When a young orphaned chimpanzee arrives at the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center, they are often in terrible physical and emotional condition. Chimpanzees, like human children, have a long development period and often rely on their mothers until the age of 8 or older. When they are torn from their mothers as infants, or struggle as traumatized adults, it is caregiver Antonette who acts as a surrogate mother. As many are just babies when they arrive, she devotes 24-hour care and affection. Her goal is to make the baby chimpanzee feel protected, safe, and loved, as this early period is crucial for their psychological development. It has been a powerful journey for Antonette, and she has cared for a great many rescued orphans over the years.
During Republic of the Congo’s civil war, the nation’s capital of Brazzaville saw tremendous violence. At the Brazzaville Zoo, where caregivers from the Aspinall Foundation cared for baby gorillas, both humans and other animals were not safe from the ongoing conflict. Thus, the Aspinall Foundation moved the caregivers and their baby gorillas to the Tchimpounga Center, a quiet home away from the conflict. With the town of Mpili closest, local resident Antonette became one of the caregivers selected by the foundation, given her experience. She boldly took on the responsibility of caring for five infant gorillas during the war.
When the war ended, the Aspinall Foundation moved the gorillas to the Lesio-Louna Wildlife Reserve. Although the foundation sought to persuade Antonette to relocate with them to continue her duties, she had children of her own in Mpili. Instead, Tchimpounga staff offered her a chimpanzee caregiver job at the Center where she has been ever since.
Antonette found that caring for chimpanzee babies was very similar to caring for gorilla babies. She is a natural. In some ways, she realized, it’s like caring for human babies. Each one needs love, care, and attention. Antonette shows patience to help them succeed, guides them to be their best, and always works in the interest of ensuring they grow up to be healthy, strong, and social members of their integrated chimpanzee communities.
With each chimpanzee, Antonette witnesses the sadness and depression they arrive with disappear. This transformation has everything to do with her love, which transcends species.
The Jane Goodall Institute is a global community conservation organization that advances the vision and work of Dr. Jane Goodall. By protecting chimpanzees and inspiring people to conserve the natural world we all share, we improve the lives of people, animals and the environment. Everything is connected—everyone can make a difference.