Sometimes it doesn’t take much to step out of our everyday lives and into an entirely different world- all it takes is a little exploration and sense of adventure. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to cost anything. For example, 100 yards offshore in Deerfield Beach and you can swim with ancient marine reptiles, sea turtles. No lines, no entrance fees, and no crowds.
Deerfield Beach is a popular snorkel and dive spot because the reef is so close to shore. However, just before you reach the reef there is a seemingly uninteresting bottom type made up mostly algae. This is exactly why the turtles are here.
Around the world there are 7 different sea turtle species. These are green sea turtles, so named because the fat under their shells is actually green. Green sea turtles are herbivorous and they come here eat the algae. While adult female sea turtles use the beach for nesting, the ones in the algae beds are juveniles. Just little guys.
Yet, it’s not like there are signs posted or instructions on how to get here. In fact, I discovered this population of sea turtles accidently. My friends and I would come to snorkel the reef, generally looking for fish and corals. While swimming back into shore we would always see the turtles in the shallow water. A few more trips and we realized they are pretty much always here in the algae beds eating- go figure. Usually, when you find one you find at least 5 or 6 more.
Unfortunately, most sea turtles are listed as endangered or threatened, due to threats from human activity, such as beach development, bycatch from fishing, and illegal black-market trade in eggs and meat.
After being in the water for hours, eventually I just stopped to watch and observe them rather than focus on taking photos. I jealously watched as they glided through the water effortlessly, obviously built for the aquatic environment . Meanwhile, there I was getting tossed around awkwardly in the waves, surfacing every minute for a breath. It is humbling to swim with a species that has existed for over 65 million years.
Upon arriving at the sanctuary, Dr. Bezner, the staff veterinarian, comes to give myself and Jessica a tour of the grounds and to meet the chimps. As we are driving around on a golf cart, I catch glimpses of them sitting in the open grass or under trees with loud “hoots” in the distance. The sanctuary includes 12 different cage-free outdoor islands that are each home to a family of roughly 25 chimps, led by an alpha male and grouped together based on compatibility. The islands connect to a hurricane proof house, where staff can observe and interact with the chimpanzees up close, in addition to providing food, medical care, new toys, and other enrichment.
We first stop to visit an island led by the alpha male Garfield, whose family is characterized as the” wise elders, strong-willed, and entertaining.” The chimps immediately sense the arrival of new people and come over to observe us. With their piercing eyes, I can tell they are sizing me up. Sure enough, to my delight one decides to spit right on me. Why would he do this? My reaction answers my own question. While this chimp, Billy, jumps onto the fence right in front of me and screams loudly, I make a high-pitched girly squeal. Meanwhile, while Dr. Bezner sits next to me, calm and composed. Obviously he was looking for a reaction- which he got. Clever boy. I am lucky to have only been spit on; Jessica was a little less fortunate. As Dr. Bezner and I were casually talking, Billy stood up tall on two legs about 20 ft away from the fence, with something in his hand. Then in a full on sprint, charged at the fence, jumped up and threw…. his poo, which landed right smack of the side of Jessica’s face. Splat. If you ever heard of monkeys throwing their poo- I can say at least for chimpanzees, it is true.
Among the chimps I met, Dana has a particularly fascinating story. Dana is an older female in her 50s, with an almost cartoon-like appearance, cross-eyed with large round ears. Her features remind me of Dobby from Harry Potter. She is one of the original Air Force chimpanzees. In 1966, at approximately 5 years of age, she was captured from the forests of Sierra Leone. As a younger female, it is likely that she witnessed the murder of her entire family so she could be taken. She spent years in various captive facilities as an Air Force chimpanzee. During this time, she had her right kidney taken out (and transplanted into a baboon). She was also anesthetized weekly with Ketamine and received numerous liver biopsies. She spent about 35 years of her life in this type of living situation. In 2001 she was rescued by Save the Chimps, along with 20 other Air Force chimps. Now you can see Dana living in an outdoor island, where she has room to run, play, and socialize with her family in addition to getting fresh fruit and veggies, and the occasional treat like PB&J sandwiches.
While touring the sanctuary and meeting the chimps, you cannot help but get a sense of their distinct personalities. Thoto, for example, spent 20 years as a circus performer, where had had his teeth removed to make him less dangerous to work with. However, as an adult male he became too strong and powerful, and was sent to a facility to spend the next 15 years used for medical research. At 150 pounds, an adult male chimpanzee is 7 times stronger than the average human male. We pull up to meet Thoto, and his attention immediately turns to my feet. Dr. Bezner informs me that he fascinated with feet (I wonder why?), and the fact that I am wearing sandals with toenails painted blue is very exciting for him! Dr. Bezner also likes to greet each chimpanzee with a treat, usually child-safe chapstick, a chimp favorite. As she pulls them out from her pocket, the chimps all stretch out their hands. Some came over a little too late, and she had run out. We observed those without chapstick who watched their friends smearing it all over their faces, lips, and playing with it in their mouths, hoping someone would share with them. At this point, Dr. Bezner also states that the chimpanzees have an “incredible sense of fairness.” They know exactly how many pieces of fruit each of them has, and if someone has more or less than they do.
What is fascinating about Dana, Billy, Thoto and the other chimps, and a testament to the people at Save the Chimps, is that these animals coming from a variety of abusive and traumatic conditions can successfully live and behave together nearly like wild chimps with minimal human intervention. Many of them were taken from the wild and raised for 40 years in isolation, with repeated medical testing. No one to communicate with, no way to receive the comforting touch of a companion, and no way to see sunshine. In the wild, chimpanzees are highly social living in incredibly complex societies, led by an alpha male. While at Save the Chimps, a fight broke out on one of the islands. Loud screams and hoots could be heard, and an increase in the activity level. Save the Chimp employees immediately got on walkie-talkies to discuss what happened and who was involved. The chimps are allowed to work out these natural conflicts on their own, and we observed the large alpha male banging his fists on the side of the hurricane house as well as banging a large piece of cardboard. A staff caregiver stated that this was how the alpha male took control of the situation to calm everyone back down. As Jessica puts it “it was truly incredible to watch these intelligent apes, who had little to no social interactions with other chimpanzees for most of their lives, successfully work out a conflict without human intervention. It was an opportunity to see chimpanzees acting truly as chimpanzees in every aspect of their lives, no exception”
Recreating such large complex and social units in captivity is challenging and highly stressful, especially considering the backgrounds for most of these animals. The meeting of two chimps is unpredictable, and there is always the possibility of a fight. Dr. Carole Noon, the founder and director who passed in 2009, clearly had a gift for understanding chimpanzees. Nowhere else in the world are there facilities with such large numbers of chimps all living together. 12 different islands with large family groups all coexisting, it is the next best thing to being in the wild.
An endangered species that can be bought for $50,000 as a pet, used for biomedical research, or used as part of the entertainment industry. Chimpanzees are our closest relative on this planet and we are actually more closely related to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas, sharing roughly 98% of our DNA. So close in fact, that we can take blood infusions from them. Chimps are great apes that inhabit the continent of Africa, where their numbers have declined to due to habitat loss, disease, and hunting. While often referred to as monkeys, apes including chimps, gorillas orangutans and even humans, are not actually monkeys. The biggest difference is that monkeys have tails while apes do not.
What do we owe these animals that we have ripped from the wild, stripped of their freedom and stuck in cages? If places like Save the Chimps and people like Dr. Carole Noon and the other dedicated staff did not exist, these chimps would likely be euthanized after spending years enduring cages, injections, surgeries, and solitary confinement. After giving up their freedom, do we not owe them a peaceful retirement, where they have choice, companionship, grass below them and sky above? This is part of the reason Save the Chimps is not open to the public. Dr. Noon believed that these animals, having served human benefit for decades, deserve to be in an environment as close as possible to their natural one.
To read more about Save the Chimps and the incredible stories for each of the chimpanzees or to make a donation, check out their website at www.savethechimps.org
To read more about wild chimpanzee research check out the following websites :
If you are interested in Great Ape research, I recommend the following books:
The Third Chimpanzee
Shadow of a man
Gorillas in the Mist