Walking with Chimps- Interview with a Primatologist (Part 2)

This is the story behind Tango, the painting of the chimpanzee, and his home, the Chimpanzee Conservation Center. This is PART TWO of my interview with primatologist Melissa Ongman, who worked with Tango during her time at the CCC (click here if you missed part one). She now serves on the board and goes back to volunteer at the center when she can. We continue talking about her work with the Chimpanzee Conservation Center, orphaned chimps, and what WAS that sound in the forest?!



Can you tell me a more about how you got involved with the Chimpanzee Conservation Center?


I was 23 and out of college, I didn’t know the next step in becoming a primatologist. It's a very competitive field- lots of people want to become Jane Goodall- but I found a listing on a website and thought, how many people are crazy enough to do this? So I applied and they took me. It was pretty quick and all the sudden I was off. It was fully French speaking, so that was really hard at first. That first time I went was a roller coaster and a crash course in everything, then the next three times I went it was easier.



What was your exact roll when you got there that first time?


The first time, I was managing the local keepers and the volunteer staff. It was a pretty small volunteer staff at that time. In addition to the volunteers, there was a veterinarian and local staff members. We were about six hours by car from the nearest town, so staff would take shifts on who was working and who would go back to see their families. We were in a national park in Guinea- the Haut Niger National Park. It's one of the last strongholds of the western chimpanzee. It's at the beginning of the Niger River and it is an absolutely beautiful place.


The second time I went back I was a volunteer, not a staff member, and someone else was managing things. The third time they needed some equipment brought from the U.S., so that’s what I did.  When I was there that third time is when the center did their first release of rehabilitated chimps.



How did that go?


It went ok. It was a little bit of a rough start. At first the chimps didn't know what they were doing outside the center and they ran apart from each other, but then they came back together and stayed in a nice little group. After that they were good. It was fun for me because it was something different. Most of the time you are just with your chimps and the little local territory near the center, but during the release we got to hike around the park and see more of the landscape.


What were you doing while you were in the park for the release?


The chimps have radio transmitters on them so we had to go around and see that they had created a territory for themselves. I was with someone else and one of us would wear the headset to listen for the transmitters.



What was it like being out in the park?


We got to see tons of baboons and hear leopards and many other things that made me say to the person I was with: "DID YOU HEAR THAT?!"


The person I was with would have on the headset and then I'd say: "Did you hear that?! I heard a growl. I heard a growl!"  The other person would take the headset off, listen, and then not hear anything. But knew I did, so I would insist that we were really close to a leopard. So we would leave. Even if the other person didn’t believe me. (Laughs.)


I can understand wanting to leave! Better safe than sorry!  It reminds me of how in the Pacific Northwest, I find the forests so different than the ones on the East Coast that grew up with. The forests here are so huge and primeval. When I’m hiking in them I really get to reconnect with the idea that when left to protect ourselves with only our own body (without weapons to help us), we are basically prey animals when it comes down to it. It's such an an interesting feeling to reconnect with- that we are essentially…something's food.


And if I scream in the woods, would anyone hear me?



Exactly! We kind of lose that walking around Seattle, but when you get in touch with that, it’s such an interesting feeling. A leopard's not thinking…oh that's a human.


Yes, and has she checked her instagram today? (Laughs.) Exactly. I agree.



So I am sure that was an interesting experience.


There is a rule in your head that you can't be scared of things. Because if you let yourself be scared of something, then you will be scared of everything. As soon as you start getting scared of the snake, then you are going to get scared of the spider, and then you’re going to be scared of the human that's coming with a gun. Maybe that's why I did it when I was young.


I was there for some civil disputes in the country- some scary things happened nearby in both of the countries that I lived in, but you just say whatever happens- "I'm fine. Everything is fine."




What was your favorite part of working at the Chimpanzee Conservation Center?


I can tell you my favorite place- it was a big hill by the savannah. Most of the time the chimps like to be in more closed spaces, but during the dry season you could go by the savannah and there is this hill you would kind of push yourself up and when you got to the top it spreads out into this open space. Every time you are up there with the chimps, it turns into this kind of spiritual experience. A beautiful moment where you just feel like you are doing exactly the thing that you want to do- and that the chimps are feeling that way too. We would hang out on the edge together, or the chimps would go up into the trees, or sometimes they would sit in your lap for you to groom them for awhile, or they would groom you. I had all kinds of marks on my hands from over-grooming. They would start pulling out skin and hair and you would say, “Hey! That's not a bug. It's a freckle!”


So yeah. Those kinds of moments. When you are sitting with a baby chimp in your lap and you are just looking at each other. Spending time with them and their cute little pot belles. You sit and groom their belly and they become like putty in your hands. You can move their arm and then put it back and then move the other arm and then put it back. There's this complete relaxation and trust. Those were my favorite parts



There is still more chimpanzee goodness to come! Stay tuned for Part III of the interview!


50% of the price of the original painting of Tango and 20% of all prints sold, go to support the important work of the Chimpanzee Conservation Center. Use code happyholidays to receive 20% the original or prints until Dec 18th. Give a gift with purpose!