Posted: 14 July 2014
ADI President Jan Creamer remembers a remarkable person
Our hearts are breaking – dear Toto – the chimpanzee we found in the circus in 2002 and flew him from Chile to his final forever home at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia a year later, has died peacefully in his sleep with his chimp family around him, after 11 years of freedom.
Born in the wild in Africa, Toto was stolen from his family (many were likely slaughtered as they fought to save their children), at just 2-3 years old. Trafficked to the United States with a group of babies, he was sold down to a South American circus and there he remained for 25 lonely years. The other babies died.
Toto was chained by the neck and kept in a domestic-size packing crate. His only comfort a small blanket. He slept surrounded by empty plastic drinks bottles and sweet wrappers. His teeth had been ripped out, leaving damaged pieces behind and infected gums. There were cigarette burns all over his body. He lost most of his hair (it never really grew back). In the circus ring, he would be forced to smoke a cigarette, pretend to drink tea and dance in a silly costume in a pathetic excuse for entertainment.
This was how Tim and I first met Toto, when we slipped away from a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in Chile in 2002. The world’s governments were discussing the fate of the rest of the species who share our planet. But just 20 minutes away, a member of the endangered chimpanzee family – highly intelligent, emotional, tool-using societies – had been stolen from the wild, trafficked and was performing in a circus.
Toto was taken out of his box and allowed to climb onto the roof of the truck for a few minutes, before the show. He sat peacefully on the roof of the truck, staring across to the Andes for the longest time, the wind gently ruffling his thin hair. He carried himself with a dignity that made us feel ashamed to be human. He had been stolen, trafficked, beaten, tortured. Yet somehow he deserved more respect than anyone in his presence. This was slavery.
The photo I took of Toto sitting on the truck shot around the world’s media, causing outrage – we began the battle to save him and would do just that, seizing him from the circus just a few months later despite that they hid across the border to elude us.
The story of how we gave evidence to the authorities and joined with a legal case – the owner skipping the country – our search across Chile and the tip off that sent us to get him – our escape from Chile with Toto as his owner was in court with another challenge – just as our aircraft left the ground – is recounted here.
We had the privilege of being around Toto and getting to know him as we prepared him for export to Zambia. His quiet dignity and intelligence never failed to impress. He knew how to make people do things for him, such as get him drinks or snacks – he would simply steal a possession – a handbag, or camera – and in order to have your property returned, he would point to what item you needed to get for him. He was always pleased to see us and always happy to groom and talk.
He was delighted to see us at every rest stop on our 7000-mile journey to Zambia – jumping up and down with excitement and putting his hands out for attention. First stop was Sao Paulo, Brazil, for 6 hours; followed by a flight to Johannesburg, South Africa for a 30-hour stopover. Then a flight to Lusaka, Zambia, followed by a 12-hour drive to Chingola, northern Zambia, to the incredible Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage.
Then Toto’s world changed. As he was unloaded from the crate, the other chimpanzee families knew there was a new arrival and called out. He appeared to be in shock for a moment. He had not heard chimpanzee for over twenty years. Then he called back. He was taken to a quarantine unit for assessment with a view to finding a family group. Next door was a little female, Madonna, who had recently arrived from a pet trade rescue.
Toto ran to her and reached through the mesh to hold her hand. The following day Sheila Siddle of Chimfunshi decided to introduce them, she could see Toto’s gentle nature. The gate between the two pens was opened. Madonna rushed through and flung her arms around Toto, burying her face in his chest. He wrapped his huge arms around her and rested his head on hers. Toto was never interested in humans again. He was home, speaking in the language of his species and understanding things we will never learn. He was free. It was perfect.
Since that day in 2003, Toto’s gentle nature allowed Chimfunshi to have him care for many of the very young rescues and eventually, his family group grew to eight youngsters. Around him those youngsters grew into adults with Toto, the elder statesman, at the heart of the family.
Toto’s family lives in a 14-acre enclosure of natural bush; they can remain out of view of humans. He liked to come into his house at night for drinks and treats, but mainly his days have been spent away from human interference. Although the years have not been without incident, as Toto did not forget all of his old knowledge! He showed his young family how to escape the electric wire and conducted a couple of raids on the food stores, contentedly leading them back to their territory once they had eaten all the best food.
Yesterday, Toto curled up with his blanket and went to sleep for the last time beneath the African skies. He passed away in his sleep, and Sheila remarked that he appeared to have a smile on his face.
Rest in peace, Toto. We only wish you could have had more years living free, under the African sun. It was a privilege to know you. You inspired us. You helped us light the fire that is Stop Circus Suffering Latin America, leading to animal circus bans in 7 Latin American countries and the rescue of many other animals. The world has lost a hero and we will never forget you.
Our grateful thanks to Sheila Siddle and Sylvia at Chimfunishi Wildlife Orphanage for the care and attention and happiness you give every day, at the best chimpanzee sanctuary in the world.