Sheri Speede, chimpanzee champion, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m a veterinarian who directs a conservation project in Cameroon, in west-central Africa — In Defense of Animals – Africa.
At the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in the Mbargue forest of central Cameroon, we provide sanctuary to 48 chimpanzee orphans of the bushmeat trade, ranging in age from less than two years to over 40 years. We also wage a sensitization campaign to save chimpanzees and gorillas from extinction in Cameroon, producing and distributing posters and brochures, giving presentations in schools and adult communities, and broadcasting radio spots aimed at making it socially unacceptable to kill or eat chimpanzees and gorillas.
What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
If we can succeed in stopping the killing and eating of chimpanzees and gorillas — the commercial trade in particular — it would be a huge first step in saving these species from imminent extinction.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
When I’m in the bush, at the site of the Sanaga-Yong Center, I’m often overseeing some type of construction. Our resident chimpanzee population has grown from three to 48 chimpanzees in six years, so we’ve been developing infrastructure constantly. I also meet with chiefs in the village community about many local issues, and give medical care to both the chimpanzees and the human community. When I’m in the city of Yaounde, I’m meeting with government officials, meeting with business owners and managers, or gathering supplies. I also manage accounts and write articles and reports.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I was a practicing veterinarian with a large practice in Portland, Ore. I sold my interest in the practice in 1995 to work for the nonprofit group In Defense of Animals. I wanted to advocate for animals in a larger, more significant way than I was doing in private practice. Through IDA, I started working with primates in sanctuaries, and in January 1997, I went to Cameroon for the first time to provide veterinary care at the Limbe Wildlife Center.
I went again later that year with my collaborator Edmund Stone. We befriended three adult chimpanzees who had been in captivity in small cages at a resort hotel for many years. We wanted to help them, but the existing facilities in Cameroon weren’t set up to take dangerous adult chimpanzees. I soon met other captives in terrible circumstances and came to really understand the impact of the bushmeat trade (more on this below). It became obvious that if we were to help them, we had to start a new project.
I came to see that providing a place for orphan chimpanzees of all ages could be an important part of a strategy to save the species from extinction. The Sanaga-Yong Center provides second chances for its residents to have happy lives in natural forest environments within new adoptive families. This, in itself, is intrinsically important, but the center also serves an important conservation purpose by changing visitors’ perceptions about chimpanzees. This is extremely important in our effort to make it socially unacceptable to kill and eat chimpanzees and gorillas, and to gain national protection of the Mbargue forest that surrounds the center.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Jackson, Miss. I now live in Cameroon most of the year, but I still have a house in Beaverton, Ore., which I visit every year.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
The worst moments have been when chimpanzee residents of the Sanaga-Yong Center have died. We’ve had five chimpanzees die since 1999 — two in accidents, two of conditions they had before they arrived at the center, and one of pneumonia.
What’s been the best?
As an activist, I’m fully engaged in the struggle to save free-living chimpanzees and gorillas in Cameroon. More than ever, I realize that chimpanzees and gorillas don’t belong in any form of captivity, but much of my personal inspiration in the struggle to save the species comes from the residents of the Sanaga-Yong Center. My best, most personally rewarding moments have come from them, especially from our adult residents who suffered in horrible conditions for years before we brought them to the center. Seeing them find happiness and acceptance in their adoptive families has given me a wonderful sense that my struggle and sacrifice have been worthwhile. If I die tomorrow and accomplish nothing else, I know that we’ve accomplished this thing that’s wonderful. This gives me more joy than anything in my life, other than my lovely daughter Annarose.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The commercial bushmeat trade in great apes is the most significant to me right now because it has produced the orphans of the Sanaga-Yong Center and because it’s the biggest immediate threat to the survival of chimpanzees and gorillas in Cameroon.
In Central Africa, the meat of any non-domesticated animals, including chimpanzees and gorillas, is known as bushmeat. Historically, people in Cameroon have lived close to the forest and lived off the land — farming and hunting — eating whatever animals they could take from the forest.
During the last few generations, people have congregated in cities, taking their taste for bushmeat and their tradition of eating bushmeat with them. They have provided the demand that has created a profitable commercial bushmeat trade, which is lucrative for hunters and for middlemen in a country with little economic opportunity.
Bushmeat is cheap in rural village communities, but after an animal is killed in the forest, transported to cities through middlemen such as taxi drivers and logging truck drivers, and then sold in the market, it’s not cheap anymore. It’s more expensive than cow, or goat, or chicken. And as chimpanzees and gorillas have gotten rare, their meat has gotten much more expensive. So people who eat bushmeat in the cities are people who can afford to pay a bit more for the food they like. Now people eat it both because they like the taste and because it’s a status symbol. If they can serve chimpanzee and gorilla meat to their guests, it’s an indication that they have money.
So solving the commercial bushmeat trade in Central Africa doesn’t lie in finding protein alternatives for poor people living in the villages. To save the chimpanzees and gorillas in Cameroon, we need to change the way people think about these apes so that it’s socially unacceptable to kill and eat them. And we need law enforcement. We have strong laws on the books, but we need more enforcement.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
Logging and mining companies in the developing world, which have enabled the bushmeat trade to such a large degree by opening up the forests.
What’s your environmental vice?
I like long, hot showers. Since I’m in the bush without running water much of the year, I indulge myself a bit too much with looong showers when I’m in the U.S. I’m trying to get a grip on it.
What are you reading these days?
I’ve just finished Heroes by John Pilger, and have started White Teeth by Zadie Smith. But mostly, while I’m in the U.S., I’m reading newspapers — The Oregonian, The New York Times. I miss the newspaper when I’m in Cameroon.
What’s your favorite meal?
Thai — spicy cashew tofu with vegetables.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m a bit angry.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I love the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest in the U.S. I love the forests of Central Africa, too, but with carnivorous ants, poisonous snakes, and many disease-carrying, stinging, biting insects, it’s not as comfortable a place to be. But the primates in the forests there make it worth the discomfort.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
My favorite band at 18 was Boston. Today, I listen to a variety of music from country to rhythm-and-blues to pop rock to folk to classical. The last couple of days, I’ve been listening to Norah Jones and Loreena McKennitt.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I’ve been watching the HBO series Rome, which is gruesome at times but very interesting, and old Roseanne episodes, which I think are hilarious. I just saw the movie Sideways, which I liked a lot.
What are you happy about right now?
I’m happy about being a mother to my precious four-year-old Annarose, and that all the chimpanzee residents at the center are healthy and happy.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Visit our website and sponsor a chimpanzee at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center. Through our Adopt-a-Chimpanzee Program, people can contribute $15 per month to help support a chimpanzee and his/her family at the center. All “adopters” get an 8×10 photo, a biography, a certificate of adoption, and periodic updates from Cameroon.
Get Grist in your inbox