This is the story of the plight of chimpanzees in West Africa – not the only story by any means, but the only one I know first hand — about an orphaned chimpanzee, once cared for (as a baby) by my wife, and who is now an adult living in a zoo in Ghana.
This chimpanzee, who goes by the name of Jimmy, was cared for by my wife Chizo when he was an infant in Accra. Their relationship and the plight of chimpanzees generally in Africa occurred against the backdrop of competition between Great Apes and humans for resources. Though they are our nearest genetic relatives, chimpanzees are threatened by increased logging and hunting. Logging destroys chimpanzee habitats and hunting destroys chimpanzees themselves. The latter is intensifying as middle-class Africans, living in cities and earning decent incomes, gain the capacity to afford what they call “bush meat” and which sometimes includes the flesh of chimpanzees.
Jimmy is now an adult of about 12 years old, and lives with his own female companion, Izma, in the Kumasi Zoo. In June, Chizo and I visited Jimmy and Izma, traveling from the U.S. where we now live (Chizo grew up in Nigeria and we met while we both lived in Ghana). In advance of our visit this summer to the Kumasi Zoo, we did not even know if Jimmy was dead or alive, since zoo officials do not communicate regularly with us. We were delighted to discover, within minutes of our arrival inside the zoo, that Jimmy distinctly remembered us and that also he had fathered a child while in captivity. In early 2011, Izma, his female companion, gave birth to a boy, Samson, who we found in reasonably good health, though somewhat under-weight for his age.
That Jimmy can experience of fatherhood in the safety of a zoo cage of course is a bittersweet achievement. The plight of Africa’s chimpanzees remains a source of anguish for Chizo and I. Jimmy, Chizo’s beloved orphaned chimpanzee, is still in captivity after all. He remains subject, at times, to cruel and stupid taunts from visitors. His diet is inadequate because of limitations on the zoo’s budget. Jimmy’s enclosure is too small and Samson has no toys to play with. The floor of their enclosure is, sadly, concrete. As the photo of this family shows, they are separated from their freedom by iron bars.
The last time we visited Jimmy, back in 2008, Chizo first let Jimmy “groom” her arms and then her forehead. Then she and Jimmy embraced through the iron bars. As Jimmy curled his arm around Chizo’s neck, I held my breath. When he realized her, I privately celebrated her escape. Before we left the zoo, I asked the zoo director if Jimmy would ever be freed. “He is too popular,” the zoo director said. Besides, the director wanted Jimmy to sire a child.
Now that he has done so, the Kumasi Zoo seems even less likely to release Jimmy into a chimpanzee sanctuary, of which there are many in West Africa. In addition to the Ghana government, which oversees the zoo, insisting that Jimmy is the property of the Ghanaian people, there is the added factor that Jimmy is now too old to easily adapt to the company of other chimpanzees and the routines of a jungle sanctuary.
None of the stubborn facts of Jimmy’s life story free me from my sense of grief over his incarceration. Of all the things I have not done in Africa, failing to free Jimmy is what I most regret. Knowing that he shares his existence with a boy-child eases my sense of regret but does not extinguish it.