Chimp Champion Fights Ape Meat, Pet Trade -- By Force, if Necessary
When Sheri Speede met three angry chimpanzees caged as an attraction at a hotel in Cameroon, her planning began.
The U.S. veterinarian and animal-welfare activist decided she would open a modest nonprofit sanctuary for these and a few other primates in the central African country and otherwise work toward conservation of the great apes.
Her main adversaries would be the poachers who kill chimps for the illegal wild meat, or "bush meat," trade. The hunters are primarily interested in adult apes; the babies sometimes end up as roadside attractions.
Eight years later Speede's sanctuary is modest no more. The Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon is home to 58 adult and baby chimps on some 220 acres (90 hectares). It's even a setting for Going Ape, a "reality soap" currently running on the Animal Planet TV network in the United Kingdom.
Speede and her staff have also embarked on the first nationwide radio campaign publicizing the illegality and danger of poaching.
"Through her work and the public education she provides, Cameroonians are starting to understand and appreciate the value of the rare fauna they have in their country."
Surgery by Flashlight
Sanaga-Yong is one of three great ape sanctuaries in Cameroon. One of the others, Limbe Wildlife Centre, used to be a zoo. And the third, Mefou National Park, is associated with the Mvog-Betsi Zoo, which is administered by the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund.
Speede's operation started as nothing.
She drew a salary from the U.S. animal rights group In Defense of Animals—but no project funding. She couldn't speak French (Cameroon's lingua franca) or any of the country's native languages.
But she was known for providing veterinary and surgical care at the other sanctuaries. She convinced the Cameroonian government to provide a remote parcel some seven hours away by train (assuming the trains are running on time) from the closest major city, the capital of Yaoundé.
The newcomers often needed surgical care.
Perhaps her most painstaking procedure was a six-hour surgery to save a female with a twisted colon—performed over a split log, with no veterinary technicians.
Further complicating matters, Speede was pregnant at the time, with her belly obstructing her view and movement.
But the surgery was a success, and the patient even went on to "adopt" a baby at Sanaga-Yong.
Rescue at the Barrel of a Gun
It's not just in surgery that Speede has shown guts. In cooperation with the Cameroonian government, she organized the first ever armed confiscation of chimps and monkeys in 2000.
Ten primates were being held at a hotel outside Yaoundé in what Speede said were terrible conditions.
When she faced down the owner, an influential man with ties to a former head of state, he blocked the road with his car to prevent her or government soldiers from leaving.
Eventually the seven-vehicle caravan escaped with the animals, which were relocated to sanctuaries.
Since then Speede has participated in about ten armed confiscations with government officials.
As Sanaga-Yong has grown, it has become a significant employer in an area where jobs are hard to come by. Twenty-three Cameroonians work there full time, and others work part time in construction and cleanup. The facility also boosts the local economy by buying produce from nearby villages.
Speede is also one of the few professionals with medical knowledge for miles around and serves informally as a doctor to area residents. She has delivered babies, mended bones, and taught about safe sex and AIDS.
Paying for medication with fruit, local parents bring children with malaria and pneumonia to her.
"I've seen her provide medical care that saves people's lives," said Ambassador Marquardt.
When Speede first built Sanaga-Yong, the local children would dare each other to run up and touch her. They apparently had never seen a white woman before, Speede said. Now these same children are beneficiaries of Sanaga-Yong.
The sanctuary buys textbooks and other supplies and pays the teacher's salary at the local school.
"We need to develop more social programs," Speede said, "because you can't go into a community as impoverished as that … and not do anything for the people and expect them to embrace you.
"I didn't know that when I went in, but I know it very well now."
The Mississippi-born veterinarian is soft-spoken but hardy. She's lost count of how many times she's contracted malaria. She knows she's had dengue fever once, though, and she won't likely forget being attacked by bandits at a train station.
Just last December a robber held a knife against Speede's young daughter. Both Speede and her child escaped unharmed.
Speede is committed to staying at Sanaga-Yong in spite of the dangers. Working with the two other great ape sanctuaries, she is looking for new areas that could be set aside for the protection of released rehabilitated chimps.
She hopes to raise funds for a television campaign to make eating bush meat a source of shame.
Speede also wants to bring more Cameroonians to her sanctuary to see the chimps living in family groups in the forest.
"To see how much they are like people, that really does have a profound effect," she said.
Sanaga-Yong's rescue efforts and radio campaign are starting to change attitudes, according to Doug Cress, executive director of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance.
"We use to say that every chimpanzee in a sanctuary represents another ten dead in the wild," Cress said in an email. "But I think Sheri Speede's work may have turned that equation inside out.
"Now, I'd say each chimpanzee in a sanctuary could represent another ten in the wild that we can still protect."