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Photo: Nishitha Shrivastava
Photo: Nishitha Shrivastava

Art therapy for chimpanzees

Chimpanzee sanctuaries are finding paint and music effective in relieving trauma caused by captivity and poaching

A splash of red, a few strokes of blue... there may be some green. But... snap! Once a paintbrush, now there are two parts to this story.

The painter—Medina—is temperamental, quirky even. Sounds like an artist you know? Maybe, but not quite. Medina is a 10-year-old orphaned chimpanzee living on the pristine Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda.

“You see the act of breaking the paintbrush as aggression, but she sees it as sizing it to her convenience," says renowned Ugandan artist Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi, pointing to the chimp who has resumed her colour play.

Taking centre stage at a recent art exhibition in Kampala, Uganda capital, were two artworks—a collaboration between Medina and Nnyanzi.

The Ugandan artist has represented the country and been appreciated in several parts of the world, but he sounds a tad envious of Medina when he says, “She does what many artists feel like doing but refrain from, for the fear of social criticism. Artists want that freedom, to do things their way. But because you have to deal with society, you have to know the confines within which you operate."

Unfortunately, unlike many fairy tales, this free-willed artist had her narrative written in reverse.

Though categorized endangered on the IUCN Red List, chimpanzees such as Medina continue to suffer at the hands of illegal poachers or those who buy them, to keep as pets or for entertainment.

Medina, along with four other chimpanzees, was rescued from Juba airport in South Sudan and brought to Uganda in November 2011.

“They were on their way to the Middle East, where they would either be used as pets or for entertainment," says Innocent Ampeire, the assistant manager at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

The man travelling with them did not have the necessary paperwork, so the chimps were confiscated. Since there was no sanctuary in South Sudan, they were brought to Uganda. One chimpanzee, unfortunately, died in quarantine.

The remaining four were rehabilitated at the sanctuary. “Medina was the high-ranking one (leader). Like a mother, she would carry Sara, one of the infants. But she was stressed, you could tell by merely looking at her," says Ampeire.

The Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary was established in 1998 under one of the three-pronged focuses of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust, namely animal welfare, for orphaned baby chimps (the other two being field conservation and environmental education).

“We look at what they need physically and psychologically," says Ampeire, who uses techniques such as puzzles with peanuts (they have to figure how to get to it to eat it). Sometimes, they hide snacks for them to find. Sometimes, they bring in other friendly chimps to see how the new ones react socially.

“Medina was not interested in being with other chimps. She was a pet in a home in South Sudan, so she did not think she belonged with other chimps, she preferred humans," says Ampeire.

As a psychology graduate, Lilly Ajarova, now executive director of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust, had heard of art therapy being successful with the war victims of Uganda. So, when all failed, Ajarova, who was then part of Uganda Wildlife Authority, suggested this untrodden route.

Trauma and art have shared space in one sentence in the past. But you add our 98.7% DNA-sharers, the chimpanzee, to this and it opens up a new chapter.

“The idea of art therapy is really in relation to the understanding of helping one who has undergone trauma. Chimps are so much like humans, genetically and socially, so the aspect about treating their trauma is similar too. Some of them are so sad, they can’t even look at you in the eyes," says Ajarova.

While other chimps lost interest quickly, Medina took to painting and was consistent. Ampeire attributes this to her prolonged association with human beings.

“Even if she took a month off, she would return with interest. Other chimps didn’t have more time with humans, so painting did not come naturally to them, unlike Medina. She may try to eat some paint, but she will always show you she can paint," he says, arranging a stack of Medina’s non-toxic paints.

Nnyanzi points out that there is method to her madness.

Reminiscing over their meeting to create collaborative art, he says, “She politely shook my hand, but wasn’t in a mood to paint. I started talking to her, she was not impressed. Out of the blue, she wanted to paint. I had painted a few things on paper. She decided to completely cover it, then the next and the one after. But the way she reacted to each sheet was different.

“You could not anticipate what she was going to do. She would use the brush, her tongue or fingers, or just sit and think deeply, then come up with deliberate lines, sometimes incidental lines. Then she would lie down and just want nothing to do with it. The last sheet she tore and started to chew, to show us that she was done."

Speaking about the two pieces displayed at the exhibition, the artists says, “In one, titled Surviving in the Wilderness, she shows an animal standing and imagining, and then there’s a bird, which could also be a plane. My interpretation was that it was the plane she has seen from the island, or one that brought tourists or the people who came to save her."

The second painting, Escape to Ngamba Island, was of people at sea. The artist decided to enhance it with accents of red to represent blood—signifying relation as well as the blood spilt while trying to capture them and the violence—shades of blue to signify the water around Ngamba and green to represent the natural habitat.

“She’s a free-willed artist who responds to her emotions. You don’t guide her. You just reward her with groundnuts," says Nnyanzi.

While the artistic inclination may be (almost) natural, Medina had a special visitor on the island to hone her skills and initiate her into the world of art.

Growing up in the picturesque town of Pinerolo in Italy, psychologist and psychotherapist Mariangela Ferrero always considered animals her best friends.

Her fascination, teamed with her psychotherapy background and primatology studies, led to her research: Play Picture Making Music Emotional Enrichment, or PME.

“It is an enrichment intervention that I created for non-human primates, particularly Great Apes, in captivity," shares the 45-year-old who, in addition to her work in National Health Service (ASL TO3) and teaching at Azienda Ospedaliera Universitaria San Luigi Gonzaga in Turin, also collaborates with CRAS (Centro Recupero Animali Selvatici) to work towards the welfare of a little colony of Barbary Macaques.

Ferrero says PME uses artistic mediators (paint or musical instruments) and play that are normally used in psychotherapy, and specialist inter-specific relationship, to improve their psychological and social welfare.

In addition to the chimpanzees at Ngamba Island, Ferrero has put PME into action with orangutans in two sanctuaries in Indonesia, chimpanzees and gorillas in Ape Action Africa in Cameroon and Barbary macaques in Italy.

But she maintains that Medina “remains the most remarkable success".

“She was able to carefully choose material and used a lot of different and also complex techniques. She began to express herself, channelize her emotions and aggression and play with other chimps too," she says.

Having spent one month in 2012 and another in 2013, Ferrero conducted 89 PME sessions with 13 chimpanzees at Ngamba Island, some severely traumatized cases.

One such case was Mawa, an adult male chimpanzee who was very anxious. He had to spend most of his time in the holding facilities, rather than the forest, she noticed. While his initial PME sessions involved some destruction of material or eating colours, he slowly gained confidence, became more excited and even grateful.

“He liked to choose and organize the material around him before painting. He not only enjoyed the relationship, but was able to seek help. He became calmer, reassured and trusting during the work sessions," Ferrero says.

A similar story was Ikuru, an adult female chimpanzee at Ngamba, who would express her distress through rocking, scratching or pulling her hair, but gained composure through her painting and other relational activities.

While colours helped treat some of these great apes, it was music that worked for others—as in the case of David, a chimpanzee infant Ferrero met at the Ape Action Africa Reserve in Cameroon.

David lost his mother and his group of origin when he was very young. He was kept in a small cage inside a hotel, as an attraction for tourists. When Ferrero met him, two months after being brought to the reserve, he still showed signs of discomfort.

“He did not want to be touched, he rocked often and displayed erratic and aggressive behaviour while playing," she says.

His journey with PME not only helped him overcome his loneliness, but also modulate his emotions.

“He started enjoying playing, not only musical instruments, but anything that would resonate, be it the floor or sometimes even my back," says Ferrero, smiling. Today, David is happily placed in a group of peers, with whom he is finally able to relate, play and share affection.

In fact, Ferrero almost formed a band with Chickaboo and Lucy, two young gorilla females.

“They were playful and curious, but reserved too. They needed stimulation. During a PME session, Chickaboo rhythmically played the maraca for about two minutes, which is an absolutely long time, while I played the drum. Meanwhile, Lucy took a percussion to their little forest area and I could hear her playing it through the trees," says the psychotherapist, with pride.

She mentions a similar experience in Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesia where an adult orangutan accompanied her while drumming on a wooden table.

“At a certain point, he stopped me with authority, wanting to continue alone with his own music," she says.

As experts say, baby chimps are like human babies. They imitate their human caregivers.

“If they ask you for a pen, you give it to them. If they cry for a book, you give it. When hand-raising chimps at the quarantine at Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, I used to give them novels to read. We give them what they want, but lean them gradually towards their natural behaviour," says Ampeire.

Nishitha Shrivastava is a freelance writer based in Kampala, Uganda. Her Twitter handle is @nnair18

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