In 2006, I was a somewhat recent college graduate working at a job that I didn’t love. Having recently moved with my boyfriend to a new state, I was searching for roots and a career to which I could feel truly dedicated. If I was going to work hard at something, I knew I wanted to feel good about it at the end of the day.
A few years prior, while taking a primatology course, I became fascinated with the sign language capabilities of chimpanzees. In the years since, I had continued reading every book on great apes that I could find, even scouring the internet for used copies of texts on primate behavior that were often out of date (in both print and in science).
I thought perhaps this drive to read about primates meant something more, so I researched primatology careers. After sending out some letters to primate sanctuaries and foundations, I got a few bland form letters back.
And then the phone rang.
It was April Truitt, Executive Director of the Primate Rescue Center (PRC). I’m not sure why this very busy and driven woman took the time out of her day to pick up the phone and call me, but she did, and I’m grateful because it changed the direction of my life forever.
After completing a detailed application, updating my tuberculosis immunization, buying a plane ticket and packing some clothes that were sure to get filthy, I was approved to complete an internship at the PRC. I had no idea what to expect during my time there, but I knew that no matter what, it was guaranteed to be interesting!
The sanctuary is set back in the Kentucky hills, amidst horse fields, leafy overhanging trees and an honest-to-goodness babbling brook. As I drove down the private road to the sanctuary and waited for the security gate to let me in, I heard chimpanzee hoots and a gibbon whoop, and got chills. This may sound silly, but I honestly felt like I was about to meet celebrities. I wouldn’t have been more excited if it was Johnny Depp waiting beyond those gates for me, because after reading so much about these incredible, intelligent, powerful creatures I was going to be able to observe them in person!
Then things got real.
When I got down to business and worked with the seasoned caregivers, I very quickly learned that the primate residents of the PRC had no sympathy for my feelings of wonder and amazement. There was no time to stand around and gape. Here were their homes and their routines and their social groups. They wanted to play, and they wanted food (now!), and chimpanzee Cory REALLY enjoyed stomping the heck out of the metal flooring in the over-head walkabout when I least expected it. I’m pretty sure he took pleasure in how much it startled me.
This was ok, because after all, my internship wasn’t about me. It was about them.
The spider monkeys have a rather direct way of asking for more food.
There was so much to learn. There were specific foods that some species could have, and very important lists of foods that were prohibited (for health reasons and simply for personal preference of the individuals). The sanctuary staff spent much time preparing vast quantities of food for the residents, and knew just what sort of oddball combinations would be a hit with their diners. I seem to recall marshmallows and spaghetti were involved, as well as copious amounts of roughly chopped fruits and vegetables. Cleaning cages out was an olfactory experience I shall never forget, and I learned the difference between hay, grass and straw…although to be honest with you, my New Jersey-reared brain struggled with that one, and still does.
Surprise grab-bags of food is one way to make primate mealtimes more exciting!
The week flew by.
Towards the end of my time at the PRC, I helped prepare for its annual Member Event. On this one fun-filled and family-friendly day, the sanctuary is able to show off how well it runs to their lucky donors. This well-oiled machine handles the rare influx of visitors well, and large numbers of volunteers help everything run smoothly and safely. Of course, special care is given not to disturb the routines and privacy of the residents, but my unscientific conclusion is that they seem to enjoy the novelty of the day as much as their human relatives do!
Volunteers and staff wait patiently for the first crowds to arrive for Member Event.
My first Member Event passed in a whirl of face-painting, homemade cookies, smiling crowds, and of course, lots and lots of facility tours with the ever-present soundtrack of hoots, hollers and whoops. The sanctuary’s numerous peacocks strolled around and displayed their rainbow of feathers quite often. I think they were jealous that the apes and monkeys were getting so much attention.
Getting a still moment while baby Jane ate was a mixture of patience and luck.
Years have passed since my first visit to Kentucky, and my time there encouraged me to make a difference for primates like those lucky enough to find their way through the PRC’s doors. I wrote a book, Monkey Business: A History of Nonhuman Primate Rights, because I had to tell the stories of sanctuaries, their residents, and the cultural issues that make sanctuaries necessary in the first place. The book, and the opportunities that sprang from it (like writing for the PRC now) never would have been possible if I had not had such a positive experience with the PRC and its talented director, staff and volunteers.
This year I am excited to be able to once again help out for the 2014 Member Event. On May 17th, 2014, the PRC will open up to supporters of the sanctuary. I hope you can become a member and join me in this rare occasion to view incredible animals being cared for in the best way possible, given the often sad circumstances of their early lives. Many of the sanctuary’s residents have suffered mistreatment and neglect prior to their arrival at the PRC, but their resilience is something we can all learn from. Thanks to the PRC, these animals are able to enjoy their remaining years in peace, health, and happiness…often for the first times in their lives.
After seeing the sanctuary and its residents with your own eyes, you might even feel driven to do more to help primates and help the PRC.
Donald, who was most likely born in the wilds of Africa, can once again enjoy nature at the PRC.
The Primate Rescue Center has stayed with me.
Years later, in my New England home, when I hear a recording of chimpanzee pant hoots, I am instantly transported down south and feel excited and comforted, all at once. Lucky is the person who is able to be a part of something great…and I can’t wait to be back.