One chromosome of separation

Olivia Ramirez

Chirstel Hann’s life long interest in chimpanzees was taken to new heights when she spent three months interacting with the animals in Burundi.

“I was amazed everyday by how alike chimpanzees and humans are,” said Hann, a student at City College.

A friend of Hann’s took her to a Jane Goodall lecture on chimpanzees. It was hearing Goodall’s imitation of chimpanzee sounds and movements that captivated Hann to go to Burundi to help out at Goodall’s institute.

Hann experienced some difficulty traveling to Burundi. A civil war had broken out in Burundi and its neighboring country Rwanda.

“The two groups were always clashing,” said Hann. “800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda and 200,000 in Burundi within a three month period.”

Because of this civil war, Hann’s time in Burundi was spent mainly in the enclosure. Hann says the Institute was located in a somewhat safer part of town, but she still was not allowed to be outside of the enclosure on foot. Many of the invasions happened at night and it became too dangerous to even walk across the road.

Hann managed to keep herself busy at the Jane Goodall Institute despite the dangers. She was one of three food preparers for the orphaned chimpanzees.

“I had to prepare nine meals twice a week for the chimpanzees. All of them had different foods, preferences, and quantities. It was a full time job,” said Hann.

Hann also arranged behavior enrichment exercises. She explained how she would use trash to create activities and empty medicine bottles with peanuts inside to create a problem solving exercise with a reward at the end.

The center tried to simulate the wild as much as possible but the chimpanzees became habituated with humans and lost their fear. Hann mentions chimpanzees are typical aggressors and very excitable. She recalls a moment from her trip when she was “first bit on her second day.”

Hann also had an opportunity to track chimpanzees in the wild. She trekked into the forest for two days with an enormous amount of walking. Hann and the others saw five wild chimpanzees in the end. She said even though it was hard work, it was very well worth it.

Hann’s trip left her even more amazed at similar chimpanzees are to people. She explained how she could practically see what they were thinking. Their faces were always so expressive. Hann recalled how they would dance, laugh, tickle and kiss. They would always show emotion.

Hann wrote a book on her time in Burundi called “Hugging the Chimpanzees.” She said it was an extraordinary experience that she wanted to share with others. Hann said she also wrote the book to inform people of how to behave around the chimpanzees. She had read all the literature on them and “nobody I talked to before this trip could tell me how to behave around them.”

When asked what the best thing about going to Burundi was Hann said: “Being able to fully interact with the chimpanzee babies – in no zoo can you do that.”