Those of us who have spent our lives with animals, whether with pets or on the job, understand the strong relationships that can be formed. They can last for years or just hours. Either way, the connection can be significant enough to be a great teacher, remembered forever.
Animals have surrounded me most of my life — in my home, my photography work, and as a professional zookeeper. One day a senior chimpanzee reached out to me, showed compassion, and taught me some great lessons.
I’d been injured on the job while chasing an escaped monkey, and I was in a lot of pain. I was reassigned to light office duties at the zoo hospital. It turned out that the head chimpanzee, Toto, had had his shoulder broken by a young male upstart, and was doing time in the hospital, too. Toto had started his life in a circus, and I’d always imagined that his zoo life, living with other chimpanzees and doing pretty much what he pleased, was a far better one. His hospital quarters were pretty spacious, yet in spite of all the toys and TLC, he was getting bored and a little depressed as a result of pain and being separated from his group.
Toto knew me from my volunteer days, and after talking with his keeper it was agreed it would be okay for me to spend time with him.
One day I felt pretty painful, tired, and also depressed from dealing with my own injury. I sat on the floor in front of Toto’s cage, started an “I Love Lucy” tape on the VCR, and leaned back against the bars.* Yes, Toto had his TV — and tapes!
As we both quietly watched “I Love Lucy,” I felt Toto’s fingers gently picking at my uniform shirt. I was surprised, but breathed deeply, telling myself to relax and trust that this was okay. He was grooming me, which is a very important social activity for chimpanzees. It’s one of the ways they bond. Toto had an endearing way of smacking his lips as he delicately removed tiny invisible bits. He turned his shoulder to me, so I carefully groomed little bits off of him. Amazingly, I felt better. I believe Toto did, too.
Being allowed to groom and be groomed by a chimpanzee taught me many things — some of which I didn’t understand until years later. I learned to face that moment of surprise, which can easily trigger fear, and to consciously move beyond that “energy”. Accepting the moment with no expectation of a particular outcome allowed the experience to happen without ego getting in the way. These profound lessons were planted in me during the time I spent with Toto — and I’m still being challenged by them!
As Toto and I each healed from our injuries, he went back to his world as head honcho of his group, and I returned to regular zookeeping duties in a separate area. I rarely was able to stop by his home to say hello, and when I did he was usually busy living his chimpanzee life, which is as things should be.
Another lesson for my ego!
*I would never get so close to a wild animal unless I’d spent enough time with them (and the zookeeper) to understand and trust that there wouldn’t be an “accident”. My experience with Toto was one of those rare instances.