by Nicole Rivard
Recently Janis Carter’s sister reminded her that before she left for West Africa back in 1977, she shopped at stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and her clothes even matched. “I even had a pair of gorgeous mustard suede heels,” Carter said.
But what she expected to be a three-week visit turned into a permanent stay, so she’s never had another need for such things. Her establishment of an open air sanctuary on three islands on the Gambia River for orphaned and captive-bred chimpanzees compelled her to choose a very different lifestyle, one where at the beginning, the chimps were let loose on the island, and Carter slept in a cage.
In those early days, she helped the chimpanzees who arrived on the island become more fully themselves. She demonstrated which foods were safe, led foraging expeditions and communicated through chimp vocalizations.
She wrote in Smithsonian Magazine in the 1980s: “I knew that if the chimps’ return to the wild was to be successful, I too would have to limit my contact with humans.”
In 2005, that same magazine recognized her as one of 35 “Innovators of our time,” scientists, artists and scholars who enriched the magazine as well as people’s lives. Her tagline read: the primate who taught other primates how to survive in the world.
The photo caption quoted her as saying: “The best hope is to forge a relationship between people and chimps living close to them.” Just three years after that article was printed, Friends of Animals began supporting Carter’s work in West Africa— officially called the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project— including providing $70,000 annually for supplemental food and vitamins and minerals for the chimpanzees who call the River Gambia National Park, also known as Baboon Islands, home. In a rare interview, Carter talked with Friends of Animals about the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project and how her chimpanzee family continues to inspire her.
For people unfamiliar with the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, can you give a brief overview of the project? How many chimps did it begin with and how much has it grown?
The protection and rehabilitation of captive chimpanzees was a focus of the Brewer family, who lived in The Gambia and cared for a variety of species of confiscated or unwanted wild animals. Eddie Brewer, originally a forestry officer, was The Gambia’s first director of wildlife. His daughter, Stella Brewer, released a group of chimpanzees confiscated in The Gambia in the Niokolo Koba National Park in Senegal. This pioneering work captured the interest of many people including Maury and Jane Temerlin who were the human parents of the famous sign language chimpanzee Lucy. The Temerlins had raised Lucy from a few days of age and loved and cared for her as their daughter. As Lucy matured and the human home could not provide for the needs of a growing chimpanzee, the Temerlins searched the world for a placement for Lucy that would allow her to realize her potential as a chimpanzee. Stella Brewer’s release program in Senegal was for them, at the time, the best and only option. Although fraught with real risks, if Lucy survived, her parents felt the gains could not be compared to the then current lifestyle faced by adult chimpanzees in captivity.
I first met Lucy when I was in graduate school at the University of Oklahoma. One of my many part-time jobs was cleaning her cage several days a week. Lucy and I developed a friendship and one day her parents broke the story to me that they were sending Lucy to Africa to be rehabilitated by Stella Brewer in Senegal. When Lucy and Marianne (her chimpanzee acquaintance) left for Africa, I accompanied them along with Lucy’s parents and her human brother Steve.
For a variety of reasons, Lucy did not go to Senegal but stayed in The Gambia at the Abuko Nature Reserve for 18 months and I eventually released her on one of the islands in the River Gambia National Park in early 1979. From the time I arrived with Lucy in 1977 to her release on the island, several more chimpanzees in need of a home and family crossed our paths. By the time I started the release there were six of us … and very soon after 10. Only a few weeks earlier, Stella had decided to move her surviving group of eight chimpanzees from the Niokolo Koba to an island neighboring where I was in the process of releasing Lucy and her new friends. We functioned financially independently for several years before joining forces.
Are there any individuals remaining from the original group released on the islands?
From 1979 to 2002, 50 chimpanzees were released on the islands; 35 years later, 15 of those are still in residence. We now have a total population of 105 chimpanzees living in four family groups. At the end of 2014 we have had a total of 130 offspring born on the islands. Some families are on their third generations.
You were a grad student working with sign language chimps when you took on the task of accompanying two chimpanzees to Africa to be reintroduced into the wild on the islands of Gambia. You were supposed to be there for three weeks but you stayed and taught the chimps to be chimps, which was more difficult than anyone suspected. Now it’s 37 years later. What was the pivotal moment/moments for you or event that compelled you to stay once the chimps were ok?
I don’t recall a specific moment in time when I made the decision to stay indefinitely in Africa. I initially left for Africa at the request of the Temerlins to accompany Lucy, as part of her emotional support system. I was her girlfriend and the Temerlins wanted her to feel we were all there for her – family and friends. I took a three-week leave of absence from my coursework and my teaching, but I had no earthly idea that I would stay longer than that and certainly if you had interviewed me at the time I would not have ever said I was staying longer or even that this is what I wanted to do for a career.
My decision to stay was more of a gradual one made in stages of time of initially three-month periods, which originally coincided with some insignificant photocopy of a calendar that had three months on one page. After going through a few pages of the calendar I began to perceive my period of extension in years. Eventually the years’ beginnings and endings got kind of fuzzy, and I was really only aware of the passage of time by the seasons of wild fruits.
I never really had a project plan with a start and end date. Several years into life on Baboon Island, I saw my job description as assisting the chimps in forming a cohesive social group and helping those in the group that had little or no experience to develop the essential skills of living in the wild. I learned from the wilder ones and the less wild ones learned from me. I always thought once I felt the chimps could handle life on their own I would move off the island and probably at that point leave Africa as my job would be over. At that point my very narrow perception was that their survival depended totally on their abilities to live a wild life. When I moved off the island and my world expanded to include people I realized the survival of these released chimpanzees depended a lot on the attitude of their human neighbors. And that was when I established our education program, which has grown over the years and become an important component of the overall rehabilitation program.
During the years I lived alone with the chimps on the island and those following I was contacted by a number of organizations to help other chimpanzees in need of assistance. Through these contacts I learned more about issues of conservation for wild chimpanzees in West Africa. Over the years I worked as a short-term consultant on a number of projects related to chimpanzee conservation in West Africa. I also established the chimpanzee sanctuary in Guinea with funding from the European Commission. Through all these efforts and travels The Gambia remained my base and the chimpanzees at Baboon Island my tap root of life and focus in Africa.
After 37 years, what keeps you motivated on a daily basis? For instance, can you talk about a recent experience, perhaps a chimpanzee birth, or a conversation with a tourist visiting the River Gambia National Park, that made you feel excited about the work you do?
All these questions have been tough ones, Nicole, because the answers require spanning decades of time as well as layers of emotional depth of my own life. It is difficult— after spending a lifetime here—to separate my own life from my work for the chimps. I kind of view it all as one entity now. And I obviously have ups and downs like everyone does. And I am sure there have been days that I just wanted to ride off into the sunset and never come back, but fortunately I don’t remember them.
Probably my strongest motivator is that the chimps represent family to me. And keeping in regular touch with the development of their lives is an important part of my life. Sharing these developments with Rene and Bruno, the two men who have worked with the chimpanzees as long as I have, is especially rewarding and definitely heart-warming for me. My most favored moments of all are when I am in the boat with either Rene or Bruno and we are watching one of the chimpanzees do something particularly funny or startling. The event usually triggers a memory of the chimp’s parent or grandparent, which launches us into the past and we plunge into a rich session of vivid storytelling.
Seeing specific chimpanzees that I raised during my earliest years in Africa is particularly motivating. Dash was my first young chimp that I raised, and my relationship with him differed greatly to my relationship with Lucy for example. Lucy and I were friends—equals—but Dash was like a son and for all the many chimps I raised or cared for over the years I think my inner smile was always the biggest when I saw Dash. When I moved off the island I always looked forward to seeing him from the boat and I always felt like he looked forward to seeing me. My motto back then was a day without seeing Dash was not a day worth living. Sadly, Dash passed away a few years ago. However, I have the fortune of seeing him in the faces and behaviors of his many sons and grandsons and this reminiscence allows me a moment of reflection of my long past and very close bond with Dash.