I posted this unforgettable photo “Dorothy” last November with a comment about the chimps’ reactions from the photographer Monica Szczupider.
Small world, I recently attended a reading by author Sheri Speede who has just published the book Kindred Beings, an account of how she started the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon for IDA Africa. Speede, it turns out, is the woman in the photo with Dorothy.
She begins the book with her account of the events surrounding that photograph:
On September 24, 2008, beloved elder chimpanzee Dorothy lay down on the grass at the edge of the forest in a somewhat obscure African sanctuary and died. About five decades earlier, when Dorothy was an infant, poachers supplying the illegal ape meat trade killed her mother and took her captive. She spent most of her sad life chained by her neck as a hotel tourist attraction, but she died among friends who loved her at Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon’s Mbargue Forest.
The morning after Dorothy’s death we conducted a small funeral service for volunteers, our African staff, and people from the village community who came to pay their respects. Afterward, Dorothy’s longtime caregiver, Assou Francois, pushed her body in a creaky wheelbarrow toward her gravesite, which had been prepared beside the twenty-acre forested enclosure where she had lived. With a small procession of staff and volunteers, I followed behind. As we neared the enclosure, the twenty-five chimpanzees who had lived with Dorothy heard the wheelbarrow and came out of the forest. As they lined up at the fence line, straining to see her body, I instructed Assou to pull the wheelbarrow close to the fence and stop. As I caressed Dorothy’s head, and the chimpanzees she loved best gazed at her a final time in silent grief, volunteer Monica Szczupider snapped a photo.
After we buried Dorothy, I saw Monica’s picture and hardly gave it a second thought, but this snapshot of emotion soon would be seen around the world. After Monica won a National Geographic photo contest and the magazine published the funeral photo in a glossy double-page spread, numerous other magazines and newspapers also published it. Several journalists interviewed me about it. Invariably, they asked me if I had been surprised by the chimpanzees’ reactions to Dorothy’s death.
No, I wasn’t surprised in the slightest,” I always answered honestly.
After working closely with chimpanzees for years, I took for granted their capacity for a broad range of deep emotions. I had always been deeply sympathetic to the suffering of animals; their particular vulnerability and innocence awakened the compassionate defender in me, enough so that I had dedicated my career to it even before coming to Africa. But my direct experience with captive adult chimpanzees was something different. They were so much more similar to me than either of us was to any other animal. In these chimpanzees I recognized another kind of people, like me in many way, unlike me in others.
Because I knew Dorothy and for years had observed her role in her chimpanzee society, I wasn’t surprised by the chimpanzees’ grief over her death. The human reaction to Monica’s photo was a different matter; it did surprise me. Although we share more than 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, and this genetic similarity had become common knowledge, often cited by popular media. I knew that few human people could really comprehend the intelligence and emotional complexity of chimpanzees any more than I had understood it before I worked with them. That this photo showing a simple expression of grief drew such intense interest around world told me that many of my kind might have opened their hearts to a real understanding that among us animals there is an evolutionary continuum.
The book is a compelling read. Pick it up. And support IDA.