Thursday, November 5, 2009

Memories of a very special chimpanzee

On September 17, Oregon Zoo's much-loved chimpanzee Charlie died suddenly. I wrote this article for the Zoo Volunteer newsletter. For more information about Charlie, see the wonderful, feature-length article that appeared in The Sunday Oregonian on May 23, 2009, "Prince of the Zoo: Charlie the Chimp Reigns at the Oregon Zoo."

About 40 years ago a chimpanzee was born in Africa near the Liberia-Sierra Leone border. He was very intelligent, and he might have grown up to become the leader of his community, fathered several offspring and died as he had lived, in anonymity. But instead, some hunters killed his mother and the baby chimpanzee was stolen out of the forest. He was rescued, given the name Charlie and eventually ended up at the Oregon Zoo where he became a much-loved ambassador for his species.

Everybody who got to know Charlie felt they had a special relationship with him. And they were right, because Charlie made people feel special. When I tried to explain it to visitors, I said, “Think about going to a public event or reception. People are standing around in groups talking, but you don’t know anyone. Charlie is that person who comes up to you, says ‘hello’ and makes you feel welcome.”

That was Charlie, the host of the Oregon Zoo. He came up to the window, looked you in the eye and held your gaze. He picked you out of a crowd and signed, “Chase me.” He recognized you as an individual, someone worth communicating with. Over the years, countless numbers of people -- staff, volunteers and frequent visitors to the Zoo -- were won over by Charlie’s welcoming personality. They kept returning to get that special treatment, to feel that connection.

My first memorable Charlie moment came around six months into my first year as a ZooGuide. As an Animal Talker in Primates I had learned to recognize Charlie and had been through many rounds of Chase Me. I figured that Charlie recognized my red volunteer shirt and the white visor I always wore. Late one gray November afternoon I came to the Zoo for a meeting and stopped by for a quick visit with the chimps. I was wearing a business suit – and no white visor. I approached Charlie’s side of the indoor exhibit. He wasn’t there. Probably up in holding where he could enjoy some privacy. I moved over to the left side of the exhibit where little Joshua, Charlie’s son, was always eager for attention. As Josh and I raced back and forth, I heard “Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.” I turned and saw that Charlie had come down from holding. He was standing up and tapping on the glass, trying to get my attention. Charlie recognized me! Me. Not the red shirt and white visor. He recognized me, and he wanted my attention. It’s a moment I’ve never forgotten.

It’s been almost 17 years since that day I realized Charlie saw me as an individual. During those years, Charlie inspired me to learn more about chimpanzees, and he helped teach me a lot more than I could get just from books. He also patiently taught me what it meant to be one of “Charlie’s women.” Don’t walk by his exhibit without stopping to say “hi” – or, at least, don’t let him see you walk by. Don’t turn your back on him when talking to visitors. Don’t stand too close to other males. And always, always follow his “chase me” command.

As we both grew older and I became more of a fixture, Charlie didn’t pay as much attention to me. Games of chase became less frequent and less vigorous. When I arrived at the upper outdoor viewing area, he no longer rushed down from the climbing structure to greet me. Sometimes he barely acknowledged me, although I could usually catch him looking to make sure I was still paying attention to him and watching to see where I was heading. During feedings, after I’d handed Charlie the last piece of fruit – and Charlie always got the last piece; it was a rule – he’d sometimes hang around or lead me to the back of the holding area for a little more face time. But just about as often, he’d get up and leave me sitting there with the empty bucket.

Even though Charlie seemed to take me for granted in recent years – and maybe I took him for granted, too – I knew that he trusted me. And I felt honored to have his trust.

Charlie was getting grayer and moving a bit slower, but we all thought he had many more years to watch over the Zoo. We imagined him exploring and taking ownership of the new exhibit that would be built with the funds from last year’s bond measure. We never imagined the Zoo without Charlie.

I believe that when someone dies, they live on in the hearts of the people whose lives they touched. Charlie will live for many years in the memories we’ll each treasure and in the stories we’ll share with people who never got to meet him -- stories about his intelligence, his dignity, his grace, his willingness to let us into his world.

Goodbye, Charlie. It was a privilege to know you.

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