Chained to tree, chimp begs for two years

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NEWS - ROBYN DIXON

JO­HAN­NES­BURG — The young chim­panzee with thin­ning hair and sad eyes stood beg­ging, hold­ing out her plas­tic bot­tle while chained to a tree in a des­o­late ur­ban park in cen­tral An­gola.

She had been there about two years. Ap­par­ently, it had not oc­curred to any­one to set her free.

Lo­cal res­i­dents said a man known as Mo­rais had bought her from an an­i­mal trader for what had been his mini­zoo in the Granja Por Do Sol park in the town of Huambo and called her Leila. But the zoo went broke, and the man hadn’t been seen in the area for at least 18 months.

No one could af­ford to feed or care for Leila, so she be­gan beg­ging.

Lo­cals gave her left­overs, some­times rice gone too sour to eat them­selves. For a laugh, some even bought her beer to see her drunk.

When John Grob­ler passed through town in late April, Leila lay hud­dled, half-starved in a smudge of shade, with a dirty red rag as a col­lar and eyes as empty as the aban­doned cages.

She had a nasty scar on her head and her in­cisors had been re­moved, yet she still trusted hu­mans, her only source of food.

Grob­ler, a free­lance jour­nal­ist from Namibia, at first did not have time to get in­volved aside from buy­ing her a meal. There were no fruit shops nearby, so he got her chicken, chips and a soda. She poured the sweet liq­uid down her throat with a kind of con­cen­trated bliss.

“You know, I fed her and then I sat there and pet­ted her,” Grob­ler said re­cently in a phone in­ter­view. “There was a mo­ment when she sat and looked me in the eye, long and still, and I could see be­low the mis­ery there was some­thing there, some­thing fa­mil­iar. I knew right then I was go­ing to help that chimp, even if I had to steal her.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Jane Goodall In­sti­tute, which runs havens in Africa for res­cued chim­panzees, the chim­panzee pop­u­la­tion is be­ing dev­as­tated by the bush-meat trade, the wild-pet trade, wire snares and the use of chimps as road­side at­trac­tions.

There were once mil­lions of chim­panzees across 25 African coun­tries, but the pop­u­la­tion has dropped to about 150,000 to 250,000, the World Wildlife Fund said. They have gone ex­tinct in coun­tries such as Togo, Benin, Gam­bia and Burk­ina Faso.

Ad­vo­cates say gov­ern­ments have been slow to pros­e­cute those caught traf­fick­ing in chim­panzees — which is banned un­der the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species — be­cause of wide­spread cor­rup­tion across the re­gion. Chim­panzees can sell for $1,000 to $10,000 each.

Leila, who is 4, was a baby when she was taken from the May­ombe for­est in Cabinda, a nar­row strip of An­golan ter­ri­tory no­to­ri­ous for poach­ing, il­le­gal log­ging and wildlife traf­fick­ing, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment records.

By the time Grob­ler came across her, she was in no shape to sur­vive on her own. Car­ing for her would not be easy.

“I couldn’t ex­actly take her to the B&B I was stay­ing in,” Grob­ler said.

He was passing through town be­fore a week­long as­sign­ment and de­cided he would res­cue her on his way back through Huambo.

Be­fore de­part­ing, he left about $ 50 — much more than enough to feed Leila for a week — with a cafe owner who promised to care for her.

Grob­ler also be­gan look­ing for a per­ma­nent home for Leila. Af­ter strik­ing out sev­eral times, he found a place that could ac­com­mo­date her, the Pan African Sanc­tu­ary Al­liance in Chim­fun­shi, Zam­bia, about 800 miles away.

When Grob­ler re­turned from his as­sign­ment and went to see Leila, she danced and hooted with ex­cite­ment. She clutched his two gifts — fat av­o­ca­dos — gob­bling them down with ap­pre­cia­tive grunts.

Grob­ler bought Leila a wa­ter bucket, which she pounced on with a joy­ful splash. She ig­nored ba­nanas he pro­vided but ate an un­fa­mil­iar new treat, pineap­ple. Grob­ler showed her the pho­tographs he had taken of her on his phone. She stared at the screen like a child, mim­ick­ing ev­ery hu­man ac­tion she saw.

“By then Leila and I were good friends,” he said. “She’d sit on her plat­form sway­ing and look­ing for me. The mo­ment I ar­rived she’d be up on her back legs do­ing a happy chimp dance.”

He found out about Da­lene Bris­ley Dreyer, who ran a small an­i­mal shel­ter in her back­yard in the cap­i­tal, Luanda. She agreed to take Leila. It would buy time to ar­range her trans­fer to the sanc­tu­ary in Chim­fun­shi.

He needed per­mits from the lo­cal head of gov­ern­ment vet­eri­nary ser­vices to move Leila to Luanda. Grob­ler went to the of­fi­cial’s of­fice time af­ter time. Em­ploy­ees there told him the man would be back — some­time.

It took days to find a sport util­ity ve­hi­cle to trans­port Leila af­ter Grob­ler re­jected three, one with no brakes, the sec­ond with no spare and the third which looked un­re­li­able.

Grob­ler spent a day vainly search­ing the town’s in­dus­trial streets for a con­tainer that could be con­verted to a cage for trans­port.

The project be­gan to look fan­ci­ful. Even if he could track down the of­fi­cial and get the pa­pers he needed, the cost of sav­ing Leila was more than he could af­ford. The car was $620, and he knew that more ex­penses would crop up along the way.

Then luck turned his way. A crowd of peo­ple ral­lied on Face­book to raise money to move her. He stum­bled across the con­tainer he needed one evening on the way to din­ner. He found a work­shop to con­vert it into a cage with chicken wire.

Then he ran into the vet­eri­nary of­fi­cial, who was out for din­ner one night. Grob­ler cornered him, but he was adamant that the pa­pers would take at least two weeks.

Grob­ler pleaded. Then he pleaded some more. Two days later, the re­quired doc­u­ments were ready.

But the driver of the SUV had dis­ap­peared.

On the eve of his de­par­ture, Grob­ler had to find an­other SUV, get the cage fin­ished and buy some seda­tives for Leila for the jour­ney.

He woke at dawn that Fri­day morn­ing in early May to the smell of fresh bread and the put­ter of mo­tor­cy­cles, jan­gling his nerves. Too many things could go wrong. Mostly he wor­ried about the many po­lice road­blocks on the 13-hour drive, any one of which could make big trou­ble for him, even with the right trans­port doc­u­ments.

At the park, he fed Leila two seda­tives with honey.

But then a posse of about 20 park se­cu­rity guards ar­rived and warned Grob­ler that he could not take Leila. An­other man ac­costed him, want­ing to be paid for the beer he had bought the chim­panzee. As Grob­ler ar­gued with them and tried to phone lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, the chimp grew ag­i­tated.

One of the guards loos­ened Leila’s chain, and the pan­icked chimp fled. Grob­ler gave chase, afraid she would dash into the nearby slum and be stoned. He even­tu­ally found her cow­er­ing ter­ri­fied un­der a bush.

“She stuck out her arms to me, and I picked her up.”

At the park, the se­cu­rity guards backed down, hav­ing got­ten a call from their boss, who had been con­tacted by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties.

Grob­ler coaxed the chim­panzee into the cage and set out on the long drive. He talked his way through the po­lice road­blocks, at times cov­er­ing the cage so that po­lice wouldn’t see the chim­panzee, ar­riv­ing in Luanda late at night.

He spent three days set­tling Leila into her tem­po­rary safe house with Dreyer. Cau­tiously, he re­moved her chain, some­thing he had been long­ing to do. But she im­me­di­ately dashed over a fence and stole a neigh­bor’s pot of beans. With a busy road nearby, the chain had to go back on.

At the shel­ter, Leila gets plenty of at­ten­tion and play. She washes clothes over and over in a tub of wa­ter, and mim­ics the shel­ter staff when they sweep the yard. She rolls on a big green ball and sits on the roof, look­ing out at the sur­round­ing houses. She cud­dles Dreyer’s dachs­hund, Wor­sie, picks him up and car­ries him around as if he were her own.

Sort­ing out the im­port, ex­port, vet­eri­nary and trans­port per­mits for her trans­fer to Chim­fun­shi sanc­tu­ary is ex­pected to take sev­eral months.

“It’s a work in progress,” Grob­ler said af­ter re­turn­ing to Wind­hoek, Namibia, his home­town. “She’s get­ting used to an en­vi­ron­ment where she doesn’t have to fight for food all the time.”

On his last day in Luanda, he picked her up and scratched her on the back of her neck and hugged her for a long time.

“It was hard. I’d steeled my­self against it. I didn’t want to get emo­tion­ally in­volved,” he said. “But that damn ape, she loves me.”

Photo cour­tesy of John Grob­ler

John Grob­ler shares a good­bye hug with Leila at an an­i­mal shel­ter in Luanda, An­gola.

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