WARNING: This blog post contains graphic descriptions, strong language, and images that, while not graphic, some might find disturbing.
The thirst for discovery is a fairly common driving force among people who do what I do. It kind of has to be, right? All of us field people must carry explorers’ hearts or else we probably wouldn’t be here.
One of the things that draws me so entirely to science- or more specifically for me draws me to the study of wild primate behavior- is knowing in the back of my mind that on any given day I spend in the forest I could see something that no one in the whole world has ever seen before. Of course, as time goes on and more and more people study wild animals and observe more and more rare behaviors, my personal chances of seeing some phenomenon before anyone else can observe it decline. And, naturally, as the frequency and probability of discovering declines, the potential academic and emotional payoffs, the excitement, and the anticipation of such a discovery skyrocket. This is the short version of why I’m addicted to my job. And the adorable baby chimps don’t hurt.
Luckily for me, in addition to spending time with the most adorable subjects in the land, focusing my scientific efforts on infants and juveniles pushes the odds of such a discovery in my favor. For starters, most people don’t study these guys because it’s generally considered more difficult than studying adults. Adults are big and conspicuous. Infants are tiny. Moms hide them a lot. Even from five meters I have to watch the really little ones (under 6 months old) through binoculars. Then they get big enough to jump off their moms and run around. And they don’t really stop running around all damned day-but they’re still small-ish and quiet-ish and hard to see… especially when they’re at the top of 40m-tall Ficus at the exact moment that you aren’t even looking there because their mother is right here on the ground with you like it’s no big deal that their 36 month-old is 40m up a tree right now! Point being, they can be a pain and so fewer people study infants and juveniles compared to adult primates and that means there are fewer chances for other people to see those first things before I can.The thirst for discovery is a fairly common driving force among people who do what I do. It kind of has to be, right? All of us field people must carry explorers’ hearts or else we probably wouldn’t be here.
Second, infants and juveniles by their very natures are more likely to do weird things that no one has ever seen before. Just like human children, chimpanzees are extremely creative, especially when bored. They always find a way to stay occupied when mom is napping, including novel ways to use sticks and stones and unpalatable fruits and unsuspecting non-chimpanzee creatures as play things. Of course those moments and those games can easily be one-offs. If you’re not there to see the moment of invention, you might miss it all together. They might never use that thing in that way ever again.
Over the course of my research so far, I’ve been lucky enough to catch a few firsts and almost firsts. On the one hand, since I start following each baby from the day that we first meet them, I see a lot of individual baby’s firsts1. Last week James and I were the first to lay eyes on Tambara, Tenkere’s newest baby. And the day before that I caught Utah’s first play bout with big brother, Unasema. I was there on the day that Willow groomed an unrelated adult for the first time (she’s showing very early signs of her brothers’ grooming habits). Last year, Thatcher carried a fallen baby L’Hoest’s monkey around and played it to death. One time she managed to sneak a black and white colobus tail away from the grown-ups and she wore it like a feather boa and spun around in circles. Another time a big group of juveniles caught a baby bird and even 16-year old Tuke took a turn playing with it... also playing it to death2. I’ve seen chimps kicking round fruits around like they were soccer balls. Juveniles building nests for their infant siblings or carrying their little sisters on their backs. Drew and I shared a huge first when we saw Wallace grooming with a redtail monkey (click here check out a short video excerpt from that encounter on KCP’s Facebook page).
Each and every one of these moments is a discovery-high cemented in my memory. They each hold a sort of dual delight. First, I am completely captivated by the wonder of what is unfolding before me. Second, I feel the purest joy of knowing that I discovered it- or we discovered it, depending on the particular circumstance. It is almost as if I experience these moments from a place outside myself so I can feel both things at once. And I crave them deeply.
But there are discoveries that hurt too. And, until recently, I didn’t I realize that I could still feel that wonder within so much pain. And that’s why I’ve decided to write this piece: to try and tease out the confusion of feeling both things at the same time.
Olympia died on a very normal Tuesday morning. There was a large group of 30-or-so chimps feeding together in a large Ficus natalensis about a half-hour’s walk from camp. The chimps had been visiting the tree frequently over about two weeks and over this time, we researchers had carved a sort of observation zone out of the undergrowth where we could see most of the tree from one spot.
That morning I knew that Outamba and Olympia were around before I even reached the tree because I could hear Olympia throwing a fit from the main trail. She was weaning earlier than most infants and wasn’t taking it very well. This sort of conflict is pretty typical, but Olympia had been lethargic and looked like she was losing weight. Everyone was already a little bit worried about her.
I approached the tree and greeted the field assistants who were already there. I had followed Olympia the previous morning and decided to save her for an afternoon focal follow. Instead, I picked out her cousin, Tembo, and began collecting data. It was still damp and the chimps were too high up to film so I left my camera in its waterproof sac on top of my backpack for quick deployment when the time came.
Tembo was moving around the edges of the tree and I lost him for a moment in the foliage. As I searched the tree looking for him my binoculars passed over Olympia, just as she threw herself into another tantrum. She had been riding on Outamba’s back, travelling along a large limb toward the center of the tree. Near the middle of the limb, Olympia whimpered, dismounted, and sat on the bow with her arms raised toward Outamba. Her whimpering quickly escalated into high-pitched hair-raising screams. Outamba turned, reaching for Olympia. She grasped her baby’s arm and pulled Olympia in toward her stomach. As the tantrum resolved, I dropped my binoculars to continue scanning the rest of the tree for Tembo.
Then Olympia fell.
We all gasped. She must have had a bad grip. With no branches or soft undergrowth to soften the fall, she hit the ground with a thwack that made my guts churn and my heart drop into my feet. And then there was silence. Everyone, chimps and humans alike, stood in the clichéd slow motion of such moments staring at the spot where Olympia hit the earth. We strained to find her through the vegetation, but we couldn’t move or blink or breathe.
A few seconds later and suddenly the spell broke and everyone rushed toward the baby. Outamba and Dan and I got to the spot first and at the same time. Outamba scooped up her broken baby and Olympia screamed- I sucked in my first breath since she fell. And I had some hope. In these few seconds I had already run through every possible way that Olympia could have survived, all of the injuries she could have sustained, and the estimated odds of each outcome, plus every other instance I knew of a chimpanzee falling from a height and how that compared to this particular situation. Her chances were grim, but not impossible, last year a six-year-old, Moon, fell from even higher and suffered little more than a month-long limp.
With Olympia’s scream my brain instantly sprung out of stunned stupefaction and into desperate examination, searching for evidence of her condition. I could see one of her hands wrapped around to Outamba’s back. She was grasping the hairs. Ok, fingers working. Alive. Spine unsevered. Fingers unshattered. Outamba turned and I could see Olympia’s face. Her eyes were only half open, but she was tucking her head in nuzzling her face against her mom, holding on tight. Conscious. Outamba shifted. Olympia let out another scream. Weaker this time. Lower pitch than usual. Shit.
I held back onto my own breath and waited. Staring hard into Outamba and Olympia like I could spontaneously erupt super-man-like diagnostic x-ray lenses at any moment.
A third scream. Even lower pitch. Finished with a gurgle. Fuck.
My brain was stretched thing between clinging to logic and grasping for evidence of a miracle, but the rest of me was already dissolving into despair.
The fourth scream. Weaker. Lower. Olympia’s head lolled and her face angled toward me just as her eyes rolled back under heavy eyelids. Blood on her teeth. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Olympia was going to die right now and there was nothing anyone could do. It was too late. There was blood in her lungs or her stomach or both. Probability of death equals one.
The realization swallowed me. I didn’t know what to do. Surely infants have died this way before, but no one has ever witnessed the moment of death3. The swift violence of the fall, its resolution, the chimps’ reaction. What are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to look at or look for? Everything was silent. Everyone was still just staring, like we were all frozen. I felt like I had tunnel vision- I couldn’t see anything other than mother and baby. Everything else was out of focus. With the first pair of fat tears rolling down my cheeks, I knew that I could never remember what was happening honestly. I would never remember these minutes without the blurry filter of my heartbreak.
So I did the most objective thing I could think of- I rolled tape.
Breaking my fixed gaze gave me just enough space to see some things. Outamba’s other juvenile daughters, Omusisa and Gola were by her side. Peering in at their sister. Not touching, just looking. I remembered noticing their approach at the second scream. Eslom and Bono were the only other chimps I can remember seeing before I hit the record button. And I knew, even in that moment, that I only noticed Eslom because he was alpha and because I knew he was her father even though he didn’t know it. Bono was only a meter away from him. This stuck out to me because Eslom never lets him get so close- he beats up on Bono constantly. I remember thinking that everything was so silent and still- but I’m sure that’s an artifact.
Four minutes had passed since Olympia hit the ground. I’m not sure if she was gone with that last scream or she died in the space between ungluing my eyes from her bloodied mouth and returning with the camera. The audio is mostly my sobs. The camera shakes the whole time and there are moments where it drifts and you can’t see their faces because I just couldn’t look at them and I was trying so hard to breathe and record and wipe my eyes and take notes and observe without looking. I knew I had to record it and that I would regret it if I didn’t capture some record of how the other group members responded and interacted with Outamba in this moment. We would want to know if and how the chimps changed their behavior in this moment, whether social rules relaxed or tightened, if they showed any signs of understanding or emotional response. My brain was short-circuiting but my camera could roll.
We discovered that the other chimpanzees responded to Olympia’s death with curiosity and feverish social bonding among immediate family. Outamba held onto Olympia’s body. She moved across the base of the tree and then paused. Every chimp in the party had moved down toward them. Outamba’s adult daughter, Tenkere approached, her gaze shifting from mother to little sisters and back to mother. Meanwhile, Tembo peered into Olympia’s face. Outamba tolerated this from her grandson, but when an unrelated young female, Azania, approached, Outamba barked and waved her arm menacingly. Azania flinched and moved away. Then all of the O’s, including Outamba’s adult son, Tacugama, moved with Olympia’s body into dense vegetation nearby.
They spent the next few hours huddled together grooming each other, with an almost violent dedication. Tacugama lip-smacked furiously while he pushed and pulled Outamba every which way, inspecting every inch of her body. Tenkere and Tembo sat within a meter of her, taking turns grooming each other and looking toward Outamba every few minutes.
Meanwhile Omusisa and Gola groomed with Olympia’s body between them. Periodically, they turned their attention toward Olympia as if they had only just realized she was there. Then one of them would groom her lifeless body, flipping it and stretching limbs as necessary to pick at all the most difficult spots. At some points both sisters would groom Olympia like nothing was out of the ordinary. Then Gola would pull roughly on an arm or leg and Omusisa would interrupt by switching from grooming Olympia to grooming Gola. Despite the heartbreaking grief that I felt at losing Olympia, me tears began to dry as I engrossed myself in watching the sister’s treatment of her body.
Then the pattern changed. Instead of just grooming Olympia, Gola would try to tickle her chin or would playfully pick her up or mock-bite her fingers or use some other behavior that is generally considered an invitation to play. And then I would lose it all over again, wiping free-flowing tears from my face as I filmed.
I sat with them, watching, for hours. Crying at odd intervals as they shifted in their attitudes toward Olympia’s carcass. I was in awe of Gola’s treatment of her sister’s body. Did she know that her sister was dead? Was she sad? Does she even comprehend what death is? Omusisa reacted differently. While she groomed Olympia side-by-side with Gola, she never tried to play with or carry her. When she did groom, Omusisa’s eyes darted back and forth between her sisters, but mostly she looked at Gola while she combed her fingers through Olympia’s hair. Gola’s eyes stayed fixed on Olympia. I saw something similar last year when Umbrella joined the group carrying her dead newborn, Ukraine. She let Big Brown approach and he groomed the dead baby with dedication but his eyes often wandered up to Umbrella instead focusing on the infant he groomed.
It’s hard to describe the ways that wonder and intellectual curiosity pull back from the weight of the pain in this instance. I’m not sure how to be honest about it without sounding completely callous to non-scientist or compromised to those that do what I do. Here’s this animal that I’ve watched and worried over for months and months. She fell from a tree and died four minutes later in the arms of her mother and in front of my eyes from the internal injuries that she sustained in the fall. That is what happened. And it sucked. More than anything, I hope that it never happens again anywhere ever. But before that day, no one knew how chimps reacted, in the moment4, to the sudden, seemingly random and traumatic death of an infant in the community. And now we saw it. We were there. My camera saw it. We can start to answer that question now, even if it’s only a case study.
I’m struggling to adequately convey the duality of this moment. It’s like I have two memories of what happened. One version contains the gut-punching grief and shock and trauma and the tenderness of watching Gola and Omusisa. The other holds captivation. It’s the wonder of discovery nested in the pain of losing a living thing that I treasure so much. Since she died I’ve been searching for the right metaphor or simile or parable or something to explain and understand what it’s like. The closet thing I can think of is a cross between watching your pet and watching a very close friend be hit by a truck from just far enough away that you’re helpless to stop it. You might think I’m being dramatic- but that’s what it was like for me. You may think that it clouds or biases my science- and you’re probably right about that. However, I like to think that I’m a good enough scientist to know it and acknowledge that I have to analyze data from that day very carefully. Which is how I know that I made the right decision by taping it so that some other person can quantify it and confirm my observations.
Sometimes discoveries are the best moments of your life. Other times they’re among the worst. I suppose eventually you’re bound to have a bit of both. That can’t stop you though. Well, it won’t stop me. My explorer’s heart beats on, propelling me forward, still thirsty for discovery. And so, even though that same heart has picked up a habit of thumping wildly against my ribcage every time an infant stumbles on a high branch, I’m off to the forest, searching for the next one. Hoping that it will be so much better than the last.
(1) A point of clarification on “firsts:” my use of that term exclusively refers to the first times that we observe a behavior or phenomenon. No one is with the chimps 24/7 so we have no way of knowing whether those first observations are the first time something happened or just the first time we saw it. For instance, it is entirely possible that Utah’s first play bout happened before the one I saw and no one was there to see it. But that doesn’t make it any less wonderful to witness!!!
(2) While I’m not a fan of the deadly circumstances of several of these interactions, it is important to note all of these play encounters were with animals that were already dead or doomed to death before chimps came across them.
(3) Death-by-falling has happened at Kanyawara before. Although we enjoy an extremely low infant mortality rate among the Kanyawara chimps compared to other sites, this death-by-fall is the second reported case here in the last ten or so years. In the first case, a mother joined the party carrying her dead infant who had been observed alive and healthy the day before. The infants’ head and face showed bruising injuries characteristic of falling from a height and landing top-down. When the mother left the body, the vet team to collected it confirmed falling as cause of death after examining the injuries post-mortem. The difference is that no humans witnessed the first falling death- no one here has ever seen a baby die with their own eyes.
(4) As previously mentioned, we have seen other interactions between living chimpanzees and recently deceased infants. What we hadn’t witnessed at Kanyawara, until now, how chimps respond at the moment of an infant’s death.
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This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.