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.
Besides the chimpanzees, do you house any other primates (monkeys, prosimians)? — Shirley McGreal, Summerville, S.C.
Our residents are all chimpanzees. But gorillas and many species of monkeys are also being orphaned by the bushmeat trade. Two other important organizations, Pandrillus, which runs the Limbe Wildlife Center, and the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund, which runs Yaounde Zoo and Mefou National Park, provide sanctuary to many of the other primate species. We are all friends and collaborators, and we all work in collaboration with the Cameroon government’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife.
I decided to start a project in the forest for chimpanzees specifically because I saw chimpanzees living in terrible conditions, and the other organizations were overwhelmed and couldn’t help them, particularly the adults. Most gorilla orphans lose the will to live and die before making it to a sanctuary, but chimpanzees can suffer through very harsh treatment and manage to survive somehow. So there are more surviving chimpanzee orphans of all ages.
Are there any circumstances under which the chimpanzees at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center are returned to the wild? — Name not provided
There are two subspecies of chimpanzees in Cameroon, Pan troglodytes troglodytes and Pan troglodytes vellerosus. We are collaborating with Pandrillus and the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund in a search for new field sites that might eventually be reintroduction sites for both subspecies. However, release/reintroduction of our chimpanzees will be a long and complicated process, and we’re not yet sure that suitable sites exist in Cameroon. While we are hoping for this future for some orphans, we assume that most of our current residents will be with us at Sanaga-Yong throughout their lives. We are committed to doing what is in their best interest.
Can you share your (pragmatic) vision for the long-term future of the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center? — Stanley Jones-Umberger, Washougal, Wash.
I foresee that the center itself will continue to be supported by grants, donations, and our adoption/sponsorship program, with our ultimate goal being to build an endowment from which the interest would support operations at the center. The Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife has proposed — with our encouragement — that the Mbargue forest, where the center is located, become a wild “chimpanzee sanctuary.” With this level of legal protection, any activities deemed harmful to chimpanzees would be prohibited in the forest, and we hope the government of Cameroon would take responsibility for enforcing the regulations.
On the other hand, if we do find two suitable field sites for reintroduction of our two subspecies of chimpanzees, this would be a large, national project for which we would seek — and might realistically expect to get — funding through the United Nations, and from the United States, European Union, and Cameroon governments.
Aside from sponsoring a chimpanzee (which I intend to do), what can one (very busy) person do to help in this cause? — Christina Johnson, Long Beach, Calif.
Donating funds to those of us who are working on the ground is the best thing you can do. We are limited by a lack of funds.
Also, I would urge you not to buy art or furniture made of endangered wood from Africa (though most of the wood extracted from African forests goes to Europe and Asia). Be sure that the wood you buy is certified to come from companies that log sustainably.
Do you spend a lot of time interacting with the chimpanzees? Do they like to be held and hugged? — Name not provided
I, personally, don’t have much time to interact with the chimpanzees anymore. Each day that I’m in the bush, I do visit briefly with the adults — who are all my friends — and with the older juveniles who I knew well as infants.
The chimpanzee babies need surrogate mothers. We have caregivers and volunteers who hold them and give them lots of hugs. As they get older, they are integrated into groups with adult chimpanzees, and they rely more on their adoptive chimpanzee families for the affection they need.
It is my understanding that for a small portion of the bushmeat trade, it is the native people that use the meat as part of their normal food source. If this is true, we need to come up with an alternative food source. What have you or your organization done in this aspect? — Wil Reding, Kalamazoo, Mich.
Rural people who live close to the forest eat bushmeat to survive. Subsistence hunting for survival in Cameroon is referred to as traditional hunting; it consists mostly of small animals that can be trapped and small monkeys. At this time, I don’t know of any organizations in Cameroon that are trying to stop traditional hunting except that of endangered species, like chimpanzees, gorillas, drill monkeys, etc. With traditional hunting, animals are killed in the forest and eaten in the village close to the forest. It’s not seen by the outside world.
The commercial bushmeat trade is a different story. This unnecessary trade to supply an urban demand is decimating species. It’s about tradition and taste preference, not about survival. But the commercial trade does provide a means of making money to hunters and middlemen in a country where there is little economic opportunity.
So what we need are economic alternatives, not protein alternatives. This is a big issue. My small project is providing 23 permanent jobs and many temporary jobs to people who would otherwise be hunting. But in Cameroon, we need major infrastructure development at a governmental level and a political climate that is inviting to foreign business investment. Corruption is a major stumbling block to development in Cameroon.
Has the work of Jane Goodall and the movie Gorillas in the Mist helped your cause? — Name not provided
The work of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey have raised awareness about the need to save chimpanzees and gorillas outside of Central Africa, which is very important. But most of the people I work with in Cameroon have never heard of them.
I read an article about a chimpanzee in a China zoo whose keepers weaned her off of her smoking habit! What’s your take on our attempts to humanize chimpanzees? — Name not provided
At the Sanaga-Yong Center, we receive many chimpanzees as very young infants, and they need comfort and love from surrogate mothers, as well as an authority figure. So the human caregivers provide this. We try to get newly arriving chimpanzees with other chimpanzees as quickly as possible. As they grow older, they learn to rely on the other chimpanzees for the social nourishment they need.
I don’t believe in keeping chimpanzees as pets in human households, using them in entertainment, or in teaching them to smoke, drink, or any other harmful human behaviors. The longer an orphan chimpanzee stays with humans and away from chimpanzees, the more difficult it is for them to become a member of a chimpanzee family, which is the healthy environment that will ultimately provide them with the most happiness.
I remember hearing about a complicated surgery you performed under flashlights on an ailing chimpanzee. Can you tell us more about working conditions in the bush in general, about this surgery in particular, and what the outcome was? — Shirley McGreal, Summerville, S.C.
I did that abdominal surgery on Becky, one of our adult female chimpanzees, in 2001, before I had my small vet clinic. I discovered her in severe abdominal pain one evening. Chimpanzees don’t show pain readily, but it was obvious in Becky’s face, so I knew it was a serious situation. I called primate veterinarian Jim Mahoney who had extensive experience with chimpanzees. He predicted that she might have a twisted colon or large intestine from which she would die without immediate surgery. He had seen it before. He told me, “If I’m right, she’ll probably die by morning. And if you do surgery, you’ll likely have a fatal outcome anyway.” But he encouraged me to try.
I anesthetized Becky at 11 p.m. I used only injectable anesthesia because that’s all I had, a split log as a surgery table, and strong flashlights as surgery lights. I had two volunteers and my Cameroonian manager helping me; no one had any medical experience but they all did their very best. After hydrating Becky with intravenous fluids and giving her high doses of intravenous antibiotics, I cut into her abdomen at 1 a.m. and made my last suture closing her up at 7 a.m.
I found exactly what Dr. Mahoney predicted. All the adhesions would have made the surgery very difficult under the best of conditions, but the circumstances there, including fighting all the tropical insects attracted to the flashlights, made it close to impossible. To make matters worse, I was six months pregnant and after a couple of hours bending over Becky on the low log, I was in extreme physical discomfort. It was the most grueling medical procedure I’ve ever performed.
That Becky survived is a testament to her amazing strength and will. Dr. Mahoney encouraged me before the surgery and “held my hand” via the satellite phone during the dangerous post-op period. I will always be grateful to him for saving Becky.
Today, Becky is an adoptive mother and a very important member of her family. I consider her a dear friend.