My upstairs neighbour phoned me in tears yesterday afternoon. Even though we live one floor apart, this is frequently how we communicate. "Something terrible has happened," her voice sobbed in the tiny receiver.
I immediately thought that her husband, a young lawyer, had had a serious accident, or that her malaria (contracted in Uganda last summer) had flared up.
It seemed that the fine and unseasonable weather in Ohio this past month led the keepers of the rare bonobo chimpanzees in the Columbus Zoo to let the animals out of their winter enclosure for a bit of an airing. Zoo policy is to give the chimps as much sunlight as possible for their mental and physical health.
But this is Ohio in December, and the weather took a damp and chilly turn. All of the bonobos fell ill with colds. This rapidly progressed to pneumonia, and Monique feared that the entire troop was infected.
One bonobo, Mambo--a 26 year old male in the prime of life, and a great favorite of Monique's--he knew sign language and could talk to his trainers----died on Christmas Eve. Another chimp, a baby named Jo/T, was near death in the hospital from the same disease.
My neighbour studies bonobo chimpanzees (working with this troop and also in Africa) and has an impressive list of credits that would shame even the most well travelled animator. Monique displays pictures of famous chimps on her walls the way other people would display family portraits. For Monique, bonobos are family.
They are close family to all of us actually. The bonobo is the closest relative to the human being; far more human like in proportion and facial expression than the common chimp, pan paniscus.
And Mambo could talk to humans.
I did not know what else to do so I grabbed a yahrzeit candle from the cupboard. This simply means 'year's time' in German. The candle burns for 24 hours and is used on the anniversary of a death, starting at the first year. I didn't know the rule for nonhumans but decided that the psychological advantages outweighed the religious ones.
So I brought the yahrzeit candle to Monique's apartment. Her husband Eric answered the door gravely. At least he was all right. Monique was sobbing into a phone while sitting on the sofa.
The candle was set to burning and I invited the pair to dinner that evening to cheer them up and also to hear more about the matter.
When I got back downstairs I gave Gizmo a treat--some turkey and potato wet canned food. She ate it with avidity since it had the high smell that resembled tuna--and Gizmo is a tuna junkie.
To my horror I then heard the familiar and dreaded whee--gasp--whee--gasp sound that means Gizmo is having an asthma attack.
I was absolutely frantic when I saw her, in what is known as the 'meatloaf position' with her tongue sticking out of her open mouth.
This meant it was a very serious attack and could be fatal. I ran for the phone to call Monique to get us to the emergency hospital, but Gizmo would not survive in this condition for the time it took to get there.
Fortunately she recovered and immediately asked to play. I said No. I also said no more poultry, ever. It's an allergen, and I've learned my lesson. The treat nearly did the poor cat in. She will eat rabbit for the rest of her life.
Monique and Eric arrived for homemade Chinese food that turned out pretty well, considering. She was a bit more composed since one of her pupils had travelled to the zoo to see the chimps. Only Mambo had succumbed. The other chimps, save for Jo/T, had not developed pneumonia and were being treated. Jo/T was in hospital and very near death.
Now, Jo/T is only a baby. She is about four years old, and the love of life this little creature showed in the movies Monique ran on the computer would shame a human child. Jo/T loves to spin round and round til she is dizzy and do somersaults over her mama.
She, too, was a great favorite of Monique's but was too young to talk.
I did the only other thing I could do; get out my one remaining bayberry candle from Georgia and light it in one of the Roycroft candle holders. I explained that a bayberry candle was traditionally burnt on Christmas Eve but we'd make exceptions here. The saying was that ' a bayberry candle burnt to its socket puts luck in your life and cash in your pocket'.
It couldn't hurt.
So we toasted poor Mambo's life in some good French wine and wished for Jo/T's recovery. If you and I can think good thoughts about a young and very rare chimpanzee at this festive season, it could not hurt as much as the treats that the keepers --and I--thought we were giving our beloved friends.