Young chimps get close to Karen Bachelder, a volunteer from Seattle,
Karen Bachelder spent years running social-service agencies that help disadvantaged children.
Now the semi-retired Seattle woman travels regularly to a remote African rain forest to help animals. This fall, Bachelder will volunteer for the sixth time at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, a haven for orphaned and abused chimps in Cameroon, a country in central-west Africa.
Bachelder will live in a simple hut in a forest clearing, miles down a rough dirt road. She'll work with a handful of North American and European volunteers and two dozen Cameroonian employees to care for the more than 50 chimpanzees. She'll give medicines to ailing chimps and watch juvenile ones scamper up trees in the sanctuary's fence-protected forest. She'll collect truckloads of food to feed the chimps and work with local villagers on conservation/education.
What spurs 61-year-old Bachelder to go halfway around the world and work for months with chimpanzees deep in the African countryside?
"The chimps are so fun and bright. And there's the whole philosophical/environmental thing about doing something about species extinction," said Bachelder.
"Then for me, personally, I get to live an outdoors life in a beautiful, if rugged, place. I just have to try not to step on a snake — and make peace with cockroaches in the kitchen."
Protecting the chimpanzees is a big job. More than 2 million once roamed a vast swath of central Africa, estimates In Defense of Animals, a Portland-based animal welfare group that started the sanctuary in 1999.
Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center: www.ida-africa.org
Although not nearly as critically endangered as Africa's other great apes — such as the mountain gorillas, of which only about 700 remain — the chimpanzee population has dwindled to about 100,000 to 150,000. Logging has destroyed their habitat, and the chimps have been heavily hunted as food (even though that's illegal in Cameroon and many other African countries) by commercial poachers who sell the "bushmeat" in cities.
The Sanaga-Yong center rescues baby chimps whose mothers have been hunted and killed; government officials and local villagers tell the sanctuary about chimps or simply turn up with them. Other chimps are rescued from captivity; several had been chained outside a Cameroon hotel for decades as a tourist attraction.
At the sanctuary, the chimps are housed in large pens. The older chimps can venture from their pens into a stretch of forest where a solar-powered electric fence keeps them in and intruders out (including wild chimps who would be overly aggressive).
The baby chimps are taken for daily walks in the woods by the Cameroonian staff who serve almost as surrogate mothers. "The chimps play in the trees and chase each other on the ground," said Bachelder. "If you stand up and they're way up the trees, they race down and grab your leg or leap onto your back — they're like 2-year-olds who don't want to be left."
Eventually, it's hoped the chimps — who can live from 40 to 60 years — can be released back into the wild.
Playful, but not pets
For Bachelder and others, part of the lure of the chimpanzees is their playful intelligence and sociability. They're among humans' closest relatives, sharing about 96 percent or more of our DNA. Since Bachelder has been volunteering at the sanctuary since 2001 and for so long (volunteers must commit to six-month stays), she know the chimps by name — and personality.
"They're like people — some are sweet, some are aggressive," said Bachelder. But, she stresses, none of them, even the endearing babies, can be treated as, or considered to be, pets. They're wild animals.
"A big male chimp may be more than 5 feet tall and weigh 150 pounds, with long arms and a big chest and extremely strong," said Bachelder. "You have to be very careful. They think you're some other kind of weird chimp ... they can crash into each other and fall out of trees, and they can take it because of their physiology. But a juvenile hit me once on the back, just playfully, when I was in the nursery. Three days later, I could still feel it."
At this point in her life, Bachelder works to support her volunteering. Formerly the executive director of Deaconess Children's Services in Everett, she now takes short-term jobs so she can travel back to Africa: "I have the luxury to do it because I'm single. I'm not putting kids through college."
She'll keep volunteering at the sanctuary. And she hopes to see the day when the chimps can safely return to the wild, when deforestation and hunting no longer threaten them.
Northwest Traveler is an occasional profile on travelers/ travel companies from the Northwest by Kristin Jackson, a Seattle Times Travel editor/writer: email@example.com or 206-464-2271.