Paying our Respects

You only get the one life.

I say that a lot, sometimes to justify impulsive and possibly ill-advised actions, like going up the street to our friends’ place for a drink or two at midnight when I’m already exhausted and really REALLY should go to bed. But I mean it, and I’ll keep saying it. One life, one go-round. And while I believe fiercely in making the most of it, I can’t help admitting that having two or three would rock. You could do SO MUCH STUFF. I would definitely spend one of them traveling more, maybe constantly. In one I’d learn to speak at least six languages. I used to think I’d love to spend one of them running a beautiful little bakery in France, but I’m over that.

No question though, if I only got one more, I’d spend it working with great apes.

Caught you off guard, didn’t I? Maybe a bit. But weirdly, it’s completely true, and has been since I was about 9. One evening I watched a documentary on PBS about Koko, the lowland gorilla who speaks American Sign Language. I was transfixed, and wanted to know everything about her. I even went so far as to learn a little ASL (all the better to communicate with Koko should the occasion arise). When I was about 15, I read Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist, and at 17 saw Sigourney Weaver in Micheal Apted’s stunning film. I wanted to travel to Rwanda, wanted to make my life studying gorillas, or orangutans, or chimpanzees, like Jane Goodall. But in spite of the genuineness of my passion, I already had a life. I was deeply ensconced in theatre in high school and then university, and to be honest, my science marks left a little something to be desired. I wanted to be an actor, a writer; I hadn’t planned on falling in love with a whole other world.

And so it remained merely a fascination, an interest, and eventually, something I only half-advertently passed down to my kids.

We’ve been members at the Toronto Zoo since the boys were tiny, and we more than get our money’s worth. We go about 7 or 8 times a year, which kicks both the Science Centre and Museum in their proverbial arses. When the boys were little, I thought it was because the zoo gave them the chance to run around, be outside; I’m sure that was a big part of it. But honestly, they really loved the animals. And mostly, we love the apes.

In fact, we’ve been known to drive all the way out to the zoo, check in with the orangutans and gorillas, maybe say hi to the meerkats and head home. It got to the point where we realized we were resenting having to see other animals, so one day we brought lunch, some notebooks and drawing stuff, and plunked down for an hour or so with each family. Rory drew, Liam and Finn made little notes, and we just watched. Each time we go, we spend longer at the orangutans and gorillas than anywhere else. We’ve gotten to know the individuals, the families, the new babies and the rivalries.

This past year, both families have suffered losses: Molek, the massive, Chewbacca-like senior male orang passed away in June of this year due to kidney failure, and Samantha, the zoo’s second oldest Western Lowland Gorilla, died at the age of 37 from a stroke.

We’ve watched these animals, these great intelligent sentient creatures, for years. And we wept for them when we heard the news each time.

A few weeks ago the boys and I again made the trek out to the zoo, and without even really meaning to, went straight to the orangutan exhibit. As we watched the two females on display that day, Ramai and Sekali, and their babies, Kembali and Jingga, I noticed a volunteer across the exhibit, and we eventually made our way over there to talk with her. Partway through the conversation, she said she hadn’t seen us in a while (I told you we went a lot…) and asked if we’d been over to see the gorillas since Samantha’s death a couple of months earlier. I told her we were on our way there, and that we’d been so sorry to hear.

“It’s been so hard,” she said. “especially to hear Charles crying.”

Charles is the gigantic silverback. He was Samantha’s longtime companion, and in spite of his small harem of females, she remained his favourite.

“He still cries almost everyday. It’s the most awful sound,” said the orang volunteer,”Like a long, high moan. He makes it before the keepers come in in the morning, just sitting by himself.”

Liam and I were staring at her now, tears coming in spite of ourselves.

She went on. Apparently, when Samantha died, the keepers laid her body in an area of the gorillas’ enclosure, then invited the troup in to pay their respects. The females and the youngsters all crowded around, at first trying to rouse her, then finally becoming calm and quiet. They touched her, moved around her, and then moved away. But Charles, who had kept a vigil outside her recovery room for over a month between her first and final strokes, never looked at her. He stayed near the door, gazing at the door, the walls, the ceiling, anywhere but her.

“He just gently swept his hand back and forth against the wall,” she said. “He couldn’t look at her.”

Liam had moved away, and was sitting hunched over with his back against the orang enclosure’s glass. After a few minutes, the volunteer and I had wiped our eyes, and moved on to less tender subjects. Suddenly, Liam was at my arm.

“What are they doing? For him… for Charles? How are the keepers helping him?”

Oh sweetie.

“There’s nothing they can do, love. He just has to go through this, and he’ll do it in his own time.”

Liam wasn’t satisfied with that, of course. And over the next few days, I wondered if I was, either, in spite of my, well, advanced age and wisdom. I wondered if there really wasn’t anything they, or someone, could do for Charles. He’d lost the love of his life… couldn’t someone help him a little?

I told Charles’ story a dozen times over the next few days, mostly because I couldn’t stop thinking of it. And my friend Drew, who is an artist, had a brilliant idea: why don’t they give Charles some paints? He is acknowledged to be an accomplished painter, having been introduced to painting years ago when going through another sort of emotional crisis, that time having to do with accepting another males offspring in the troup. Painting, in a room by himself for a part of every day, made him happy, made him peaceful. Why couldn’t they offer him that outlet again? It might just allow him to express some of the pain he so obviously feels, and maybe even lessen it.

True, I’m no gorilla keeper, and neither are Liam or Drew. But we think it’s a good idea. Who knows – a letter here, a suggestion there…. we’ll see. I’ll keep you posted. And if any of you know of a direct connection to the gorilla people at the Toronto Zoo, give me a ring, will you? Charles needs some help.

2 comments to Paying our Respects

  • Sheila Conboy

    Hi Regan,
    I read with interest your recent post regarding the orangutan. I wish I did know someone at the Toronto Zoo, but I don’t. I happened to come across the December issue of the Smithsonian and wanted to call it to your attention. There is a great article about Orangatans and a women trying to keep them from becoming extinct. Awesome pictures can be found there as well.

    Good luck and I’ll be keeping Charles in my thoughts. Perhaps this is where you were meant to implement your passion.


  • Nancy

    Well, here I am bawling my eyes out.I’ve always loved the great apes,especially orang-utans. They are magnificent and now I see ,compassionate and delightfully childlike. We can learn so much just by watching them.

    Isn’t it interesting that Liam is reaching out ,a heart to heart gesture to an animal when support for him and your whole family is so hard to come by. I think our compassion as a society is skewed . People find it so easy to support Humane societies but forget that the quintessential joy of creation , the amazing human, needs the highest degree of compassion and support.

    God bless you for showing us the beauty and strength of love for family and friends.

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