Our interactions with our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the chimpanzees, have rarely been entirely honorable. We dress them up in amusing hats, teach them to smoke, keep them as pets, and when they stop being sources of transitory amusement and start being real sentient creatures with complicated behavioral lives, we dump them in the wild they no longer know how to survive in, or sell them to another individual as ill equipped to meet their needs as we were. The fate of these outcast individuals was generally a tragic one – even placed in the most well-intentioned of hands, there was simply too little known about how to rehabilitate a domesticated chimpanzee to allow them to successfully transition back to a natural state.
That started to change in the 1970s thanks to the towering efforts of Stella Brewer (1951-2008), who started essentially from scratch in her quest to discover how best to compensate for our often poor stewardship of our primate cousins. She was born in the Seychelles, but moved at the age of six with her family to the Gambia, where her father, Eddie Brewer (1919-2003) had a position as a forestry officer. In the course of that work, he came across the Abuko region in 1967 and lobbied for its protection as a nature preserve. In 1968, the Abuko Nature Reserve was created, which also served as the headquarters for the Wildlife Department of the Gambia, of which Eddie was made the first director.
It was in environs such as these, with antelopes, hyenas, and servals as her regular companions, that young Stella grew up, with an intermission in England to attend school while her parents continued their work in the Gambia. In 1967 she completed her studies and returned to Africa, there largely to remain, just in time for a fateful individual to cross her path. In 1969, a small chimpanzee named William arrived at the Nature Reserve, stuffed into a small box, with chafing ropes around his waist, more dead than alive. He had been carted to the Gambia from Guinea, a distance of some 600 miles. Eddie and Stella were presented with a predicament – they could pay the few shillings asked by William’s owner and thereby have a chance at saving his life, but that would potentially encourage more chimp smuggling. In this instance, empathy for the individual in front of them overcame long term policy considerations, and they bought William.
At that point, they had no more experience in how to care for and raise a chimpanzee than any other random individual would have (chimpanzees are not native to the Gambia), but they did have some general know-how in treating wounded and malnourished animals, and were able to bring William back to health. Once healthy, however, he became hard to manage, breaking objects and almost killing himself by getting into a can of kerosene and drinking it. Eddie decided to build a cottage on the grounds of the Nature Reserve where William could live more safely, and purchased a second (and final – all future residents would be chimpanzees donated by their owners or confiscated by the authorities from smugglers and irresponsible owners) chimpanzee to provide William with the social stimulation that chimpanzees need, a female named Ann.
Stella was placed in charge of making the chimps more self-sufficient, a behavioral and biological mine-field that she had to navigate as a true pioneer in the field of primate rehabilitation. The first chimps that arrived had had virtually no exposure to the wild, and had grown entirely dependent on humans for food and comfort. They had no concept of what was safe to eat in the forest, when the best time to pick wild fruits was and where to find them, or how to build nests in trees to avoid predators. Some of these things Stella could begin to teach them, but for many aspects of Living As a Chimp she was as much in the dark as they were, and was therefore much relieved when the chimp Tina arrived at the Reserve. Tina was about six years old and had been severely maltreated before arriving at Abuko, but once she was coaxed out of her shyness and understandable mistrust, she proved a capable and indispensable teacher of William, Ann, the other young chimps who arrived at the facility, and indeed of Stella herself, instructing them how to build nests, what berries to avoid, and what food was in season at what times of the year.
This was trailblazing and meaningful work, trying to solve puzzles of the natural world as yet unapproached by humans. What it was not, however, was particularly remunerative. So, Stella decided to leave Africa and take up a position at, of all places, Bedfordshire’s Wild Animal Kingdom at Woburn Abbey, which had opened in 1970 and seems to still be in operation as the Woburn Safari Park. Stella generally enjoyed the work she was doing, beginning as a caretake of the elegant giraffes and fractious zebras before graduating to caring for the park’s trio of elephants, but became disillusioned after she was told to pick one of the elephants to be sold to another zoo, to spend the rest of its life in a small enclosure. It was an emotionally difficult decision to make, and highlighted the difference between the status of the animals at Woburn and that of those at Abuko. She decided to return to Africa.
Back at Abuko, she found eight chimpanzees waiting for her on the Reserve. They had grown used to the tourist groups that Eddie had introduced to Abuko as both an educational and financial measure, one might say entirely too used to them, as the tourists regularly had hats, wallets, purses, and all manner of other personal objects stolen from them by the enterprising apes. It was clearly time to set plans in motion for the next step of their journey to self-reliance, release into the wild. Eddie knew of a national park in Senegal, Niokolo Koba, in the midst of which there arose Mount Asserik. The region already contained wild chimpanzee populations, and so could meet the dietary and shelter needs of Abuko’s chimps, and it was in a protected region, theoretically safe from poachers. Stella formulated a plan to bring a test group of chimpanzees to Mount Asserik, and wrote to Jane Goodall, whose 1971 In the Shadow of Man Stella had read and re-read, seeking advice.
Goodall was enthusiastic about the plan, and offered to subsidize the work. Armed with some financing, a good location, and a personally selected group of four chimps including the experienced Tina, Stella set out for Senegal where, after some initial tenuousness about their new found freedom, three of the chimps took Tina’s lead and began to adapt to fully wild life (the fourth, William, refused to leave Stella’s side and was eventually returned to Abuko). After five weeks, Stella felt confident enough in the trio’s survival skills to return to Abuko in order to begin preparations for the coming tourist season. She was encouraged by the success of her first rehabilitation effort, but also keenly aware that the next group up for release had far less wild experience to pull from, and that she would consequently have to plan to stay much longer than five weeks to introduce them to the forest, maintaining a costly field base the whole time.
As Stella was pondering these practicalities, Jane Goodall at Gombe had taken the initiative and sent some of Stella’s notes to her publisher, knowing from her own experience the power of a best-seller to help fund field research. The publisher loved the idea of Stella writing a book about her experiences with chimp rehabilitation, and the advance went far to setting the Mount Asserik rehabilitation project on steady legs. Stella took three of the younger Abuko chimps with her to Asserik and built a nesting platform in a tree to acclimate them to the process of sleeping high off the ground, a development further aided by the arrival of reliable Tina from the woods to assume once again the mantle of wise chimp elder. Ultimate success came for the project a couple of years later when Tina became pregnant and successfully gave birth to a baby boy Stella named Tilly.
In 1977, Stella’s book, The Forest Dwellers (The Chimps of Mount Asserik in the United States), was published, the rehabilitation project was approaching the half decade mark, and Stella had met and married the forester David Marsden, who would remain an integral part of the chimpanzee project until Stella’s death three decades later. Things were going so well that some manner of bad news was inevitable. Unlike in the story of primatologist Dian Fossey, however, the adversary in this case was not man, but rather the original chimp population of Mount Asserik. As Stella’s name became more well known, and more individuals came forth with chimps they would like to see introduced to Asserik, it was perhaps inevitable that Stella’s swelling community of chimps would start putting territorial pressure on the native chimp population, and that that population would begin retaliating violently against the newcomers.
By 1979 (some sources say 1982), the growth of Stella’s chimp population and the increasing attacks by the native chimps made Mount Asserik no longer a safe haven for the rehabilitation project, and Stella was compelled to move her group of 8 individuals off the mountain, relocating them to a collection of islands in the River Gambia National Park. As more fame brought more chimps, financing became once again a matter of keen concern, and Stella hit upon the novel idea, now in practice with animal charities the world over, of allowing donors to “adopt” a chimp, their donation going towards food and care for their chosen animal, about whom they would receive updates at the end of each year. In 2006, shortly before her death, she unveiled the Badi Mayo project, which provided space for a small number of tourists to camp near the islands and observe the chimps from a safe distance from riverboats.
Between these fundraising innovations, which placed the independence and safety of the chimpanzees as priority one, and a drive to integrate and solidify the chimpanzee rehabilitation project with the local community by helping fund local schools and medical services, Stella ensured a long-term and stable home for her chimps at last, supported by the trust and and goodwill of the surrounding population, and by the time of her death in 2008 the islands boasted a population of eighty-six chimpanzees.
Today, there are over a hundred chimps in the Park spread across three islands, all living in complete isolation from humanity – even the staff of the River Gambia National Park are forbidden from setting foot on chimp territory. From one chimpanzee bought in a moment of impulsive empathy there has grown, thanks to the foundational work of Stella Brewer and the volunteers and staff who worked beside her, an entire wild community which has shaken free from its legacy of domestication and at times all-too-literal restraints to experience life as a collection of interdependent individuals, answerable only to themselves and their fundamental natures.
FURTHER READING: You can still find used copies of Brewer’s 1977 The Forest Dwellers pretty easily, though as far as I can tell it hasn’t been kept in print the way that In the Shadow of Man generally has. You can also find bits of Brewer’s story in Emily Hahn’s 1988 Eve and the Apes (which also features Belle Benchley’s story prominently). For the last two decades of her life, information is somewhat scattered, but your best source is generally the obituary put out by the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust, which you can find here.
Lead image: from Stella Brewer’s 1977 autobiography The Forest Dwellers.