Author: Sheri Speede

Publisher: HarperOne

ISBN: 978-0-06-213248-2

                                                        A Gift of Love

This book is a detailed  account of how the Sanaya Yong sanctuary for chimpanzees was set up as  a result of a crusade led by the author in order to rehabilitate the apes closest to us humans.

Many of the chimpanzees that the author saved were orphans, their parents, especially their mothers, having fallen victims to the bushmeat trade. Without the kind of care provided by the author and her team, and also other rehabilitation centres working on similar centres working on similar lines, these orphans would have had no chance of survival. However, the first few chimpanzees that Sheri Speede rescued were not babies, they were older apes and had been kept confined either in cages too small for them, or bound in chains, which restricted their movement for years altogether.

The action starts from the author’s first month long visit to the Limbe Wildlife Center (LWC) in the Cameroons where she performed health screens on sixty six primate orphans, primarily chimps and gorillas. During their visit, she was part of a team that rescued a six year old chimp from a biomedical research center. The contact she made with the rescued animal, (who died shortly after she left the Cameroons) on the way back to the LWC, awakened Sheri’s “activist instincts” and served as the motivating force for the work she was to begin nine months later.

In her own words, on returning to the USA after the first trip “While the sweet old world monkeys inspired my compassion and the emotionally subtle, mysterious and relatively gentle gorillas inspired my awe and admiration, the chimpanzees, more than any species I worked with, inspired my deep empathy, I recognized them as my own. I knew I would be coming back. I knew that their cause had become mine.”

On her second trip to the Cameroons, Sheri made contact with three chimps, by giving them food and allowing some physical contact through the bars of their cages..The chimps had been kept in cages too small for them at the hotel in which she stayed. “My sense of the injustice of what had been done to Jacky, Pepe and Becky and my sadness for the smallness of their lives was overwhelming. I pitied them for this fate that was beyond their control, and at the same time I was intrigued by who they were.”

These encounters spurred Sheri’s activist instincts to new heights. She returned to the USA to gather funds and came back to create a sanctuary for chimpanzees in a forested area, where they could live a life as close as possible to that of those in the wild.

In this book, she relates the story of how the sanctuary got going, the encounters with human beings in charge of affairs (which were at least as exotic as those with the chimps), the social dynamics between the chimps themselves, the driving on roads nearly impossible to navigate, the bureaucratic hurdles she had to contend with, the paucity of essential surgical supplies, her own pregnancy and living with her baby girl at the sanctuary among others. She also mentions the fantastic help and support by volunteers at the sanctuary. But that which makes this book extra special is the heartwarming depth of the interaction Sheri shared with the chimpanzees. Despite being aware of the dangers of contact with unpredictable adult beasts, five times stronger physically than she, she let them touch her and “groom” her as she, in turn “groomed” them. The detailed description of the mutual exchange, as also the byplay of competition for the position of alpha chimp makes mesmerizing reading.

Not all of the interaction was undilutedly pleasant. “In the face of the chimpanzees profoundly familiar ape consciousness, I became a more fully realized human animal. I knew chimpanzees to be charismatic and complicated. Not all were always nice, I had seen callous cruelty in their hierarchical societies and I also saw kindness and compassion...I was equally committed to every single chimpanzee, but I cannot say that I liked them all equally.

A highlight of this book is the time when Dorothy, one of the oldest and most loved chimps passed on. There was a funeral ceremony watched  by the other chimps from their side of the fence. The sombre nature of the moment  was captured in a photograph, that was widely publicized by National Geographic.

If I were to find some shortcoming in this well written and very readable book, it is that there is too little mention of the younger chimpanzees that came to the sanctuary. That could be the subject of a much  awaited sequel.

This is a book that views chimpanzees as sentient beings and how through understanding them  and their interaction, we can get insights about ourselves. It reinforces the need to rehabilitate these wondrous creatures in an environment where they can thrive and sense their natural gladness of being alive.

Strongly recommended.

Follow Here To Purchase Kindred Beings: What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection