-old
The chimp was named after the town in the Democratic Republic of Congo where she is
presumed to have come from.
Bili had undergone a hernia operation and like a human youngster needed constant care
while she recovered.
"Think of a 2-year-old child recovering from surgery," said Beck, who was raised in
Alameda. "You have to keep them occupied and entertained and make sure they don't get
injured or pull out their stitches."
While recuperating, Bili was separated from the other chimps and cared for by Beck at a
house in Entebbe on the shores of Lake Victoria, about an hour-and-a-half boat ride from
the main sanctuary.
"I stayed with her 24 hours a day for a month," said Beck. "You wouldn't believe how
smart (chimps) are."
Bili, for one, liked to paint pictures (some chimp artwork is so striking it's sold), try
on clothes and model Beck's wristwatch.
She also had learned to brush her teeth, but sometimes -- in a moment of chimp confusion
-- used her paintbrush as a makeshift toothbrush.
But her grooming regimen didn't stop with keeping clean her pearly whites.
Like any sensible gal, Bili enjoyed the peace and quite of a warm bubble bath from time
Sometimes after a particularly productive painting session, the two filled a tub with
water and suds and Bili scrubbed herself clean.
"She'd scrub herself all over," recalled Beck, still a bit amused at the thought of a
And then there was the whole cold mess.
Beck isn't sure how she caught the bug from her chimp pal, but the two were passing
tissues back and forth at one point.
Seeing Beck blow her nose, Bili would reach out a hand for some Kleenex of her own. Then,
just like a person, she'd blow one side of her nose and then the other. Then she'd go
about her business with tissue in hand.
The chimp, who has an outgoing personality and loves to giggle and play, also got a kick
out of checking her reflection in a hand-held mirror found by Beck.
Of the three-month volunteer stay, Beck said, "It was the best, most amazing thing I've
But there were some down moments too.
"It was hard sometimes being with her for a whole month," said Beck. "I got lonely. I
loved being with her, but at the end of the day I wanted to go out to dinner and to the
movies with the friends I had made. I couldn't do that with a chimp."
In addition to caring for Bili, Beck worked in the sanctuary offices entering data on the
chimps into a computer, feeding and walking babies and cleaning cages.
She became interested in chimps while doing six years of volunteer work at the Oakland
Zoo, studying and recording chimp behavior. The information is compared to the behavior
of chimps in the wild. But at the zoo, Beck stayed on one side of the fence, never
actually touching the chimps.
Working with chimps in the wild was so inspiring that she hopes to return one day.
The sanctuary, which includes 98 acres of forest for the adults to roam free, was
established five years ago to care for orphaned chimps that have been rescued by the
Uganda Wildlife Authority from poachers and traders.
Chimps range in age from 2 to 15 years old. Adults roam free during the day, coming into
the sanctuary for supplemental meals and to sleep. Babies are kept indoors during the day
and at night, but are walked for an hour each morning and evening, said Beck.
"It's the most wonderful thing. You are standing on one side of the gate and all the
sudden they release the chimps, and they run over to you, climb up onto your back and
want to be cradled. ... they try and untie your shoe laces," said Beck's mother Joyce
Beck, who lives in Alameda and spent two weeks visiting Beck with husband John and
daughter Laura, 25.
The sanctuary is important because the common chimpanzee is considered endangered, with
an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 chimps in the forests of 21 African countries, according
to data from the sanctuary.
In fact, some scientists estimate that chimps will be extinct in five to 10 years,
according to sanctuary data. The trip was very important to Beck, a life-long animal
lover, who first applied for a spot in the volunteer program three years ago. But it also
took a lot of prep work.
Before she left, Beck had 10 vaccinations, covering diseases from hepatitis to rabies to
tuberculosis. She also left her job as cat services coordinator for the Hopalong Animal
Rescue program, which required finding foster homes for cats that were overcrowding
Oakland and Alameda shelters.
Always an animal lover, Beck considers herself an adventurer.
"I want to see the world," she said. She had travelled to Europe and Australia before
going to Africa. This trip was different and she and her family had some concerns before
she set out.
"I went onto the State Department Web site, which reports conditions around the world and
they weren't that positive," her mother said.
"But Kate is very bright, and she said she was going so we gave her our 100 percent
support," her mother added. "As soon as she got there, our fears were allayed, wonderful
things started happening for her."
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