A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Walking with Chimps

By Helga Schimkat

Two years ago, I fed porridge to a baby chimp, held a teenage girl chimp in my arms, and was groomed by another youngster.

While my husband and I were on a trip to Uganda, we learned that we were close by the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda. The sanctuary welcomes visitors, so we booked an overnight visit. Ngamba is on an island in Lake Victoria and was created for chimpanzees who come from the entertainment business or have been kept as pets before growing up and becoming too strong to be handled. But because they’re so habituated to humans, these chimps can never be returned to the wild. So a sanctuary is the best way of giving them a good life.

Arriving at the sanctuary

Greg and I arrived in the afternoon, when the 40 or so chimps were out enjoying themselves in the forest. During the day, they have free access to the whole of the island, except for the human quarters, which are fenced off. It’s a small island – just 100 acres, and not large enough to sustain a wild population – so the chimps come back to the sanctuary enclosures for their evening meal and to sleep. This also gives the island a rest from being munched on and trodden on all day.

We got a quick tour of the sanctuary compound, spent a little time at the sanctuary clinic with the staff veterinarian, signed up as volunteers and then got down to work helping to prepare the afternoon snack.

The chimps get three meals of fruit and vegetables each day, plus porridge in the evening when they come in from the forest to sleep. We cut up a variety of fruits, including their favorite jackfruit, then took the fruit and veggies out in buckets to a bridge overlooking a field where the chimps come at feeding times. We joined the staff in tossing the fruit and veggies over the fence piece by piece and the chimps caught them and ate.

The personalities of the chimps shone through as they caught their fruit. Some were good at seeing exactly what’s in your hand and they were signaling to us to toss them this or that piece. It sort of looked like baseball outfielders saying hit it here, hit it here! Others were really good at getting themselves in position to make a lot of good catches. We watched one older gentleman share his stash with a young one, very gently and patiently. Some were farther afield and needed special attention from us to be sure they got their share.

After that, the chimps went back to the forest to play, and we went back to the kitchen to help prepare their porridge.

Dinner and bedtime

The sanctuary enclosures are three large areas with metal bars and with hammocks. Each chimp can have a hammock for sleeping, which this mimics their natural habit of nests high up in trees. They also use them to store whatever food, straw and other goodies they collect. The three babies who were there during our visit – Afrika, Mack and Leo – had their own enclosure so they would be safe from the larger and stronger adults.

As soon as they come in for the evening, each chimp gets a bowl full of porridge and many bang on the bars for more. The babies aren’t skilled enough to hold the bowls, so they get theirs in large mugs and we helped them by holding the mugs for them. It’s a really cool experience to feed a baby chimp just as you would a baby human. They really enjoy their porridge and you have to help pace them so they don’t eat too quickly.

We spent a lovely night in the tented camp, which is near the chimp quarters, but fenced off from the rest of the sanctuary.