Wild Baby Chimp Flies To Freedom — And Decides The Pilot Needs His Help

"Every time I touched a button or the throttle, he did the same. When I put my hand on the throttle, he did it. When I put my hand on the stick, he did it too.”

A 3-year-old chimpanzee named Mussa had no reason to trust people. After all, it was people who’d taken him away from his mom as an infant, and held him captive for several years. But the moment Mussa got into an airplane with pilot Anthony Caere, he trusted him completely.

Earlier this week, officials from the Virunga National Park and Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre (CRPL) confiscated Mussa from a private home in a town called Beni, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

“He was living with an expat ... who also had three crocodiles in the house with him,” Itsaso Velez del Burgo, technical director at CRPL, told The Dodo. “We don’t really know if he was trying to sell him, or if he was keeping him as a pet.”

Person holding baby chimp
Mussa shortly after he was rescued | CRPL

If the expat had intended to sell Mussa as an exotic pet, he would have made a lot of money — young chimps can be sold for over $12,000, and they’re often sold to buyers in countries like China and Egypt.

Sadly, a lot of baby chimps die in transit.

While it isn’t clear how people got ahold of Mussa in the first place, Velez del Burgo explained that people probably killed his mom in order to take him into captivity. “You cannot take a baby from a mother without killing the mother,” she said.

Person holding hand of baby chimp

On Tuesday, Caere went to pick up Mussa and fly him to the CRPL sanctuary — a journey that he captured on video. But before Caere brought Mussa onto the plane, he assessed his mood.

“We look to see if the chimp is not too stressed,” Caere, an anti-poaching pilot who works in Virunga National Park, told The Dodo. “Otherwise, you need to put him in a cage or it will be too dangerous to put him on a plane. But when I saw him and I made some chimp noises, he ran to me and jumped into my arms … so we immediately had a bond.”

Baby chimp sitting on pilot's lap
Mussa sitting on Caere's lap just before takeoff | CRPL

Caere placed a soft cushion on the seat next to him for Mussa, but Mussa had other plans. “He preferred to sit on my lap and hold onto my leg,” Caere said. “He really needed contact.”

When Caere started the plane and took off, Mussa copied everything Caere did.

Chimp and pilot looking out of plane window
A special moment shared between Caere and Mussa during the flight | CRPL

“He was very curious, and every time I touched a button or the throttle, he did the same,” Caere said. “When I put my hand on the throttle, he did it. When I put my hand on the stick, he did it too.”

Caere’s favorite moment happened later in the flight. “There was a moment when we were both looking out the window together, and I was touching his head with my head, and he pushed back against me,” Caere said.

Pilot holding baby chimp

“I did some grooming to become his friend, and there wasn’t any time when he was stressed,” Caere added. “I had the impression that he really enjoyed the flight.”

When the plane landed, Velez del Burgo was one of the people waiting to meet them — and Mussa immediately took to Velez del Burgo as well.

Chimp leaping into woman's arms
Mussa right after he leaped into Velez del Burgo's arms | CRPL

“When he saw Itsaso for the first time, he saw her like a mama ... and he jumped into her arms,” Caere said. “And I think that was one of the most beautiful moments.”

Now Mussa lives at the sanctuary with four other young chimps rescued from similar situations — Busakara, Kashebere, Nishuli and Kalima.

“The first day was a bit difficult for him,” Velez del Burgo said. “I think he spent too much time without seeing other chimps. But now he is getting along with the others, and he is starting to play with them, even if he is still more attached to the keepers.”

Mussa will eventually be released back into the wild, but first, he needs to grow and learn survival skills.

Mussa with a caretaker and one of the other young chimps at the sanctuary

Velez del Burgo also hopes that the video of the flight doesn’t mislead people into wanting a chimp as a pet. “When they are small, they may look cute and handleable,” she said. “But when they become big, they become very strong and aggressive. They do not make good pets.”

Where Mussa does belong is the wild, and Velez del Burgo and the CRPL team will do everything to get him back there.

To help Mussa grow big and strong so he can return to the wild, you can make a donation to CRPL.