My Time with the Chimps: Spock & Maya

Every summer, to keep the infuriating cockroach populations under control, the Fauna chimphouse is fumigated. Before this can happen, though, all the chimps need to be coaxed outside, where they will live for an entire week on the islands while their home is pumped full of toxins. This is an enormous challenge, because once the chimps figure out what is happening—and trust me, they figure it out real quick—they tend to become rather stubborn about staying put. When I was at Fauna, Operation Cucarachas began with an entire day of primal mind-games, as the staff and I struggled to lure each chimpanzee outside.

None of the chimps gave us more trouble than Spock and Maya.

Before they arrived at Fauna, Spock and Maya had lived together for more than 25 years at the Quebec City Zoo. Their outdoor enclosure there was tiny, and the concrete floor slanted downwards on an infuriating angle, and there was nowhere to hide from the prying eyes of the paying public. But compared with being locked up inside the main building, the chimpanzees adored their outdoor home. So every night, when the zookeepers arrived to coax them inside for the night, Spock and Maya would team up. One would sit just inside the door and take all the treats their keepers were offering as reward. Then the chimps would switch places.

This strategy meant they both got to stay outside a lot longer, and they each got a fair share of the increasingly delicious treats. More importantly, it meant Spock and Maya had regained a small measure of control over their own lives. This daily game at the zoo became an important source of enrichment for the chimps. And now, after more than 25 years of refining their methods, Spock and Maya had become experts at manipulating humans.

That day in July, Gloria, Kim and I had concentrated on getting the chimps out of the chimphouse interior. But unbeknownst to us, another drama had been playing out on the Mezzanine. For at least six hours, Gloria’s sisters, Linda and Dawna, had been trying to lure Spock and Maya outside so they could slide the Mezzanine door shut. Linda would be outside, coaxing them with treats, and Dawna would be inside, her hand hovering over the door-release button. But Spock and Maya knew something was up, and they were old pros at this particular game.

In a battle of wills with a chimpanzee, the most important thing to remember is you probably don’t stand a chance. But you’ve got to try. This might be the founding philosophy of Fauna. Minds can be changed, laws can be rewritten, and animals can be freed, but only if you try. Without this attitude, Fauna would be nothing more than a tract of fallow farmland, or bulldozed long ago to make way for a new subdivision. In other words, there’s no way Linda and Dawna were going to back down, and as we joined their efforts to coax Spock and Maya outside, our appearance seemed to toughen the sisters’ resolve.

As the tallest volunteer, I was assigned to stand on the bench and provide ongoing updates on Spock and Maya’s exact location. Dawna gave me my instructions.

“The door takes a few seconds to slide across,” she said. “So both of them have to be outside and more than ten feet from the door.”

“Gotcha. Ten feet.”

“Now, we need a codeword.”

“A codeword?”

“A signal for me to close the door.”

“Oh, right… how about ‘Do It!’”

Dawna looks up at me like I’m an idiot.

“Do it?” she asked.

“Yeah. What?”

“How stupid do you think the chimps are? I said a codeword. Spock hears you yell “Do It!” and he’ll be back inside faster than you can say “cheese.”

“So I guess “cheese” won’t work?”

Same look.

“Sorry.”

“Look, the most important thing is you don’t use their names. So let’s use their initials.”

“OK.”

“S and M.”

I return Dawna’s perplexed look.

“What?” she asks.

“S and M?”

“Yeah.”

“They come outside and I yell ‘S and M.’”

“Yes.”

“Alrighty.”

“Wait. No.”

“No?”

“You whisper it.”

“Right. Of course. I whisper ‘S and M.’”

“And only if they come ten feet outside.”

The exterminator would be here any minute. The sisters had already tried luring the chimps out with sweetened tea, spaghetti, mangoes and handfuls of individual milk packages. Now it was time for the big guns. Linda disappeared into the tent. The fridge door slammed, and she reemerged with two bottles of ice-cold Pepsi, a coveted item among the chimps. She climbed the stairs as calmly as possible. As she did so, Maya eyed everyone down below. When she looked at me, I quickly looked away, pretending I wasn’t watching her. I think I started whistling. I’ve never felt more ridiculous in my life.

Linda knelt on the top step and twisted open a Pepsi. She called to Maya, who slowly inched her way over and then leaned her face against the caging. Linda tipped the bottle into Maya’s waiting mouth. Meanwhile, Spock, who had heard the refreshing fizz of the twist-off cap, was peeking out from the doorway to see what Maya was being given. He took a tentative step outside. Then another. I looked at Dawna, raised my eyebrows. She readied herself at the button. Just a few more steps, Spocker. Just a few… more… steps….

Maya sat up. She looked at Spock, the two shared a silent exchange, and Maya retreated to the doorway. Spock let her back inside, and then he emerged for his turn with the Pepsi.

I looked down at Dawna, shook my head. She frowned.

“They’re tag-teaming us,” she said.

“Pop ain’t gonna cut it,” said Gloria.

Gloria disappeared into the tent. I heard the rustling of boxes, and soon she emerged with an armload of Malteser packages. Maltesers, malted chocolate balls, are a favourite treat among the apes. When Spock saw Gloria handing the little red packages to Linda, he began grunting with happiness. This brought Maya a few feet out of the doorway.

Linda gave a package to Spock, who immediately tore it open. He upended the entire contents into his mouth, and I could hear his excited crunching from my perch. He finished the pack and reached his arm out to Linda, who reluctantly gave him another one.

In not time, Spock had finished three packages of Maltesers. Linda was now looking increasingly anxious (how much sugar should a chimpanzee have in one sitting?) and so was Maya. She was now sitting eight feet away from the doorway, eyeing the empty red plastic littered around her friend. She wanted treats. Our plan was working. It seemed Spock had forgotten about her, and she was about to rectify the situation. Two more steps and I’m going to give the signal. One more….

Then Maya threw a tantrum. She shoved the picnic table against the caging and pounded her feet angrily on the ground. She wanted malted chocolate balls, but she wasn’t willing to get locked outside for them. Spock looked over at her. Chastened, he stood up, returned to the doorway and let Maya take his place.

Linda groaned. Gloria sighed.

“This day will never end!” yelled Dawna.

And she was right.

This post is part of a series called “My Time with the Chimps,” which appears simultaneously on The Walrus Blog. For an introduction to the series, click here. To read more about my book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, click here.

(photo of Spock: courtesy Kim Belley; photo of Maya: courtesy the Fauna Foundation)

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