When volunteering at Toronto Zoo one of my jobs was to observe the gorillas for the keepers. Watching the family dynamics was an eye opener for me. I also learned about the bushmeat issue in Africa and started to go to workshops. In 2000 I went to the Great Ape Conference in Chicago and met a trustee from Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund (CWAF), as Ape Action Africa was formerly known. He put me in contact with the volunteer coordinator and I was accepted to go out to Cameroon right away.

At that time CWAF was working out of the Mvog Betsi Zoo in Yaoundé and the forest site was just getting set up. There was only a handful of workers and around 100 primates in their care including 6 gorillas and 27 chimps. Volunteers stayed with the director in town or camped in the forest. I knew very little else about the project but hopped on a plane anyway.

It turned out I was on the same flight with Chris Mitchell, the founder and director of CWAF. When we arrived late at night his assistant told him a sick 14-month-old chimp had been brought from the forest site to the zoo that day for medical care. Instead of going to the residence we went straight to the zoo and my first job was to help nurse the chimp, Timba, back to health. He was very sick with not only an upper respiratory infection, but also a bad case of diarrhoea.

He was so sick in fact that at first I just focused on getting meds and nutrition into him. He slept a lot as most sick babies do, but after weeks of round-the-clock care he got well and his boisterous chimp spirit came through. That was the day I realized he was well enough to return to the forest to be with his own kind. He needed the stimulation of play with the other orphans. His return was my only trip to the forest that year and unfortunately I didn’t have time to explore as we had to return immediately to Yaoundé - a quick peek at the village and we were back on the road.

Baby Timba in 2000. Photo courtesy of Kathy Crystal.

I’m so grateful to caregiver Joe Tume who taught me about chimps, how clever they are and how very similar they are to young humans in their need for care and compassionate discipline. Joe looked after Timba so I could have a couple of rest days.

When Timba was well enough to go back to the park, I helped around the zoo. Fred Tume was head keeper and taught me even more about primate care and the challenges of caring for the orphans.

I can’t explain it, but after my first experience with CWAF, I was hooked. I talked about going back for 2 years and in 2003 I learned that the project was growing and the need for volunteers was expanding. I’ve been able to return almost every year and always tell people that being part of this project has changed my life. There is always something new to learn and new faces to meet, both human and non-human primates. I can’t wait till volunteers can come back.

Kathy Crystal

Aka Mamakaty

We would like to say a huge thank you to Kathy and all of our fabulous volunteers over the years. Kathy not only gives her time to help us in the forest, but is also a regular donor, fundraiser and tireless advocate for Ape Action Africa. We can't wait until we see her back in the forest again.

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