In Sickness and in Health

The coughing started a week ago. Someone in a thicket of branches and leaves began by clearing her throat. Within the hour her breathing became audible, slow and labored wheezes forcing their way through an airway building with fluid. Soon her exhales spilled out in a fit of sharp, chesty sounds emitted between gasps as she struggled to bring oxygen to her lungs. In less than two days, the respiratory illness had spread to nearly every chimpanzee in the Kasekela community.

Respiratory illnesses such as influenza are a common occurrence in our modern lives. With elevated population densities in the metropolitan United States, we witnesses a cyclical resurgence of the flu in the fall and winter months, contracted predictably by enough people each year that these periods have been aptly termed flu “seasons”. Proceeding to local pharmacies for vaccinations against recent viral strains seems no less ordinary than having the tires changed on one’s car. We ache, sniffle and accept chicken soup from our loved ones, but serious health complications are limited to at-risk individuals such as those with pre-existing conditions and/or the elderly (a study reporting on the 2006-2007 flu season [1] estimated that roughly 90% of influenza-related mortalities occurred in adults aged 65 and older). Flu season isn’t exactly a walk in the park, but it is survivable.

Sadly the same cannot be said for many of the respiratory viruses that plague great ape populations. Infectious diseases that come and go in the human world can decimate a group of wild primates, and resulting mortality rates can present great impediments to the survival of species with slow patterns of reproduction [2]. Monitoring the well-being of our chimpanzee populations is of the utmost importance, but human presence is a double-edged sword. Illnesses that originate in humans as mere colds can jump hosts, manifesting in a genetically similar species as pathogens with catastrophic effects. Several human-borne pandemics have been observed in chimpanzee populations, although the most notable may be the fatal respiratory outbreak that tore through the Taï community in Côte d’Ivoire [3]. Many individuals succumbed to violent hacking and weakened immune systems, and as the same symptoms began to emerge in the population here at Gombe, I couldn’t help but to fear for the worst.

We met in the office at 9 PM, and decided together that all research teams should postpone individual data collection in order to prioritize follows of sick individuals. Tanga’s cough had rendered her immobile and gasping for air, a dangerous sentence for her dependent newborn, Tukuyu; Sheldon hadn’t left his nest for over forty-eight hours and was barely feeding; several chimps hadn’t been seen in days. I set out in search of Faustino, a regular target of mine but one with a difficult health history. At age sixteen, Faustino experienced a loss of hindlimb locomotion, and with limited mobility, emaciated to the point that researchers intervened with medical treatment and food provisioning. He recovered, though the source of his ailment remained unknown (though investigators excluded the possibility of systemic infection, spinal injury, and the presence of other pathogenic bacteria [4]). Faustino recovered, regaining strength in all limbs, but he was later diagnosed as SIV positive. Despite a spindly frame and angular face, Faustino maintains a regular level of socialization, residing in the group as a weathered but mostly friendly older gentleman– skinny, strong, and vaguely reminiscent of a dust-hardened worker from a Dorothea Lange photograph.

The next morning, we set out on our respective searches. I wandered about Mkenke, hiking on and off trail for hours until the whole ordeal began to seem somewhat futile. Faustino would be alone, likely resting on the ground, and with limited energy for vocalizing his normally booming pant hoots, silent. It felt disloyal to turn around with the knowledge that he could be just paces away, close enough to hear our footsteps and chatter yet obscured from our shoddy vision by bushes or vines. But were we to find luck, and Faustino, what then? If he were slipping away for the second time before human eyes, would it be our duty to intervene, or to let nature unfold and exact its justice? Faustino had cheated death with our help once before, but what if this particular kind of death was something that we had introduced?

It began to rain. Tiny droplets of water pummeled the leaves overhead in rhythmic drone, soaking the forest and the people in it. I slung my pack over my shoulder and allowed myself to sink in defeat beneath its weight. Faustino was lost, surrendered to an outbreak beyond our control. Turning back to escape the sodden forest, I heard a faint sound, a series of popping noises with a slow tempo. Somehow, over the tune of rainfall, the breaths of a struggling chimp crept through the trees until picked up by a would-be deserter. I followed the sound, ducking under vines, until I found a rocky outcrop that hung over a body, black and sprawling, an arm and both legs outstretched across the ground. The fingers on his hand curled slightly, as if making their way back to the palm, and I saw the grooves of his nails as they glinted in the fading light. His other arm was pulled into the body, hand resting on a chest that with the slightest movement rose and fell with the puh, puh, puh of lungs on the brink of collapse.

As I knelt down, Faustino turned his head. He rested his cheek on the forest floor, and his eyes, glossy and wide, looked up at where I leaned my hand on the massive boulder. The outer rings of his irises encased a rich brown, drops of deep black expanding and contracting in their middles. And in those dark circles there was an illumination, a light reflected against the pools of his pupils, palpable and bright as the blaze of human eyes when they laugh or rage or weep. This light, I would imagine, is what begins to escape an animal as it dies. But in Faustino it remained, and through emaciation and near breathlessness, his eyes burned with the same embers that shine in the eyes of a man who, though deeply battered, wishes for life.

We waited there, helpless in our own ways, gazing at one another as death loomed, or didn’t. The rain slowed, and after some time the receding clouds revealed that the sun was headed down, and at the edge of nightfall it was time for me to go. As I stood to gather my belongings, I glanced over to see that Faustino, too, had risen to his feet. I watched as slowly he placed one long arm before the other, and walked on his knuckles toward a tree that rose no more than ten feet from the ground. He slowly grasped its base and tugged himself up, and upon reaching the canopy began to bend branches into a nest. He settled there, his resting place for the night, and in turning to leave I saw his arm reach out over the leafy bedding and hang in the air, wrist unfolded with fingers tensed toward palm. I wanted to squeeze it as I would the hand of a person resigned to a hospital bed, and say that everything would be just fine. But what would happen I did not know, and so with a mix of hope and grief I left him there to sleep, a body floating above the ground in a cradle of woven boughs, fate suspended somewhere between earth and sky.

[1] Thompson, M.G. et al. 2010. Updated estimates of mortality associated with seasonal influenza through 2006-2007 influenza season. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 59(33): 1057-1062.

[2] Leendertz, F.H. et al. 2006. Pathogens as drivers of population declines: the importance of systematic monitoring in great apes and other threatened mammals. Biological Conservation. 131:325–337.

[3] Köndgen, S. et al. 2008. Pandemic human viruses cause decline in endangered great apes. Current Biology. 18:1–5.

[4] Lonsdorf, E. et al. 2014. Field immobilization for treatment of an unknown illness in a wild chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) at Gombe National Park, Tanzania: findings, challenges, and lessons learned. Primates. 55.1: 89-99.

One thought on “In Sickness and in Health

  1. This had me on the edge of my….well I am of course still sitting on the floor because I refuse to grow up so….the edge of my living room…follow up?

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