Coffee's New Beginning
Feb 9, 2009
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COFFEE: A Hard Journey
In October 2006, adult female Coffee was confiscated by the government of Cameroon, with assistance from Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA) and Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund (CWAF), organizations with which we frequently collaborate. She was taken from a tiny cage in the backyard of a rich, influential man. Intensive efforts to bring about a prosecution of this man failed.
Coffee had been confined in the cage since 1981 (below). Due to malnutrition and strict confinement, her bones had not grown properly - her legs were short and deformed. She suffered from severe gum disease that resulted in the loss of many teeth and severely altered her appearance.
At Sanaga-Yong Center, Coffee's life improved dramatically with good food, much more freedom of movement, and respect from her caregivers. But Coffee had been held in isolation for so long, she didn't know how to behave like a chimpanzee, and her integration with other chimpanzees has been difficult.
Upon her arrival, we gave her a spacious chamber in the satellite cage (this is the overnight cage connected to the forested enclosure) of a family of six, led by alpha male Ballas. We hoped she would be accepted and would soon share their forested enclosure. Initially, Coffee spent all of her time watching the other chimpanzees interact with one another. Gradually, she began to groom and play with some of them through the metal mesh barrier, but with others, her relationships were not friendly. And she didn't establish strong connections with alpha male Ballas which is crucial for successful integration. Ultimately, this integration attempt was unsuccessful.
Our opportunity to introduce Coffee to another group finally came in October 2008 when, with generous support from Twycross Conservation Fund, Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund and Martha Diaz, we completed a new forested enclosure and satellite cage complex. We moved in a group of four chimpanzees from a smaller enclosure on the same day we moved Coffee into a new chamber of her own where she could choose to interact with this new group through a metal mesh barrier.
The integration between Coffee and Tati, Amigo, Kachka and Jimi was not easy. Everyone in the group attempted positive interactions with her almost from the first day, but for several weeks, she vacillated between complete disinterest and outright hostility. She attacked adolescent male Tati without provocation twice during their first opportunity to interact without protective metal mesh between them. Even after Coffee was sharing a chamber of the satellite cage peacefully with the others, she stayed apart from them, preferring to sit alone on a raised platform, resisting any contact. Friendship is usually the most important thing in life for chimpanzees. We began to wonder if Coffee could ever be happy after all the deprivation in her life. We wondered if she would even leave her platform to go into the forest. But we learned that what Coffee wanted more than friends - more than anything - was freedom!
Agnes Souchal, general manager at Sanaga-Yong Center, looks on emotionally as Coffee takes her first steps into the forest since she was captured 28 years ago.
On November 22nd, we opened the doors of the satellite cage to allow Coffee an opportunity to explore natural forest for the first time since she was captured about 28 years ago. We did not know what to expect. Coffee had known only cement floors and metal mesh since she was a tiny infant.
What a joyous day it turned out to be! After we opened the sliding door of the satellite cage, Coffee enthusiastically left her platform, then spent 15 minutes reaching through the door tentatively, touching the dirt, picking and smelling pieces of grass, building her courage. When she made the decision to run through it, she was nervous, but her delight was shining in her face. As she explored the edge of the forest her joy was palpable, and certainly shared by all the humans who watched and hoped for her.
Now Coffee goes into the forested enclosure everyday. Although the other chimpanzees sometimes follow her around, she still doesn't care to interact with them too much. Maybe she'll come to appreciate the joys of friendship more with time. For now, her world includes a forest. And she is happier than she has been since she was taken captive so many years ago.