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'I cannot rest until they are all saved': Alberta man vows to rescue young chimps from Guinea-Bissau

An Alberta teacher who went to Guinea-Bissau to help rescue a chimpanzee is now trying to free four chimps from the West African country.

Two infant chimps live in tiny cages, another one is tied to a tree

A Sherwood Park teacher is once again trying to give young chimpanzees in captivity a chance at better lives. 1:50

Tied to a tree with a rope around his neck, the young chimpanzee climbs down and hops into Spencer Sekyer's arms.

Tze is known as a brat and a bully at the hotel in Guinea-Bissau where he's kept as an attraction. But the video of his first meeting with Sekyer shows a different side.

"He hugged me for about 20 minutes, and he didn't let go," Sekyer recalled Tuesday after flying back to Edmonton. "Like all bullies, he just wants to be loved."

The high school teacher in Sherwood Park flew to the small West African country earlier this month with the intention of trying to help free a chimpanzee named Simon. Instead, he discovered three more infant chimps in captivity.

There's Julio, who is such a baby all he wants to do is snuggle, and Fifi who is happy and playful despite being locked up in a cage. And Tze, who can often be spotted swinging through shady trees, despite the rope around his neck.

"So the possibility of something going wrong there is enormous," said Sekyer. "Not to disparage the owner. The owner loves him. They're just not qualified to take care of these animals"

For his part, clumsy bratty Simon often falls flat on his face or breaks into nearby houses and puts on women's bikinis.

All four chimps are younger than five, which is still considered the infant stage, during which the animals are supposed to be nursed and carried by their mothers.

"And now that I know them as beings, I cannot rest until they are all saved," said Sekyer.
Julio, pictured above, is one of five young chimps Spencer Sekyer is attempting to rescue. (Flavio Gomes/DGFL Productions)

Nearly two years ago Sekyer rescued another infant chimp named Manno from a zoo in Iraqi Kurdistan, as the battle for Raqqa raged 80 kilometres to the south. Manno is now living at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya, where he's cared for by his foster mother Jane and rides on the backs of doting females.

In 2012, seven stray dogs from war-torn Afghanistan found loving foster homes in Alberta and Ontario thanks to Sekyer's efforts.

Rescue missions weren't part of the plans on either of those previous trips. On the trip to Afghanistan, he went as a volunteer teacher; in Iraq he worked as a veterinarian's assistant. Both times he ended up bonding with the animals, and left determined to improve their lives.

'You'll just go missing'

Two weeks ago, Sekyer landed in Guinea-Bissau — a former Portuguese colony on West Africa's coast with a population of 1.8 million, once dubbed a narco-state. After two recent coups and a civil war, the impoverished country is now enjoying a relatively stable period in the run-up to a November election.

That day, a local man who learned why Sekyer was here warned him of the dangers: "He said, 'It's very dangerous what you're doing. You're messing with other people's livelihoods. You'll just go missing.' "

The next day, on the way to go see Simon, his yellow-and-blue taxi passed women carrying pots on their scarf-wrapped heads as they walked along clay-brick sidewalks. A van with a goat on its roof rolled across a sturdy concrete bridge.
Tze lives at a hotel where he is tied to a tree with a rope around his neck. (Flavio Gomes/DGFL Productions)

Simon was the chimp that first launched Sekyer on his latest mission. After Manno's highly publicized rescue, Sekyer received a link about the Pan African Sanctuary Aliance's campaign to free a young chimp who spends much of his time pacing back and forth on the cement floor of his tiny cage near the family's home.   

"But then they let him out,` said Sekyer. And the reality is ... I mean, imagine the worst-behaved child you've ever seen out and times that by 10 — and that's kind of what they're like, because they're chimps, they're wild animals.

"Like he'll break into the neighbour's house and actually he put on some lady's bikini and put the top on his head."

He put on some lady's bikini and put the top on his head- Spencer Sekyer

In Simon's case, the family has realized they can't take care of him and is willing to give him up, said Sekyer. But that's not always the case.

Sekyer visited Simon with Lara Espirito Santo, an NGO worker who works to help captive apes in her free time.

They soon heard about another chimp, a baby for sale at the market. It was rumoured he had been killed but after some inquiries they embarked on a five-hour drive to a conservation park, where Julio has been relocated by the government.

Just a few months old, the chimp constantly clings to his caretaker, or anyone else he can find. A closer look reveals just nine fingers. It's believed Julio and his mother may have been caught in a snare when she died.

"It was kind of sweet and heartbreaking at the same time," said Sekyer. "He needs his stuffy (toy) to go to sleep at night`."

But while Julio's conditions are much better than the rest of the chimps, Sekyer said, it's still important for him to be relocated to a sanctuary where he can socialize with his own kind.
A campaign to rescue Simon first drew Spencer Sekyer to Guinea-Bissau. (Flavio Gomes/DGFL Productions)

Sekyer and Santo met with government officials Sekyer described as "very supportive." Despite being hamstrung by a lack of resources, they are still looking for a long-term sustainable solution, said Sekyer.

But in some cases, owners are less willing to give up the chimps. Sekyer said he understands that, but the reality is they're violating international laws. And though young chimps are adorable and cuddly, older chimps are dangerous because they become stronger and more aggressive.

Sekyer couldn't say how long it will take to relocate the chimps. The hope is Simon will be ready to go in September. But they are still waiting for the return of blood tests and export permits, among the many requirements for the chimp to finally travel to Sweetwaters.

He estimated it costs as much as $26,000 to relocate one chimpanzee and suggested people who want to help can donate to PASA.

In Manno's case, it took three years of networking, working with other NGOs, paperwork and permits. But Sekyer said it's worth it.  

"Some people will ask, 'How can you spend your time and resources?' When you look into their eyes — how can you not?"   

About the Author

Andrea Huncar

Reporter

Andrea Huncar is based in Edmonton. She reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, policing and radicalization. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca