The last few days have not been the best and I haven’t really had the inclination to write anything. I’m not one for many words or explaining how I feel or what I’m thinking at the best of times, so when things aren’t so good, talking is the last thing I’m inclined to do.

However, on this occasion, I am going to say something because the individual soul who is on my mind deserves to be spoken about.

I met Ashmael, a female chimpanzee, when I first arrived in Cameroon in 2001. Before being driven out to the forest, I was taken to Mvog-Betsi Zoo in Yaoundé. She lived in a tiny, dilapidated cage alongside Bertie, a male chimpanzee. All three of us were around the same age, in our twenties, although Bertie and Ashmael were possibly a little older than me. I’ll never forget the first time I saw them sitting in that cage - the desperation in their eyes, the loss of hope. It made me feel sick with sadness.

We spent many years trying to get permission to move Bertie and Ashmael to the forest. Finally, in 2006, we received the wonderful news that we had been successful. Bertie and Ashmael were going to the forest where they belonged after years and years of living in that cage.

After transporting them together to the forest and allowing them to spend several weeks adjusting to their new environment from within the security of a satellite cage, the day arrived when we were ready to open the door to their new forest enclosure! One of the workers slid open the heavy metal door and Bertie rushed out screaming his head off, stamping his feet, and running around the perimeter of the enclosure. It was a privilege to see him feel the grass on the bottom of his feet for the first time in so many years. The days of sitting in a cage made of iron and cement were over for these guys.  

Bertie. Image © Ape Action Africa / Ian Bickerstaff

Ashmael had been severely traumatised by her time in captivity and was too scared to come out of the satellite cage at first. Being locked inside had become her normal, her safe place, and whatever was outside of that was too scary to comprehend. Each day Bertie would run into the enclosure and each day Ashmael would stay inside. Even when Bertie would try and entice her out she remained in their cage. This carried on for several weeks until one morning when Ashmael must have felt brave and also wanted to feel the grass on her feet. After screaming from the top of her voice, she raced outside into the enclosure. She and Bertie hugged each other with excitement and screamed, as if to say, “We made it, it's over!”

Bertie and Ashmael had spent many years as just the two of them together, with no other family members. Now that they were happily accustomed to their new lives in the forest, we wanted to give them other chimps to be around. And so we did just that! We introduced our nursery group of 15 juveniles to them and they became amazing surrogate parents. Their enclosure is situated more than a kilometre away from the main part of the sanctuary, not close to the other enclosures, as we don’t allow visitors to their area. Ashmael and Bertie spent so many years being stared at in the zoo and now was their time to spend the rest of their days in the forest with a new family, away from the view of humans.

Ashmael. Image © Ape Action Africa / Ian Bickerstaff

Last week Ashmael fell sick. She was brought to the vet clinic where our vet team could keep a close eye on her and make sure she was taking all of her medication. Ashmael has always been really difficult to give treatment to, especially if she doesn’t like its taste. Last week, she became so ill that medication was given to her through an IV drip. Some days Ashmael seemed to be doing a little better. Other days the message from the forest was that she wasn’t doing well at all. I would sit with my phone each morning waiting for when Dr Julieta would message an update.

After several days Ashmael stopped responding to treatment and passed away late in the night. Dr Julieta and our vet team did an amazing job looking after her and keeping her comfortable right up until the end.

The night before I received the news I didn’t sleep well. I had a feeling it was touch and go and she wouldn’t make it. My normal controlled frustration at not being in the forest dissolved and all I wanted was to be back by my old friend’s side, holding her hand, letting her know it was ok. But I couldn’t be there and I felt that I had let her down.

So, who was Ashmael?

Ashmael was our matriarch. She was there even before me, in that cage with Bertie sat watching, sat waiting patiently for the day something may change.

Ashmael was the peacemaker. The only one that could calm Bertie down when he would get anxious and agitated.

Ashmael became the mother and friend of many at Mefou.

Alfia, Ashmael and Poppy. Image © Ape Action Africa / Ian Bickerstaff

As I’m sat here writing this, I’m also thinking about Bertie. Who is calming Bertie down now? Who is reassuring Bertie when the other males in his group are having a disagreement? When I eventually get back to the forest, the first place I’m going to visit will be Bertie and Ashmael’s enclosure, it will always be Bertie and Ashmael’s enclosure. I want to sit at the corner where you can normally find Bertie during the day, tell him I’m sorry for his loss, and check how he’s doing, a general catch up with an old friend.

Ashmael's story needs to be heard because, even after everything that she had gone through and the pain she endured because of the actions of humans, she still forgave and she still gave us a chance. There is a lot we can learn from her. One of the big lessons for me is courage, because the thought of feeling the grass under your feet can be really scary, but sometimes you need to just run out of your safe place screaming your head off.

And during these particularly challenging times, we can perhaps all take a lesson from Ashmael's incredible patience, forgiveness, kindness and compassion. Every day we're getting closer to controlling the coronavirus pandemic, and I'm one day closer to getting home to see Bertie.

Stay safe, stay inside, save lives.

Rachel

Banner image © Ape Action Africa / Ian Bickerstaff

If you missed Rachel's previous posts, you can catch up here

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