The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

By Andrew Westoll

With my new batch of suffi ciently purple smoothies delivered, I wander down to the south playroom to collect the lunch trolleys. As I gather up the spilled paper cups and toppled vegetables, I feel a presence right in front of me. Raising my eyes slowly but staying in a crouch, I lock gazes with the Hoodlum Regis. He is no more than two feet away. I expect a ball of chimp spit to explode on my forehead any second, but Reege just opens his mouth and flicks his tongue out at me. His long, drawn face -- usually the picture of fatigue -- seems brighter. There is a spark in his sunken eyes I've never seen before.

Not long ago, Regis was diagnosed with diabetes, but unfortunately, he refuses to volunteer his arm for insulin injections. He has always been suspicious of needles -- by the age of three he had been knocked unconscious forty times at LEMSIP, and every time it was by dart gun.

Regis was born at LEMSIP and taken from his mother only a few days after birth. He spent the fi rst six months isolated from other chimpanzees, in an incubator and then in a cage, being reared by human caregivers. As a result, Reege has always been a nervous wreck. In the lab he was treated repeatedly for depression and anorexia, and even today he is prone to panic attacks that often leave him whimpering and choking in the corner of his room. Gloria is currently researching alternate ways of getting insulin into an uncooperative chimpanzee, because without daily injections, Regis's health will continue to decline. Although he is the same age as his veritable brothers, Binky and Jethro, Regis looks twenty years older than them, his body wan and withered, his gait slow and loping. He is the only chimp at Fauna whose hair is still sparse enough that the identification tattoo he was given in the lab -- 645 -- is still visible on his chest.

Today, though, something is diff erent about skinny Reege. When I rise out of my crouch, he throws his arms up above his head, grips the caging, and playfully nods his head at me. I do the same, trying to imitate his grunts, and then he lets go of the caging, runs past the porthole, and takes up the same stance on the other side. I follow. Again I expect the spit to fly any second. But then Regis pushes back from the caging, turns, and takes off for the far side of the playroom. There is a youthful bounce to his gait, and as he rounds the play-fort near the far wall, his buddy Jethro emerges from the shadows, skipping along on all fours behind his friend as if Reege were the Pied Piper. I can hear them huffi ng at each other now, their feet slapping the floor, their shoulders dipping in unison as they round the fort again. Soon Reege is back in position, hanging languidly from the bars in front of me. Jethro sits behind him, his legs splayed, his chest heaving, waiting intently for whatever is about to happen.

Perhaps it was Operation Cucarachas that loosened them up, a week of prolonged exposure to their strange new caregiver. Or perhaps it's just that I made a mean smoothie on my second try. Whatever the reason, Reege and Jeffi e have sought me out to play. In the chimpanzee world, this is a pretty signifi cant act. They have chosen to strike up a relationship with me. Now I have no choice but to blow their simian minds.

Slowly I open the sliding door that leads to the inner courtyard. Regis pulls back from the bars, a look of intrigue on his face. Then, as quickly as I can, I disappear outside, run along the outside wall of the chimphouse in an awkward crouch, and pop my head up in the playroom window. Regis is still looking out the door, wondering where I went. But Jethro spies me immediately. His huge body erupts in excited convulsions, his great belly shaking with delight. Arms flailing, feet bobbing, head going in circles, Jethro tries to push himself up onto all fours, but his enthusiasm proves too great. As if tethered to the floor by his tremendous size, he falls backward into the caging with a crash. Regis looks over at his floundering friend, but Jethro is too excited to direct him my way. For one glorious moment, Jethro the chimpanzee is completely speechless.

Regis figures it out soon enough. And for the next hour or so, we play an exhausting game of now-you-see-me, now-you-don't. Every once in a while, the two chimps will take off and march around the fort again, one behind the other, but they always return to the porthole and to me, their new playmate. Ever since I arrived at Fauna, I've felt like an outsider. Although Sue Ellen, Pepper, and Binky were receptive to me almost from the start, I've been craving a sign from the other chimps that my presence here is OK with them -- that instead of making them more anxious, I might make them less so. Now, more than six weeks into my stay here, it appears we've had a breakthrough. It seems as if this game is never going to end.

**Excerpted from THE CHIMPS OF FAUNA SANCTUARY Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Westoll. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.