grateful is the exposure I had to so many aspects of primatology. From opening
my eyes even more to the importance of conservation to exposing me to the
fundamentals of field research, the Field School exceeded my greatest
expectations and hopes in terms of its breadth and comprehensiveness. And, if I
can express this feeling that I had through a single story, I know which one I’d
Jess was no ordinary vervet; she was rescued from the pet trade at around one year old, likely captured from the wild as a baby or born in captivity. In her year as a pet, she became almost completely dependent on and connected to humans in a way that only a pet can become. After being rescued from the market, she was brought to Akagera, where park workers attempted to reintroduce her to the wild.
Of course, a little monkey who has known only a life among humans is going to be an entirely different animal from a wild vervet. Jess gained some independence but remained close to humans, hanging out around the park workers’ small village and eventually befriending one park volunteer, in particular, and taking up residence on his roof, sleeping there at night and coming in for meals and scratches behind the ears—the human interaction she had grown dependent on through her life as a pet. According to some of the park workers, Jess eventually made some fellow primate friends -- not among her own kind but among baboons. She would go out with them during the day and return to her roof most nights. But, one day, she returned with an injury—a limp—and, over the next two weeks, the extent of her injury grew more apparent. Her left arm began to die, withering away from her elbow to her fingertips.
That’s when we entered Jess’s story. Jess’s arm, perhaps injured by a snare or cord getting caught around it, was clearly in need of help. We had the privilege of getting to meet her, and three things were quite clear to me when I saw her. First, primates should never be pets. As cute and adorable Jess was purring for our attention, there was nothing natural about her need for human comfort. The wild vervets we saw in Akagera were just as cute as Jess, but they were where they belonged—in the wild, living independently from humans. Jess was lucky to have found park workers who understood and respected her as a wild animal; they never forced her to stay with them, always giving her the choice of leaving when she wished. The sad truth of Jess’s situation was that she didn’t know how to be a real vervet. But, at least at Akagera, she was given the opportunity to experience her natural habitat, to interact with other animals, and to choose how to spend her time; sadly, very few pet primates ever get that chance.
Lastly, looking at Jess, I knew that she needed help. Not only was she at serious risk for infection, but the volunteer she spent much of her time with was leaving the park for an extended time in just a few days. Without him, Jess would be mostly on her own and much more vulnerable, so her arm needed to be taken care of as soon as possible. Luckily, Professor (Dieter) Steklis had experience with primate surgery from his many years working in the field. Somehow, he managed to arrange for surgical supplies and a local vet tech to be brought to the park. So, on our last full day at Akagera, we all got to watch Professor Steklis perform the amputation.
It was a tense but amazing opportunity to see Jess’s dead arm removed. It had been left hanging by just a little fragment of bone—yet further testament to Jess’s resiliency—and the moment it was removed, I immediately felt relieved. It looked better already and, when we visited her in the morning for the last time, she was already figuring out how to move around and was purring for our attention.
Perhaps most surprising to learn that night was that it was Dr. Goodall’s first visit to Rwanda--ever—despite her work across the border in Tanzania. One theme that I found among all Rwandans I met was an immense gratitude toward us for visiting their country; I
can only imagine what a visit from Dr. Goodall meant to Rwandans working in conservation: a sense of hope, the forging of a partnership, and, hopefully, the beginning of change.