Kindred Beings: What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection
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Enter a world of tender friendships, staunch loyalties, violent jealousies—and enduring love.
As a child, Sheri Speede knew that she wanted to advocate for animals in any way she could. But it was not until many years after veterinary school, when she was transporting a chimpanzee named Pierre away from a biomedical facility as part of her job as a conservation advocate in Cameroon, that Dr. Speede discovered her true calling. She began to search for land for a forest sanctuary for captive chimpanzees that were held on chains and in small cages at local hotels.
Dr. Speede eventually founded the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, a forested home for orphans of the illegal ape meat trade. One chim- panzee, Dorothy, was rescued by Dr. Speede and her colleagues from a bleak existence imprisoned on a chain and forged a deep friendship with her. Dr. Speede explains how chimpanzees, like humans, are capable of a broad spectrum of emotional behaviors—both hateful and loving. Dr. Speede also candidly reveals her own struggles as a stranger in a foreign culture trying to adjust to rural African village life. And she admits that unlike Dorothy, she was not always kind, gentle, and forgiving.
Dorothy died of old age at the sanctuary, and a photograph of Dorothy's funeral, in which Dr. Speede cradled Dorothy's head while her family of chimpanzees mournfully viewed her body, went viral after being published in National Geographic. The world was surprised at the depth of the chimps' grief at the loss of their friend, but Dr. Speede was not. Through the chimps, she had come to understand the meaning of love, loyalty, and true connection.
While this is a compelling story about the emotional complexity of the chimpanzees she rescued and befriended, it is also Dr. Speede's story. Major events in her personal life, including love affairs, dangerous run-ins with criminals, and the birth of her daughter, unfold as the development of her primate rescue center runs parallel to her own development. Ultimately, Kindred Beings is a story of profound resilience, of both the apes and the woman who loved them.
question when, suddenly, they seemed to agree that it was not a thing they could know. “I don’t know,” Chief Gaspard shrugged unapologetically, not even venturing a guess. The topic was finished for them. Estelle and I exchanged confused glances. It was many seemingly nonsensical social exchanges like this one that led us to joke, between ourselves, that Cameroon was a logic-free zone. We adopted the phrase from Peace Corps volunteers we had met in Yaoundé. “Where are the rest of the men, and
Gaspard yawned, we excused ourselves and said good night. Later I would learn that two of the other women around the fire were also Chief Gaspard’s wives, and they were the mothers of some of his children. Christine was his youngest and favorite wife at that time in 1999. High-ranking men in the villages usually had many children with multiple women. Children were evidence of virility and power. For a man who had little property, his progeny could be the only evidence. In this particularly
big moabi tree. In the dusk, it was hard to see her dark face clearly, and my eyes were drawn to the heavy-gauge chain with its oversize padlock shining in the twilight against the black hair of her neck. The chain led from her neck to the trunk of the tree, the end looped around the tree and linked back to itself with another padlock. I tried to guess the length of the chain from the coil on the dirt, wanting to get as close as possible without going within her reach. We didn’t know her
route to Yaoundé. I became much more familiar with the omnipresent checkpoints and really noticed the oppressive poverty of so many of Cameroon’s people. Severely disabled beggars lined the medians, and school-age children moved from car to car, either begging or selling hard candy, boiled eggs, packages of tissue, and other things. Men trying to eke out a living selling sunglasses displayed on placards hanging from their necks, or music CDs, or ties, or T-shirts, or windshield wiper blades, or
any number of other things that travelers might need approached me hopefully at the service stations where we bought fuel. A dozen women and men sat under the sun in front of typewriters along a busy business route in Yaoundé, offering cheap, on-the-spot secretarial services with minimal overhead costs. I was touched by the entrepreneurial spirit of these people trying to survive in the city however they could. There were also signs of affluence in both big cities. Tiny stick-and-mud shacks