Chimps were let loose on the island, Janis slept in a cage

The Gambia became one of the rarest countries in the world where chimpanzees live in natural habitat. The project was initially established by Stella Marsden, nee Brewer, as a solution for a group of chimps confiscated from hunters and traders by the Gambian wildlife authorities in 1969.

While exploring The Gambia for My Magazine, we were told about the story of Lucy, the female chimpanzee and Mrs. Carter. Based on the sources listed below, this is the story of Lucy. 

Lucy was born in 1964. Soon after she was born, she was removed from the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma and raised by Maurice K. Temerlin, PhD, a psychotherapist and professor at the University of Oklahoma and his wife, Jane. They made every attempt to make her experience as ‘human’ as possible. This was Temerlin’s intent and part of their grand experiment.

They kept her in their house. Temerlin and his wife raised Lucy as if she were a human child, teaching her to eat with silverware, dress herself, flip through magazines, and sit in a chair at the dinner table. She was taught signs taken from American Sign Language by primatologist Roger Fouts as part of an ape language project and eventually learned 140 signs. Having never been exposed to other chimps, she also enjoyed looking at pictures of humans more than her own species. In every way, her species identity was erased.

By the time she was 12, Lucy had become very strong and was very destructive in the Temerlin house.  They could not handle her anymore as she was able to turn the whole house around. They decided to give her away because they could not keep her any longer.

Janis Carter met Lucy while studying and working her part-time job. She was cleaning Lucy’s cage and she was one of the few people who was able to handle Lucy.

In 1977 the couple was travelling around the world looking for different options to where to ship Lucy. Every place they visited was too depressing for them. They contacted Stella in The Gambia, and it was agreed that Lucy and Marianne, a companion chimp, could enter Stella’s chimpanzee rehabilitation project. Stella had already expressed her doubts as to Lucy’s suitability for rehabilitation given her age and background. But a relatively comfortable ‘retirement’ in The Gambia was certainly an option.  

The decision couple finally came to and be the best way to honour Lucy, the best way to really make her happy was to simply to release her into the wild. And they asked Janis to help them do that.

After 22 hours of travelling, they arrived in Senegal.

After they landed, they piled in the car and drove across to The Gambia’s nature reserve. 

They put Lucy in a big cage and left her alone to spend her very first night alone outdoors. After a few weeks, the couple decided to leave. And the plan was that Janice would stay behind for just 3 weeks to help Lucy with her transition.

At the time Lucy arrived, Stella’s doubts were immediately confirmed. In late Stella’s opinion, Lucy was very obviously not a candidate for the rehab process. 

Janis insisted to help Lucy to go through the rehabilitation process.   

Lucy started to lose her hair and get skin infections. At the end of the 3 weeks, Janis felt she could just not leave her alone. Weeks turned into months; months turned into years. Janis has never left.

Janis Carter remained at the centre until today, devoting her life to helping chimpanzees assimilate to life in the wild.   

After 2 years, Lucy was still stressed out, she was not eating properly, her hair was falling out, etc. By this point a whole another group of chimpanzees showed up at this nature reserve, former captives like Lucy.  

Janis decided to change the location. She took Lucy to an abandoned island in Gambia River Park. The idea was to release them in the wild.

When Lucy and other chimps came to the island and she released them, they were not interested in anything but her and her staff which they were used to. They wanted to do everything with her, like brushing teeth, taking bath, etc. She realised that this is only going to work if she can somehow keep chimps away from her and her tools, so she did something really radical.

She ran into a couple of British army officers who were passing through The Gambia and convince them to build her a giant, metal, industrial cage and fly it over the island with a helicopter and drop it in the middle of the island. The cage was not for the chimps. It was for her.

She lived in a cage but chimps still wanted to be with her, so they were climbing on the top of the cage and always trying to come in and be with her.

After about a year, most of the chimps lost interest in her except Lucy. Lucy was always around the cage waiting for Janis to come out and if Janis looked at her, she gave her the sign to come or the sign that she was hurt. She was starving and was not willing to go with other chimps. Janis was losing hope until one evening.

After a really long day, Lucy and Janis were walking in the forest and they both stopped because it is so big and crashed. They fell asleep on the ground together. When Janis woke up, Lucy was holding her hand and she reached out for a leaf and offered it to Janis. And Janis offered it back to her and she ate it. That was a miracle. From that moment on, Lucy started to make the effort and go off and be a chimp.

Source: Wikipedia

Not too long after that Janis went away and left the island. She then will periodically circle in the boat just to keep an eye on Lucy. But she never, not once, set foot on that island. At least not for a year.

Then one day she decided to go back. Lucy and other chimps came out to see her. Lucy came to Janis and suddenly grabbed her, circled one arm around her and held her really tight. Janis started crying and Lucy was giving her a sign that it is all ok now.

Someone in Janis’s boat took a photo of that moment.

After that, the other chimps started to go, and she wanted to go with them so she got up and she didn’t turn back to look at her and just kept walking. She wanted to go with the other chimps, and she did.  

Janis took this as a sign that Lucy had adjusted to her new life in The Gambia. A year later, Janis went back to visit Lucy again but this time, Lucy was gone. She was looking for her in all the different places. And they found her, but only her body. She was lying beside where Janis cage has been. Just a skeleton with hands missing and head separated from the rest of the body. 

Lucy was most probably killed by poachers. Because she was so trusting of humans, there is some thought that she may have approached the poachers instead of running away from them.

Devastated, Janis considered leaving The Gambia. But while puzzling over Lucy’s death, she realized, how little she knew about the people who occupy dozens of villages along the Gambia River near the refuge. She saw that their support was essential to ensure the chimps’ safety. Lucy’s death pushed her toward human beings and away from the island.
When she reached out to the villagers, she discovered how little they understood her. One told her about a dragon-like creature that villagers believe lives on the island and about villagers’ suspicions that she was in cahoots with it.

Photo Credit: Lonely Planet, © Janis Carter

Janis began surveying the attitudes of villagers toward chimpanzees and monitoring chimpanzee populations in neighbouring Senegal and Guinea. In the Nialama Classified Forest in Guinea, she tapped local hunters’ knowledge about where chimps find water and food, marked the corridors that link their feeding areas and mapped their migration patterns.
This knowledge helps government officials and community leaders direct farming and logging where they will not interfere with chimp survival.

Check also

Chimpanzees Rehabilitation Project The Gambia Part l

Chimpanzees Rehabilitation Project The Gambia Part ll

Create your own experience

Commonly known as Baboon Islands, The River Gambia National Park (RGNP) is located just 300km up the River Gambia is one of the least disturbed parts of the country. These islands offer the rare opportunity of viewing the last of The Gambia’s wildlife and lush gallery forests while staying in both privacy and comfort accommodation.

The River Gambia National Park is also home to now more than 100 chimpanzees living free on 3 islands and 4 separate social groups.

Boat expeditions guide you through the river and estuaries where you may have an up-close but safe view of chimpanzees, baboons, red colobus monkey, hippos, crocodiles, manatees, over 240 species of birds and many other wildlife species.

For those willing to sweat a little, take a guided trail hike through the mosaic of a gallery, woodland and savanna forests on the mainland.

It is possible to stay overnight in safari tents and guest house. Accommodations are comfortable yet basic due to the fragile nature of the environment. Your experience is enhanced by our knowledgeable staff, impeccable service, and the finest food available outside Banjul.

Meals are served in the water house which extends out over the river.

Overnight trips:

  •  £130 per night single occupancy 
  •  £110 per night/per person double occupancy 

For overnight guest open from Thursday to Sunday.

Prices include accommodation and a boat tour.   

CONTACT US for more information or contact them directly at (+220 686-8826 / 787-8827).


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