Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Bonding With Hondo
As a celebration for turning in my final draft of my thesis paper to the professors today (go me!), I am posting a small portion of the paper here, one of the short stories about my time at the zoo. The Image is a sketch of a painting in progress which goes with this story. Hope you enjoy!
Hondo was one of the largest chimps I had ever seen. A commanding male, he ruled his troupe at the North Carolina Zoo with a king’s presence. On more than one occasion, when Hondo was taking out his frustrations on his unruly family, I watched from a distance in absolute terror of his power and the expressions of anger and hostility on his face. I had to work very hard not to show him my fear, but somehow Hondo knew, and he seemed to relish finding new and interesting ways to scare me. He made loud noises, threw things, or spit on me. We shared a mutual dislike that I think was caused by a mutual misunderstanding of each other.
I made numerous mistakes with Hondo in the early days of our acquaintance. I avoided him and never gave him a proper and respectful greeting as troupe leader. I also had a difficult time masking my frustrations with him as our relationship deteriorated, and although I tried hard not to react, I had a hard time schooling my facial expressions. I made my dislike clear in a hundred small ways, like lifting my eyebrows or creasing my brow. Then along came Hondo’s offspring, Jonathan, and my relationship with Hondo changed drastically.
Jonathan chimp was born to a first-time mother, who was unable to nurse him. In the absence of another nursing female, the choice was made to hand-raise him. But because the regular chimp staff was short-handed, the non-primate keepers in the park, such as me, were asked to volunteer time to help feed him. Of course, I jumped at the chance to cuddle a baby chimp.
Jonathan was a tiny thing with enormous ears twice the size of a normal chimp. We fed and cared for Jonathan in the cage adjoining the troupe to help teach the females care skills by watching us. This minimal contact would also help integrate Jonathan back into the troupe when he was weaned. I was extremely nervous about entering the cage next door with only a large, metal grate separating me from Hondo and the others. So on the first day, I hesitantly walked in and sat in the plastic chair beside the mesh, waiting for the keepers to bring Jonathan and his bottle to me.
I remember distinctly being grateful that the chimp troupe was outside and none of them seemed to notice me. I had visions of the amount of spit and urine I would have to shower off myself before the afternoon was through. But, when they placed that tiny, furry chimp boy in my arms, none of that mattered. I was completely spellbound by his little, pink hands that grasped at my fingers just like a human infant, and his beautiful little face framed by those ginormous ears. He gazed up at me with saucer-sized eyes and took the bottle for me right away. I felt this sense of peace fill me up, and I rocked him gently while he ate. I was bent forward over the baby crooning to him, encouraging him to keep eating, when I felt something on my neck, blowing my long hair.
A chill shot down my spine when I looked up to find Hondo seated with his side pressed up against the mesh cage door. I had to fight the urge to jump up and run. The only thing that kept me planted in my chair was worry that the precious baby would be frightened. When I looked back at the baby, Hondo blew gently at my hair again, and I realized he was blowing my hair out of the way to see the baby. I moved my hair back behind my shoulder and sat up straighter. I did this mostly so I could watch Hondo out of the corner of my eye.
Hondo remained quiet and my heart rate eventually slowed to normal. I opted to turn my chair and move it closer to the mesh bars. The look of surprise on Hondo’s face was something to behold. I don’t think the other keepers had offered to bring the baby closer to him, or perhaps he had not asked since he already trusted them. Regardless, my decision changed our entire relationship.
It became normal for Hondo to meet me whenever I was feeding the baby. We even sat with our shoulders touching against the mesh sometimes, once I learned to trust that he would not grab at my hair or pinch me through the bars. Hondo never again treated me with anything less than respect and affection. We eventually graduated to grooming each other through the bars, which indicated that he accepted me as a member to his troupe. I often brought him treats, and he sometimes brought me items too, things he found in his exhibit. Hondo gave me a rock one day. That piece of slate is one of the greatest gifts I ever received, more precious to me than any gemstone.
In all the years since, I am never forgotten by either Hondo or Jonathan. No matter how much I changed, every time I visit the zoo both males come across their large exhibit to greet me with obvious joy. The zoo visitors often find it exciting that the chimps know me, particularly when Jonathan throws his arms out and gives me a mock hug and kiss against the glass like he used to do as a child. Every time this happens, I feel a tightening in my gut that we can never again hug, and I remember how he would let me rock him to sleep with his head on my shoulder. But the boy has grown to nearly Hondo’s size, so we must be separated by bars, glass, and fences now. I realize this is best for my safety as well as his, but it doesn’t stop the longing or the sadness.