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I started at the ape house during my first semester of academic probation. The director never asked to see my résumé, and I suspected they let me in simply because I volunteered to do anything, even clean toilets, to be around apes. As it was, I gave them the Saturdays of my junior year, and they gave me a respite from the constant anxiety of life at the highly ranked liberal arts college I attended.
In the beginning, the youngest bonobos, four under age ten, welcomed me. Three of the adults were skeptical but at least took note of my existence. The fourth adult, the matriarch, regarded me like a person would a piece of furniture. It was okay that I existed, but I shouldn’t get in the way, and if I became useful, that would be a surprise. She was cool and, I thought, conniving. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her; it was just that at first she was outside my ability [End Page 161] to comprehend. She had this way of looking at you out of the corner of her eyes that lent an air of plausible deniability to her involvement in situations. She was always on the edge of disputes, never in the middle of them. For this reason, we referred to her children—which, because of the confusion of captive breeding programs, essentially meant all but one of the other bonobos—as her minions.
She had been caught in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the ’70s, before the trade of apes became an entirely black-market enterprise. She was probably six or seven then. She and a couple others, also children, had been torn from their family groups and put into cages for transport to America. Maybe the men who did it used dogs to separate young from parents, maybe they used guns; I’m not sure of the details. I do know this: before she was shipped to America, her captors, noting her behavior, named her their word for worry.
Worry wasn’t all hard edges and subterfuge. She was a mother and a grandmother. Her sideburns and the hair above her ears stuck out from her head in a way that said “eccentric genius.” Around her pink lips were deep, dark, vertical wrinkles. They looked etched, rivulets of African rainfall. Worry had a third nipple. Worry was ticklish. It took time to learn these things. It took trust. These things were the lighter side of the matriarch who gave those sideways glances.
When she decided I was worth acknowledging, she followed me around for a week, pointing and nodding at me to the other employees. Eventually, my boss told me I’d been selected and asked if I would like to meet her. I glanced at the few sentences that constituted a waiver to request “direct contact” and signed to acknowledge that I was fully aware of the risks involved. Back then, the ape house was very casual about this kind of meeting.
On days when we had enough staff that I could be spared, which were frustratingly infrequent, I started to bring Worry yogurt and berries and Gatorade and Coke in exchange for spending time in her cage. It took only one of these meetings for me to become her “boy.” It was both an actual and a slightly dubious honor. One that I didn’t mind. She had deemed me worthy of attention. In the ape house this meant everything. All the other apes noticed my change in status and they, too, opened up to me more. Even our biggest, most recalcitrant male began to tolerate me in an “Okay, I guess he’s not the worst” kind of way.
The effects somehow trickled down to my campus. My professors took me aside, after lecture, and asked me to speak up more in class. [End Page 162] They became hesitant to simply write off the participation portion of my grade. In a school where the professor/student relationship was pure sink or swim, and grades were actively...