Veterinarian Sheri Speede on her mission to save endangered chimps


Photo credit: Gerald Herbert, AP Photo

First aired on Quirks & Quarks (12/10/13)

Veterinarian Dr. Sheri Speede has a passion for the care and treatment of all animals. But her vocation eventually brought her to focus in particular on the endangered chimp population in Cameroon. Speede was visiting the African country when she first saw chimpanzees, many of them malnourished, chained up in small cages for the amusement of hotel guests. She was determined to change their lives, and eventually founded the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre, which has more than two square kilometres of natural habitat. In her new book, Kindred Beings: What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love and Connection, Speede chronicles how she overcame many obstacles, and even life-threatening situations, to establish the sanctuary.

In a recent interview on Quirks & Quarks, Speede told host Bob McDonald that she ended up in Cameroon after selling her veterinary practice in 1995 and starting advocacy work for the U.S. organization In Defense of Animals. As a vet, she had worked with primates "and I had the opportunity to go and provide veterinary care for primates in Africa, and particularly in Cameroon," which she described as "a very important habitat country if you want to work for conservation of great apes."


Speede first visited Cameroon in 1997, and was appalled by the treatment of primates in general. But the plight of chimpanzees particularly struck her, because they "suffer terribly" and yet "they have this amazing strength of spirit that allows them to survive, sometimes in horrible, horrible circumstances, for decades."

In her book, Speede writes about the first five chimpanzees she brought to the sanctuary. Three of them had been in small cages at a hotel, one for more than 30 years. The other two had been chained in front of a different hotel, under "really horrendous circumstances."

Speede pointed out that it's "illegal for the chimpanzees to be held that way, but there was absolutely no enforcement of the law when I went there in 1997." That changed when she opened up the rescue centre. She found that the government was open to working with them, although the "people who were holding the chimps were a different story." At times, they had to rely on the Cameroon armed forces to back their confiscation of the primates.

The sanctuary, which now shelters 73 chimps, has seven tracks of forest protected by solar-powered electric fences. When asked why the chimps must be kept in a protected centre rather than simply set free, Speede said that it's difficult to do that, once they've been in captivity, because they have lost their fear of people and can be killed by poachers. Also, they can be killed by the free-living chimps, because chimps living in the wild are very territorial.

Chimpanzees have become endangered in part because of the market in bush meat. "The people of Central Africa, for millennia, have lived close to the forest and have eaten what they could kill or gather out of the forest," Speede explained. When colonizers came in the 1700s and 1800s, they brought guns, so the village people started eating larger mammals, like chimps and gorillas. In recent years, increasing urbanization and a population explosion "has led to a commercial bush-meat trade."

Speede went on to say that in the cities, bush meat is "more expensive than the meat of domestic animals, than cow or chicken or goat or pig. It's not about poor people just eating whatever they can to survive, it's about affluent people who can afford to pay a bit more for the food that they prefer to eat." Chimps and gorillas are easy targets because they're large and slow-moving, and they only have offspring every four to five years. "As their numbers have plummeted, and the meat has become more rare, it's become a delicacy."

Speede describes working with the chimps as "a primal and intimate experience," and one that has had a profound effect on her. "Chimpanzees just wear their emotions on their proverbial sleeves. Expressions of love and support are just very overt and obvious. It's helped me to live more honestly and more vulnerably," she said. "We humans tend to think that love is an exclusively human emotion, and to attribute that to animals is called anthropomorphism. But there is an evolutionary continuum between all animals, including humans. We all have complex limbic systems and all are capable of deep emotion."

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