Walking with Chimps- Interview with a Primatologist (Part 1)

This is PART ONE of my interview with primatologist Melissa Ongman. She worked with Tango, the chimpanzee in this painting, during her time at the Chimpanzee Conservation Center. She now serves on the board and goes back to volunteer at the center when she can. We talk about her time at the CCC, orphaned chimps, and....what WAS that sound in the forest?!




Thank you so much for the time you are taking for this interview! I'm so excited to learn more about your work. First, the beginning. How did you decide to become a primatologist?


I loved animal behavior. I grew up with horses. Learning to communicate with animals was a really essential part of who I was growing up as a kid. I also had that connection with animals, I felt great around them. I thought it was silly that we were always trying to teach them our language instead of learning theirs- if we are the smarter animal- we should learn their language.

Primatology kind of fell into my lap. I went to school at Washington State University and got a zoology degree there. While in college I traveled in Thailand and I ran into some wild gibbons and was like, primates are so cool! It was amazing to see how human, and not human, they are. There are so many similarities you feel like you could learn so much about what they are thinking.

Then several years, and several small primate jobs, later they asked me at twenty three years old to be a manager at the sanctuary. The Chimpanzee Conservation Center was smaller at that time. I fell in love with the chimps. There are so many great things to learn about yourself by watching them and so many great things to learn about other people. They are a gift- a look into your past a little bit. Then to be able to help them, to communicate with them with a little bit of your voice, but mostly body language, is really cool. To think about how you move your body in order to communicate with them.


So you were able to learn their language.


Yes! I speak fluent, or semi-fluent, Western Chimpanzee. It took me a lot longer to learn French than chimpanzee.

After my degree in Zoology at Washington State and then managing the Chimpanzee Conservation Center at twenty three, I eventually got a masters degree in conservation as well. I came back to the CCC to get that Masters- I ran a mini PhD project on the chimps and Tango is in that data group. It was on how Chimpanzees learn. How they communicate with each other and how they learn new things.


Tell me a little more about the Chimpanzee Conservation Center and what it does.


We run a rehabilitation program. We are one of two successful rehabilitation programs in Africa that have successfully rehabilitated chimps back into the wild. We do that by taking them on daily bush walks when they are young. On these bush walks they teach each other. They come from different parts of Guinea and have each learned different things from their moms- and probably instinctual information as well- and they share that information with each other. It's really interesting to see that process of learning and seeing that information being passed down to different chimps. You'll see one that knows how to eat a certain type of fruit on a tree, but the others don't know how, so they watch and learn and then they can do it themselves.

Every morning at the center you head out for the walk with one on your back, one on your front- you can be weighed down in a lot of chimp fur. Sweaty chimps.

A great thing about the sanctuary is that it's out in the wild and the chimpanzees are able to come as close as they can to a natural experience with some help.


Where do the chimps at the center come from?


These chimps, since they are orphan chimpanzees, they come from the bush meat or pet trade. They say for every chimpanzee that we get, about 10 have died in the pet trade. The hunter will go kill the mom chimp, or whatever adult chimps are around, then they will pull the baby off the dead mother, and then toss it in a bag and take it to the market to sell.

Unfortunately it's a lot of westerners that think they want a cute little baby that looks so human and adorable and small. On TV you just see the baby chimps- you don't see them when they are big. People aren’t prepared for that.

Other times westerners will buy a chimp in the markets because they think they are saving the chimp- but unfortunately if you buy the chimp for any reason, that continues the demand. For a Guinean who's having a hard time feeding his family a chimp can bring a lot of money and so if someone buys the chimp it's going to motivate him to go out there and find a lot more chimps. So we always told people that if you find a chimp, call the authMelissa Ongman with Tango at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centerorities.


Chimpanzees are critically endangered animals and selling them is illegal in Guinea, so when the government confiscates the chimp they bring them to the Chimpanzee Conservation Center.



When the government confiscates them, I am guessing they can be pretty traumatized?


Yes, there are all different levels of traumatized chimps.

They can come in all sorts of horrible conditions and what we do is really like rehab. They come and they have all these issues- they might be scared of you, they might be scared of other chimps, they might not know how to interact with each other, they are malnourished with hair falling out. Fortunately, most of them grow out of those things as time goes on and they start to heal.

As babies we give them a lot of attention, we try to be the mom as much as possible. They are on their mother for the first four to six years- within an arm’s reach all the time. Even if they are sitting down, she is always there to grab them, so to not have that physical contact would be really hard on them. We try to fill that up as much as we can with human contact. Then when they are old enough, around two or so, we try to transition it so that the other chimps provide that contact that they need.

We have chimps that come to the center that are rocking, some engaging in self-mutilization. Similar behaviors that you see with people who are traumatized. We use the same psychotherapy ideas that are used for humans. For the most part, by the time they reach adulthood, which is around 12, most of them have grown out of those things with the help of their pals. They feel confident and they know where they are supposed to be.



Some of the chimps are not going to be able to be released, but lots of them are. You can see the difference that center and the other chimps provide for them. One example is Nelson. When he arrived he was skin and bones and he was kept in a little box. He wouldn't come out of his box when he first got there- in the beginning he had all sorts of problems. Now he's this big beautiful chimp that's totally relaxed and having a good time. Chimps are very resilient.


I always think they must be very forgiving. To forgive you. It was my species who did that to them. I hope that there is that ability to forgive in us as well. They also have jealousy and anger and all those things, but forgiveness- that is an amazing thing that they have.



Stay tuned for PART TWO of my interview with Melissa Ongman, where we talk more about how she came to work at the Chimpanzee Conservation Center, her favorite things about working there, and we get to find out about that sound in the forest.



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!