Jane Goodall Hopecast Podcast Episode 14: Dr. Rebeca Atencia

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Jane Goodall 0:00
JANESPLASH: Ratty, I use him to illustrate the African Giant Forest Rat. Ratty is a stuffed rat. He was given to me as the mascot of one of these groups who are working to find alternatives to the use of animals in medical research. And he’s quite endearing actually, everybody loves Ratty. And it turns out that rats are unbelievably intelligent, and they can learn all sorts of tricks. They’re highly affectionate when you have a pet rat. And it turns out that many children recognize rats as their favorite pet. They can do things that dogs do when they do these agility tests, the rats do exactly the same, very clever, but these giant rats live much longer, so they’re more useful for performing the tasks that they have been trained to do. One is to detect landmines. They’ve been taught to detect the earliest signs of TB. And now they’re being taught, some of them can sniff out pangolin scales, some of them can sniff out rhino horn and so on. When I first heard about it, I imagined in the arrival place in an airport and I was thinking the place would be filled with screaming people, because they’re as big as a small cap. But they’re very charming, and they’re very gentle and sweet, and they’re wonderful.

CONSERVATION CHOIR: Together we can achieve more. When we foster our relationship with animals it allows our survival. She is unwavering in her mission and has proven that one person can unite others. I aspire to change the world, too, because of the hope she gave me. She devoted her life it. Together we can save the world. Together we can, together we will. What is your greatest reason for hope? I’m Jane Goodall. And this is the Hopecast.

INTRO: I’ve known and worked with today’s guests for over 15 years. Dr. Rebecca Atencia is the executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute in the Republic of Congo, and she is the manager and head veterinarian at JGI’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center, the largest chimpanzee sanctuary for orphans in Africa. Rebecca’s passion for protecting chimpanzees is so like mine. She understands them as individuals, each with his or her own needs. She’s become one of the foremost experts in chimpanzee behavior, and great ape captive welfare in the world. I always look forward to talking with Rebecca, about our shared memories of being together in the Congo out in the rain forest. So this conversation is very special. I hope you enjoy this hopeful conversation with Dr. Rebecca Atencia.

INTERVIEW: Well, Rebecca, I am so excited to welcome you on to this Hopecast, you being one of my favorite people, I think we’re going to have an absolutely wonderful conversation. So, welcome. And I’m looking forward to hearing all your latest news and all the wonderful things that you’re doing. So when did we first meet?

Rebeca Atencia 3:34
When we first meet was in 2004, in Spain. You came to Spain to a project here that is called Prima Domos. And the next time was in Congo in 2005, I met you in the middle of the forests of Congo in Congo’s National Park.

Jane Goodall 3:52
That was when I was so impressed with you. But there you were, in a little tiny hut on the edge of a river. And you know, the other thing was, this was, I think it was three big male chimps who were released. They were all males, I think, when you followed them, there were these forest elephants which are very dangerous, and all kinds of animals. And they were I just, I was completely gobsmacked. And it did remind me a little bit of my early days in Gombe, actually, and I thought, ah, she’s one of you know, one of us. Absolutely, it was, it was an amazing visit.

Rebeca Atencia 4:33
Thank you so much. It was an amazing visit for me too, because I never expect you in the forest when I was really focused at that time. I was really just thinking chimpanzees, saving the life of the chimpanzees, following them the forest, that was my life, my day to day basis. And suddenly, Jane Goodall came to that little hut, it was, like, so strange for us and, but this was a wonderful, that we see. It was incredible, amazing.

Jane Goodall 5:02
And you told me a story, which I also never forgot about one of the chimps. What happened?

Rebeca Atencia 5:10
Well, the thing that happened, maybe the story I told you was about Kutu, that he was a chimpanzee. That he was the dominant of the group, was a devilish group that he was the dominant, he was a big male. And he was doing this place even against us, against the people. But I had a good relationship Kutu, because he was seeking one moment because he had wounds from the attack of the wild chimpanzees, I was taking care of him. And we started this relationship that he was always fine with me. And one day, after months and months being in the forest, one day, I was really far away with the camp. And another chimpanzee, another chimpanzee called Timon, attack me, and he just jump on my shoulders and bite my head. And really, at that moment, I was thinking, I’m going to die because I only listened like “crack” in my head. And even after he attacked me, he started calling all the other chimpanzees for this, and everybody’s gonna start coming. And just doing this place in my direction, I was really afraid I didn’t know what to do. And in that moment, Kutu was in the middle of the group. And he just changed the direction of the attack of all the other chimpanzees, and he protect me. He put his body in front of me for protecting me for the attack. And it was something amazing, I couldn’t believe it. How, a chimpanzee could protect me from their friends. And that was a moment that changed my life. And I say, he saved my life. I want to save their lives.

Jane Goodall 5:16
That is so incredible, isn’t it? In spite of all the harm we’ve done to these chimpanzees, they can be loyal.

Rebeca Atencia 6:53
That’s the thing that is, like, for me, that a chimpanzee can protect myself from the others was, changed my life. And I say, and was my friend, was not a chimpanzee in the forest for this. It was my friend for the rest of my life. I decided to call my son Kutu-

Jane Goodall 7:09
That’s why he’s called Kutu!

Rebeca Atencia 7:12
The reason that he’s called Kutu, I said, one day when I have a baby, my first baby is going to be called Kutu. Because for me was a, I was born that day. I was born because Kutu allowed me to be born again.

Jane Goodall 7:26
That was amazing. It was funny, you’re born again, in that way, was very different from the way it happened to me, because mine was with David Graybeard. And it was the day when he was allowing me to follow him for one of the first times and I thought I’d lost him, and I pushed through this tangle of thorns. And he was sitting, he was looking back, it really looked as though he was waiting for me. And he was just sitting there. So I sat near him. And there was a nice palm nut, red palm nut lying on the ground. So I picked it up, because you know, chimps love palm nuts, and held it out to him. And he looked away. Well, I suppose it was a bit cheeky of me, but I put my hand closer. And then he turned, he looked directly into my eyes, reached out, took and dropped the nut with one movement. He obviously didn’t want it. But very gently squeezed my fingers, you know how chimps reassure each other? And so in that moment, I knew that he and I had communicated probably with a language that predates human words, something we brought with us from our common ancestor 6 million years ago. I knew that he understood that my mode of offering him this thing he didn’t want was good. And I understood, it was just mind changing. That was David Graybeard. So, Rebecca, you have this bloody head and you have these wounds? How long did it take to recover? And how did you have the courage to go back out again?

Rebeca Atencia 9:07
I think that after this incident, to have more courage to go back and being with the teams in the forest, it took me like seven days of medication, but I was at the camp, taking medication, antibiotics and these kind of things. But after that, I went back quickly to the forest again. But for me, I started to think a lot about that situation. How, a chimpanzee, protect me from the other chimpanzees is like sometimes with a when we protect other animals, and we try to explain to other humans that we need to protect other animals. And to realize that it’s not only us, that, it was a chimpanzee that was protecting me.

Jane Goodall 9:56
So Rebecca, I think a lot of people will be pretty amazed by the story that you just told me, and the courage that you showed. So what motivated you to go to Africa and study chimpanzees, or work with them in the first place?

Rebeca Atencia 10:19
The real inspiration that I had when I was very little, was something that happened close to my house. I was living in, in the house in the camping, with a mountain behind my house. And I love it to go into the forest with my dogs, and just listening the trees, listening the birds, listening every single animal. But one day, something happened. There was a big fire, a big fire burn all the mountain that I was used to go every single day. For me, I was maybe six years old, maybe five, I don’t remember how old I was, but it was terrible. That was my place, my comfort, this place. And it was just disappearing. And for me, I said, um, what is going to happen with all the animals? For me it was so sad, and I was just crying all my eyes, they were full of tears, and I couldn’t do anything. I feel frustrated. But the next week, I went to visit a friend of my parents that he was a ranger. He was the ranger of the area, his name is Jaime. And whenever I go to his house, I saw that he had lots of babies. A baby fox. A baby Eagle. Jaime where he saw that the fire started, went into the forest, and he started saving babies. And he took all the babies to his house. He was taking care of them. And after he released them into the wild again, that was something that inspired me when I was very little. And I said, I want to be Jaime. I want to be like him. I want to save animals and release them to the wild. Give them a second opportunity. That was my inspiration. I study veterinary medicine. And after I started working with chimpanzees and other wild animals in captivity, in sanctuaries in Spain. But I was always thinking in going to Africa, and I traveled to Africa. I went to Congo. I did my PhD in the forest and I become a primatologist there.

Jane Goodall 12:25
And also, you are the expert on chimpanzee welfare in captivity. I think everybody differs for you now and how we treat chimpanzees in captive situations. So that, does it ever surprise you that you started off as you loving the forest and being upset by the fire to what you are today, traveling the world and advising zoos and sanctuaries and telling them they want to change or that they’re wonderful? I mean, does it surprise you? Or do you think it just is an inevitable progression of what you wanted to do as a child?

Rebeca Atencia 13:05
It surprise me every single day because when I was a child, I was fully afraid of everything. I was afraid of even going to the car I was, in my mind, it was not a, to go to Africa, like something real because I was afraid of going to Africa. When I arrived to Congo, and I started to work with the chimpanzees, and I saw them in the forest. I was in love with chimpanzees and with the forest. When I left that forest, and I started to see what was happening in the city. I was really, really depressed. And I said, Whoa, this thing can’t happen. And that’s the moment that I said, No, I cannot leave Africa. I need to stay here.

Jane Goodall 13:47
It’s very strange how we started differently. You and I, and we converged and we met properly for the first time in that little camp you had in the middle of nowhere. The reason that we met goes back in my history to when I first heard about the infant chimpanzees that were being sold in the markets in Kinshasa, and it was Graziella Cotman. She kept writing to me, writing to me saying, Please come, please come, please come. There’s a beginning of my career and I didn’t see what I could do. But eventually, I had the opportunity to go to Kinshasa. And I had my first experience of seeing a little chimp tied up. He had a rope around his waist, and he was tied on the top of very small wire cage in a market. And it was the middle of the day and it was very hot. I saw this little thing and he was curled up on his side. And I looked at him and I went over and I crouched down. His eyes were glazed, and it was as though he’d given up. And so I made that little soft sound of chimpanzee greeting. And this little being sat up, looked up at me with those big guys they have, and reached out towards me with his hand. And Rebecca, you can understand how I felt, I knew I couldn’t buy him for seven perpetrates this illegal trade. But fortunately, I was able to go to the American ambassador. And he contacted the environment minister, who said, Okay, I’ll send you back with a policeman tonight. And I think the people in the market had word that we were coming because it was nobody there, except this one little cage with this one little chimp. And I was able to go and cut the cord, and give him to Graziella Cotman, to look after. And that’s what began the whole sanctuary program for me, in Africa, first in Kinshasa, and then over the lake and Republic of Congo, where you are now. And there’s one other story which you probably have heard, but I want to tell you, which really led to the sanctuary. And that is, it was in Brazzaville. You know, in the Republic of Congo. I had been taken to the zoo in Brazzaville. And there were three male chimpanzees separate. And one of them was Gregwoire. And at that time, Gregwoire had virtually no hair. And he had an experience with a French family, an experience in a circus. And there were three little African children. And they were very serious. And they looked up at this old chimpanzee, that said on the top Gregoire, 1944. And they said, dance, dance. And he twirled around three times, then stood on his hands, he put his feet on the wire. And then after that, they gave him a banana. And it was Gregwoire, along with that little, first little chimp in the market. That really made me realize, somehow, somehow, I don’t know where the money is coming from, I don’t know how to, we must have a sanctuary to help these little chimpanzees to rescue them to rescue the Gregwoires. And the little, little J, as we called that first chimp. So you know, that’s how you and I met because of my experiences, and your experiences. And our paths met. And it was meant to happen, because now there you are heading up the biggest sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees in Africa. It’s kind of fascinating, isn’t it, to look at our histories. There you are to carry on everything that I care so passionately about. And God bless you. Rebecca, I think one of the things that’s so incredible about having you managing the sanctuary in Tchimpounga is because you trained as a vet. And how many chimpanzees do you think you’ve saved through your veterinary skills? Because the one I remember most is Wounda. And she was literally dying. She was about, I don’t know, eight or nine years old. And you gave, certainly in Africa, the very first transfusion, blood transfusion from a chimpanzee to chimpanzee. And that was so incredible. But how many other chimpanzees gave you saved through being such a wonderful veterinarian?

Rebeca Atencia 18:40
I don’t know how many chimpanzees we save. Because if I tell the truth, it’s not me that I save the chimpanzees, it’s the team. We create a team that all of us, the caregivers, the nurses, we work day and night, for say, every single life. It’s our passion, and we inspire one each other. And if I was able to do things that we cannot do in other places, it’s because for the people that we are working together with our passion, we love the teams. We work with him. We’re taking care of them since they arrived and their own life.

Jane Goodall 19:16
That’s what the world needs, isn’t it? Teamwork. Together, we can do it.

Rebeca Atencia 19:21
Together, we will do it.

Jane Goodall 19:32
In this pandemic, I’ve been grounded for over a year now, sitting in this one little room but reaching out and sending messages. Messages about all the things that you care about and I care about and reaching many more people than I could have when I was traveling around the world. But my goodness, I miss coming to Tchimpounga. I love coming to Tchimpounga and you know Rebecca, you must know, that you saved Tchimpounga, because I could not believe our luck when you said that you would be prepared to leave Konkwati and come and take over as the, I want to call you something more than your title. You’re the sort of Mother of the chimpanzees of Tchimpounga.

Rebeca Atencia 20:17
Thank you. When you came to Konkwati and you offer me to help you in Tchimpounga, I say, Yes, I will do it, I will do it, we are going to release these chimpanzees of Tchimpounga, we are going to do it. But if I tell you the truth, when I start working in Tchimpounga, I started with a lot of passion. But there was a moment that I said, I couldn’t do it. It’s like two months, it was in 2008 that we had too many chimpanzees arriving to the sanctuary. Every month, a new arrival, everyone in critical conditions. And we didn’t have a space, we didn’t have the islands at a time, we were fighting for having the island but we didn’t have. We didn’t have the money, we don’t have the space. I remember that day that you came to Congo. And we were around the forest. And I say to you, Jane, that’s too much. It’s so frustrate. I cannot deal with this, it’s too much. And the same, it’s something that changed completely my vision. You said to me, Rebeca, you know the problem. And that’s a big problem. But if you try to have a big solution for the big problem, they’re going to get frustrated. Try to, eh, put that in pieces, and go one by one, to create little challenge, to have a plan, to have a goal and objective, but one by one to create little challenge and like this, you’re going to, year by year, you’re going to find that you’re going to right to your goal. I said, Okay, I need to change everything, I need to change the vision of this. And as we start with this thing that we call the strategy of the triangle approach, we start to focus in taking care of the new arrivals, but thinking why the teams are coming from the forest, we need to stop them. How we can do it, because people they don’t know that is illegal, we need to start doing political awareness, environmental education on a national level. At the same time is illegal. But we need to have law enforcement. And even we cannot do the law enforcement, we can go with other NGOs and work together for to law enforcement for the prosecution. And we start to work with this triangle approach. To encourage the care for the welfare of the chimpanzees, public awareness, environmental litigation, and law enforcement, and working with the three big legs of this approach. Now, the situation is completely different. We passed from having 12 survivors a year, to have one or two orphans in that were coming. And now, I cannot believe that this thing is happening.

Jane Goodall 22:51
And I think Fernando’s Super Codo made a difference too, didn’t it?

Rebeca Atencia 22:56
Yes, that’s a feeling that now everybody likes to watch the TV. Adults, kids, the creation of Super Codo, that is an Congolese hero that shows to the kids, that there is a possibility that a kid can make a difference. That they can protect the forest. And that was a big change, too, because he’s the new generation. He’s a Roots and Shoots leader that we have in Congo.

Jane Goodall 23:20
It’s so beautiful, but it was so successful in Congo. It takes everything doesn’t it to change the world? You never know. You never know. You just have to do your bit. Well, Rebecca, I’m sure you will agree that one of the most horrific problems is boredom. I mean, these are intelligent creatures. They have brains, they can do, if you, if you teach them, they can do computer problems. They can learn sign language. In the wild, they use tools. They have complex social relationships. So if they’re in a small cage, especially if they’re alone, or with one other chimp, they’re bored stiff. And I tried to introduce environment enrichment way back when I first came from Gombe in 1962, and nobody would pay any attention. But this changed, hasn’t it?

Rebeca Atencia 24:15
Yes, they are like us. They cannot be alone, the first thing, that they are social. That the first thing is so important that they are together, they are with other chimpanzees. And now we are even started creating indicators of welfare. Because if you don’t know what is good, and what is bad, how you’re going to say that is their welfare. The welfare. And now we are trying to standardize the indicators, now only in Africa, first, in the sanctuaries in Africa, and we hope that this welfare indicator, we can start using them in other places, in America, in Europe. We had a really good conversation with people in sanctuaries in America and in places in Europe and they are happy to start using the welfare indicators, because we can see, we can see the chimpanzees in the sanctuaries in Africa, that they can live in big groups. They can have natural environment, they’re really, really having their normal behaviors for their species.

Jane Goodall 25:16
Tell us about the enrichment.

Rebeca Atencia 25:19
Some chimpanzees that are in captivity in zoos, or in sanctuaries in Europe or in America, or in Australia, that doesn’t mean that they need to go to Africa. We can give a good life where they are. But we need to give enrichment. And the reason it’s can be environmental enrichment and other kinds of enrichment, that social enrichment and people they need to understand that that’s really important in their life. And they can learn how to do it. They can share, eh, techniques, methodologies, and they can give a better life to these chimpanzees, maybe they are going to spend the rest of their life in that enclosure.

Jane Goodall 26:01
The way that things have changed, the first environment enrichment thing that I invented, was a little box, and it had little holes in the top. So all the chimp had to do was pick up a bit of straw, poke it in and get out the honey or the mustard or whatever chimps like to eat. Do you know why it was never used in London Zoo? Because the keepers said it was too much work. They would not use it. So the first time it was used was in a zoo in America. And of course, instead of just throwing food on the floor for the chimps to pick up, it’s gone in a flash. We give them things to do, right? They really like their minds worked. So they wanted, like, termite fishing in the wild and things like that, right?

Rebeca Atencia 26:50
When we do an environment enrichment, we try to replicate the things that the chimpanzees, they do in the wild, to replicate in captivity.

Jane Goodall 26:52
Yes.

Rebeca Atencia 26:53
And like we said, they develop the same behavior. And for them, their life change.

Jane Goodall 27:07
That just shows they’re desperate to use their brains to do something.

Rebeca Atencia 27:13
Because they need it. And it’s important that everybody in the zoo or in the sanctuaries, they understand that that’s, it should be a part of the regular work. It’s not something extra. The same way that they clean the cage, they give the food, they do with enrichment.

Jane Goodall 27:29
And especially important in zoos, I mean, the sanctuaries, they do get out in the forest. So it’s not the same that, in zoos, it’s really important, isn’t it? And you become more visiting zoos and advising zoos, haven’t you?

Rebeca Atencia 27:44
Yes. And in the zoos, the thing that happened, if they don’t have enough enrichment, sometimes they start to do, to outlet, to hurt themselves. They don’t have anything to do. And it’s really hard for them.

Jane Goodall 27:59
The great thing is that this can be expanded. It doesn’t have to stop with chimpanzees. All of these enrichment ideas, and captivity ideas can be expanded to the other apes, to monkeys, to other animals, I mean, there are elephants and dolphins, and they need things to do as well, don’t they?

Rebeca Atencia 28:20
All other species, all the animals that we have in captivity, they are suffering in some places, but sometimes because we don’t give enrichment and we don’t give the tools to the people that they are taking care of them, for be able to give them a better life.

Jane Goodall 28:38
So Rebecca, I want to end with something inspiring for everybody. So how do you feel that the sanctuaries that you’ve been so involved with are contributing to hope for the future of animal life on the planet?

Rebeca Atencia 28:56
16 years ago, when I left to Congo, I have two friends, they start working, they start working with lynx, Iberian lynx. They were in extinction, they were only 90 at that time. And I remember I left Spain to go into Congo to try to save chimpanzees. And this thing is paying, saving the lynx. Now, the last census of lynx, we have around 1000. That’s the real example of hope. How one species can change from 90 to 1000.

Jane Goodall 29:30
I always say that one of my reasons for hope are the incredible, amazing people who tackle what seems impossible, and won’t give up and you’re one of those people. You are one of the people who give me hope. So I really want to thank you for taking part in this Hopecast. I want to end up by wishing you a very amazing future. And I know that your contribution will inspire many, many, many people around the world.

Rebeca Atencia 29:59
That’s so special. This time with you and I hope that we are going to see us soon.

Jane Goodall 30:06
Me too.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: When I saw the photographs of Wounda, as she came to the sanctuary, I didn’t see how she could possibly have lived. And it was thanks to Rebecca, entirely thanks to Rebecca, that she survived. Rebecca came rushing back to care for her and did what I believe was the first ever blood transfusion from chimp to chimp, certainly in Africa.

Feel hopeful and inspired to act with a Jane Goodall Hopecast by subscribing on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, and anywhere podcasts are found. I’m your host, Jane Goodall. The Jane Goodall Hopecast is produced by the Jane Goodall Institute. Our production partner is FRQNCY Media. Michelle Khouri is our executive producer, Enna Garkusha is our producer, and Matthew Ernest-Filler is our editor and sound designer. Our music is composed and performed by Ruth Mendelssohn with additional violin tracks from Angie Shear. Sound design and music composition for the Conservation Chorus is by Matthew Ernest-Filler.


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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.

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About Author

Ashley Sullivan is the Communications & Policy Officer at the Jane Goodall Institute, where she works to connect individuals with Dr. Goodall's vision, and the JGI mission. Ashley graduated Stony Brook University with a B.A. in Anthropology and a minor in Biology, and is currently pursuing a MS in Environmental Science & Policy at Johns Hopkins University. She has a varied background including conservation, art, communications, digital media, design, photography, and documentary filmmaking. Ashley believes in sharing information to empower and in magic of storytelling to change hearts and minds. Through growing understanding and empathy, she believes it is possible to ignite positive change, every day.