After the prep talk, we walk towards the chimps' large, secure enclosure. "That's Topo," O'Donnell tells us during our tour. "At almost 50, he's the granddaddy. He's the fellow that Leslie first met ... he'd lived in a dark garage at a roadside zoo for almost 20 years," she says, her affection evident. "We always greet him first and ignore the others ... it's how we show our respect to the dominant male. As the humans here, we always honor the chimp social code."
It's clear that O'Donnell honors more than the social code. After Topo ignores us for awhile, she calls to him, and he sashays over and squats down in front of her, still totally ignoring us - the strangers in his kingdom. But as we watch her with Topo, it's like watching two best friends in a wordless conversation. The smiles, laughter and easy comfort between O'Donnell and Topo is intimate. I feel almost like an intruder. Now that we've paid respects to Topo, it's acceptable to greet the others. As we walk beneath the upper bridge, where the chimps can go back and forth over us as if in the tree tops, I'm not fast enough, and Jackson lands a wad of spit right on the top of my head. I turn around to look back up at him, and his body is shaking with mirth, his mouth a wide grin.
Then O'Donnell introduces us to Herbie, the other dominant male. He's wearing a baseball hat and says hello using sign language and a grin to O'Donnell. She explains that the chimps have behavior sessions, and learn some simple sign language to make their retirement more comfortable since they do need to interact with humans on a daily basis. He waves "hello" to our group and makes eye contact. He is totally different from Topo, it's almost as if he wants to show off for us. He looks at us often, and signs constantly with O'Donnell - "more food," "give," "I want grapes," and "gift." He knows we have a present - we brought an old pair of boots.
When she offers a boot through the gated enclosure he's lightning-fast and tries to grab the outer door with such unexpected strength. She drops the boot and gets back just as fast. "He tests us all the time," O'Donnell says. "We are constantly on-guard for it." Just as suddenly, Herbie is placid again. "You never know when he's going to try to get away with something. It's why all the enclosures are double gated: for their safety and ours." Then we meet Patti and Thiele. The sisters. They are less interactive than Herbie, but when O'Donnell offers the apricots we brought along, they ask for more. Then Patti takes the cowboy hat we brought and makes off with it, away from the others, to contemplate her new gift in her hammock. She and Thiele spend hours of every day together.
"Patti's birthday is coming up, and we'll celebrate it like we do for all the chimps," says O'Donnell. "They always know when it's a birthday," she explains. "Every time someone has a birthday, we make cakes, have treats and put out ribbons and pinatas. We make sure they all have an extra special day." O'Donnell looks at our boys, two brothers. "But Patti's best day may have been the day she was reunited with her sisters, Maggie and Thiele." Day was able to track down all three sisters and make it possible for them to come here for retirement, O'Donnell told The Dodo. "I was here that day. After nine years apart, they knew each other instantly. They screamed with joy, grabbed each other hugging and laughing and wrestling, for a full three hours. They didn't let go of each other once..."
(Photo: Shayla Scott/Chimps Inc.) Patti grinning.