the chimpanzee who died of a broken heart

Ard: So, Jane, it’s an enormous pleasure for me to meet you. I’ve admired you from a distance for a long time. I want to tell you a little bit about my own story with chimpanzees. So I grew up in Gabon, in Central Africa, and my parents are biologists, and when I was about two – we lived in the jungle – the local hunters had shot a chimpanzee without realising that it had a little baby, a few weeks old, still clinging to its mother. So they brought it to us and my father bought it for its weight in sardines, and so we raised it with a bottle that was at home. You know, gave it a bottle and kind of raised it. He was like a brother to me. His name was Bertje. Here’s a picture of us in the back garden.

JG: You and Bertja?

Ard: Bertje, yeah.

JG: Bertje? Bertie?

Ard: Yeah, Bertie. Bertje is in Dutch. And he was like a brother to my sister and I. He’s just about two. I think he’s about two when I was about four, or maybe three. And it was just amazing having a chimpanzee.

JG: They’re so like children.

Ard: They’re so like children.

JG: But then what happened to him?

Ard: He lived with us for a few years and then when he was about five years old we brought him to a nature reserve where they tried to bring him back into the wild. But unfortunately he got ill at some point and he…

JG: This is the tragedy of these young chimps: very cute, very sweet and… There’s a pet trade in them now. It’s happened in the US where a man, a scientist, Kellogg, he actually brought up a chimp with his son, Donald, as an experiment. But then when the chimp stopped being cute and sweet, he was thrown into a lab and…

Ard: Oh, that’s really sad.

JG: The end is always sad.

Ard: Yeah, I was very sad. I mean, for us it wasn’t because he wasn’t… He was still cute and sweet. We were moving on, and so we…

JG: Yeah, well that’s the problem, and these humanised chimps, they can almost never be reintroduced.

Ard: Okay.

JG: No, unless they’re with a whole group.

Ard: Unless they’re brought in as a group?

JG: Yes.

Ard: So this was the President’s reserve, and the hope was that they would be able to reintroduce him back. I mean, he was a particularly intelligent… It doesn’t work?

JG: Very doubtful.

Ard: So what should we have done, then? Because he was a few weeks old and he would have died.

JG: Well, no. You did the right thing: you took him and you looked after him. There was nowhere for you to put that little chimp.

Ard: No, I felt very attached to it. I really thought he was like a brother, and we played and he was very… He liked to play hide-and-seek and… Here I have a photo of he and I playing together in the sand pit. He was just very, very, playful and… Here he is with my sister. He and my sister were exactly the same age, and they had a very close bond that I was actually a little jealous of.

So my mother says although we look different, we behaved remarkably similarly. You know, in the morning we fed him porridge and he’d eat with a spoon, which he didn’t actually really like. So if you turned around, he would eat with his hands.

JG: Yes.

Ard: And when you looked back he’d grab the spoon as if, ‘Of course, I’ve been eating with my spoon the entire time.’

David: That’s quite clever, isn’t it?

Ard: It’s really clever, yeah. He knew what was going on; he could sense things. One of his favourite things of all was to untie knots. So here we have a photo of him untying a shoe.

JG: Oh, yes, well that’s very typical chimp. Many, many zoo chimps, if they get the chance, they’ll spend a lot of time untying your shoes and trying to knot them again.

David: Really?

Ard: It’s amazing. In fact it used to bother me. I didn’t wear shoes that often, but if I did, he would grab them. And then I remember my mother said I once came in very upset because I said, ‘He’s taken my shoes off, but he has hands and feet.’ So I grabbed his hands and pulled them off, but he’d grab them with his feet and then… ‘It’s not fair! He’s got four hands.’

JG: Four hands, yes. But he couldn’t tie the lace, could he?

Ard: I don’t think he could, no.

JG: No.

Ard: His favourite game, in fact, was my father would take a big piece of string and tie him up. He’d just be giggling and giggling and giggling, and my father would make these fisherman’s knots and in no time he would untie himself. And then he’d bring the string to you, like, ‘Do it again, do it again.’ It was amazing.

He was just funny. He liked to make jokes. There’s one story that I remember. We had a kind of rain barrel that he would hide in when it rained, and so my sister – who was then about one and could just walk – crawled into the barrel, and he would sit in front, and so my mother couldn’t find her. My mother panicked, you know. It’s the jungle, there are snakes, there are all kinds of animals and she couldn’t find… And she went yelling and screaming, and he sat in the front and kind of blocked the view for a long, long time until the whole village just went in a panic and eventually they found her hiding behind. They were colluding together – thought it was very funny.

JG: Yeah.

David: I bet your mother didn’t think it was very funny?

Ard: No, she didn’t think it was funny, but they somehow – my sister and he – they were playing a game and hiding from the adults. Yeah, it’s amazing.

JG: That’s how human they are.

Ard: Yeah.

David: Did you regard them as very human from early on? Because, of course, mainstream science was at pains for a long time to say, ‘No, no, they’re not human. We mustn’t anthropomorphise…’

JG: Anthropomorphise them.

David: That’s what I was taught when I went to university.

JG: When I got to Cambridge to do a PhD, I hadn’t been to university at all, and I was pretty scared. I got there and was told by these erudite professors I’d done everything wrong. I shouldn’t have given the chimpanzees names.

Ard: Really?

JG: Some of them said it’s scientific to give them numbers, and I couldn’t talk about personality, mind capable of thinking and certainly not emotions, because those were unique to humans. And at that time – we’re going back now to ’61 – it was still believed by mainstream science that there was a difference of kind between us and the rest of the animals, whereas, of course, it’s a difference of degree.

David: I was taught the same thing in the ‘80s.

JG: Yes. My son was as well. I said, ‘Well why…’

David: I was told off if I said it intended to do something.

JG: Yeah. Intentionality is just linked to us.

David: Yes, for them it had to be some kind of clockwork instinct or something. It just did this, it didn’t intend to.

Ard: That’s so interesting. So do you think the fact that you were, in some sense, unhampered by convention? It sounds like… well, they were telling you to be a spectator, outsider, and not be involved.

JG: Not be involved emotionally at all, yes.

Ard: But in fact that spectator distance would have prevented people from seeing what was true.

JG: Yes, of course. But in those days there were no tools to dissect animal emotion. Now you can do a degree in it. Now it’s mainstream.

Ard: Do you think it was a kind of dogma holding them down?

JG: It was, yes. As I went on with my career I found there was always something which somebody said, ‘Well, at least, we’re the only ones doing this.’ It was desperate. People were desperate to find something which made us truly unique. And so for a long time people talked to me about death and grief, and that, surely, mourning was uniquely human. But, of course, we now know it’s not: elephants mourn and dogs grieve and all sorts of things.

David: Did you see that behaviour in the chimpanzees?

JG: Oh, yes.

David: Really?

JG: Absolutely.

David: What? You saw them mourning for the loss of a friend or a…?

JG: The young ones can actually die of grief if their mother…

Ard: Really?

JG: …if they lose their mother. Even at eight years old. We had one…

Ard: Just of grief? Just being sad?

JG: Just depression. Depression.

David: Crikey! We’d call that a broken heart, if it happened in humans, wouldn’t we?

JG: Yeah.

Ard: I wonder if that’s what happened to Bertje when he…

JG: It could well be. I mean, he lost his whole family.

Ard: Yeah.

JG: You know, he was abandoned.

Ard: Oh, man… oh, man.

JG: That’s the trouble. And…

Ard: That’s really tough. I hadn’t thought of that.

JG: But we interfere in animals’ lives, but we interfere in each other’s lives too.

Ard: Yeah, yeah, well...

JG: But you were… you were his family.

Ard: Yeah, and we left him… we left him behind. I felt abandoned when we left him, but I never, until today, thought that that might have happened to him. Maybe he died of grief.

JG: They get the immune system weakened in that depressed state, same as with us.

Ard: Yeah.

JG: And that’s what happened to little Flint. He just fell sick in that weakened state. I’ll never forget. This was the saddest thing. His mother was very old and she died. Actually, she was about to cross a stream and she just… Her heart gave out, I think, and first he set off and he travelled with the others, but then he came back – came back to where his mother had been. We’d moved the body by then, and he just sat there. And then he climbed up into a tree where they had made a nest, a night nest, about five days before, and very slowly he walked along the branch. And he got to this nest and he stood there and he looked at it. And then he turned around and walked back, walked down and curled up close to where she’d been and died.

Ard: Uh-huh. Just died of grief?

JG: Died of a broken heart. There’s nothing else you can say, really.

Ard: That’s really sad.

JG: There are a lot of sad things.

David: You all right?

Ard: Yeah. I really loved Bertje. He was like a brother. And, you know…

JG: Well, this is the thing. They are so human.

Ard: Yeah, they’re so human.