BOOKS: In My Family Tree & In the Kingdom of Gorillas

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2003:

In My Family Tree:
A Life With Chimpanzees
by Sheila Siddle, with Doug Cress
Grove Press (841 Broadway, New York, NY
10003), 2002. 284 pages, hardcover. $25.00.

In The Kingdom of Gorillas:
Fragile Species in a Dangerous Land
by Bill Weber and Amy Vedder
Simon & Schuster (1230 Avenue of the Americas,

New York, NY 10020), 2001
370 pages, hardcover. $27.00.

Sheila Siddle, cofounder with her
husband David of the Chimfunshi Wildlife
Orphanage in central Zambia, never seems to have
doubted her calling, once she found it.
Certainly she never lacked the courage to accept
a challenge.
At age 16, in 1947, Siddle traveled
with her family by ferry and truck from England
to South Africa. When one of her brothers fell
ill, the brother and both of her parents
returned to England for a year, but Siddle
remained behind in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now
Zimbabwe), to study toward becoming a nurse.

Married at 21 to an amateur motorcycle
racer, Siddle in the 1950s headed an all-female
rally car racing team, birthed three daughters,
and kept a pet cheetah. She left that fast-paced
lifestyle and marriage in 1964, however, and
after her second marriage to David Siddle in 1966
lived quietly on a remote cattle ranch.
With her daughters grown and married,
Sheila and David Siddle in October 1983 were
contemplating retirement. Then one of their
sons-in-law, a game ranger, brought them a
severely injured and ill baby chimpanzee,
confiscated from smugglers.
Handed a child in distress, as she saw
the chimp, Sheila Siddle treated him as she had
often treated human children, raised him as
another of her own, and adjusted to the
differences between humans and chimps as
necessity dictated.
Others in Zambia meanwhile were adopting
countless orphaned chimps as surrogate children,
only to find the chimps were more work than they
could handles–and dangerous, too, especially
after their first few years. Many of the problem
chimps also came to the Siddles.
The Siddles realized eventually that the
chimps needed a proper sanctuary. They could not
be repatriated to the wild because chimps are not
native to Zambia. All of their orphans were
refugees from Congo Basin habitat far to the
north, fast being logged to oblivion. The
Siddles discovered that there were no chimp
sanctuaries capable of accepting their troupe.
Therefore they formed their own.
Sheila Siddle became matriarch of nearly
100 chimpanzees, whose stories she relates as if
she were their doting grandmother. They occupy a
series of 500-acre enclosures within 13,000 acres
of restored natural habitat.
The Chimfunshi sanctuary management style is
controversial, since the Siddles allow the
chimps to breed.
“We have never forced our chimps to
reproduce,” Sheila Siddle says, “and we do not
place them together with breeding in mind. In
fact, the word ‘breeding’ is abhorrent to me in
the context of chimps. Chimfunshi is not a chimp
farm. The orphanage is simply our humble attempt
at giving chimpanzees back a little of what
mankind has taken so brutally from them, and our
chimpanzees are free to choose their own partners
and to procreate or not.
“We have observed a fragmented group of
chimpanzees come together and form a cohesive
family group after the birth of just one baby,”
Sheila Siddle adds. “Reproduction somehow helps
to restore the social order in a chimp family,
and that is why Dave and I have never interfered.
“I sympathize with those sanctuaries that
have space limitations and are forced to use
birth control,” Sheila Siddle continues. “But
we do have the spaceŠI’m convinced that our
chimps choose to reproduce only because they know
it fits with the balance of nature. I believe
most animals will regulate their birthrate in
accordance with their natural surroundings. I’m
afraid it is only we humans who ignore the
natural laws.”

Prelude to genocide

Five years before Sheila Siddle accepted
her first orphaned chimp, Quaker peace activists
and teachers Bill Weber and Amy Vedder (long
married but using separate names) found a similar
calling in attempting to save the wild gorillas
of Rwanda. Initially Weber and Vedder did field
research under the direction of the late Dian
Soon they realized, however, that
Fossey was mad as a hatter and that her intensely
negative attitude toward the Rwandan people,
mostly unwarranted, played into the the hands of
the loggers and cattle ranchers who with World
Bank funding were denuding and eroding the
gorillas’ habitat.
Though apparently fonder of Fossey than
she was of them, or anyone, Weber and Vedder
broke with her to devote most of the next 20
years to introducing strictly regulated
eco-tourism to give the gorillas economic value,
and to promoting ecological education as a core
curriculum in Rwandan schools.
Weber and Vedder endured hardship, poverty, and
any number of life-threatening experiences while
consistently demonstrating intense concern for
doing right by all creatures, human and animal.
They are likeable, gentle people, immensely
proud of the joyful response of their elder son
Noah, then a kindergartner, to the sight of
wild chimpanzees just a few weeks after he was
severely mauled by captive chimps:
“Amy moved close to Noah and asked what
he thought. Nice. You’re not afraid. Nope.
Why not? Those chimps in Akagera were crazy from
living in cages. These chimps are happy ’cause
they’re in their own homes.”
Weber and Vedder recount a few pages later that,
“The boys (Noah and Ethan) learned a very
important lesson from watching [two Rwandans] slaughter goats and chickens for dinner: if you
are going to eat meat, you should at least
witness where it comes from.”
After inuring the boys to slaughter,
Weber and Vedder are upset that “National Tree
Day in 1987 saw the arrival of an army of Rwandan
citizens bearing thousands of sacks of eucalyptus
and black wattle to plant along the new road”
through the Nyungwe forest.
Fighting for years to try to save Nyungwe
as a national park, Webr and Vedder were upset
that the roadside trees were non-native. They
failed to realize that above the microbial level,
“invasive” species only spread into empty niches.
Rather than “competing” with native species,
“invasives” replace those that can no longer
thrive after climate change, human destruction,
or disease outbreaks.
So long as Nyungwe remained healthy, the
eucalyptus and black wattle would only shade the
road. But Weber and Vedder reacted to it much as
Fossey reacted after a handful of venison
poachers accidentally snared and killed a gorilla.
“Over the following weeks,” they
recount, “Bill took many late afternoon drives
into the forest with the boys. At first, Noah
watched in shock as his father pulled the newly
planted trees from the ground. Then he and Ethan
joined in with great gusto, uprooting more than
a hundred of the eucalyptus and black wattle
seedlings each afternoon, throwing them into the
back of the car, and dumping them in a deep
ravineŠThe boys learned about good trees and bad
In the next two chapters Weber and Vedder
describe how Rwanda fell into the ethnic violence
that culminated in the 1994 massacre of 800,000
members of the Tutsi minority, followed by the
collapse of the government led by the Hutu
killers under a Tutsi onslaught from Uganda.
By 1992, Weber and Vedder explain, “The
language of day-to-day work and farming was
increasingly perverted in the cause of
death…Communal death squads ‘went to work in
the field.’ Their task was to ‘clear the brush.’
Their targets were the inyenzi, or Tutsi
‘cockroaches,’ and their ibyitso ‘collaborators’
among the HutuŠWeapons were openly distributed to
these militias, but ammunition was in short
supply, so Hutu businessmen paid to import
enough machetes for every third Rwandan male.
There was much brush to cut.”
Weber and Vedder are not to blame for the
Rwandan genocide. Out of Rwanda when it erupted,
they did everything they could think of to try to
stop it, and to try to save some of the victims.
They were among the first Americans to return to
Rwanda following the bloodbath, to resume
teaching and healing humans as well as helping
Yet Weber and Vedder set their own
example of irrational intolerance. Rwanda
learned all too well the most brutal lessons that
Weber and Vedder inflicted on their sons.
It is unclear whether these lessons were
recounted unawares, or by way of confession.

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