A popcorn machine, a hula hoop, and lipstick may not be on your Christmas list — but it’s exactly what chimpanzees on Montreal’s South Shore are hoping for this year.
The Fauna Foundation in Brossard, Que., is the only sanctuary for chimpanzees in Canada. This year, the humans behind the organization have created a holiday wish list for the animals in their care.
“Chimpanzees are very, very much like humans,” explained Mary Lee Jensvold, the associate director and primate communication scientist at Fauna.
“They are very social. They’re highly intelligent in the wild. They’re solving problems all day.”
Jensvold said most of the wish list goes toward creating activities to keep their brains busy and help the sanctuary keep up with day-to-day operations.
But some of the items will also help the animals feel a little more at home.
“We can never really get away from the fact that they live inside of cages, and that’s a really hard thing for all of us to deal with,” she said.
“But we do what we can to move away from that institutionalization kind of a feeling.”
Making help feel like home
For example, Jensvold said they are asking for donations of boxes of incense, to signal when it’s time for bed. The animals are provided with blankets and beds at night, but the incense gives the area a more “cozy” feel.
Likewise, they are also asking for boxes of herbal tea, another homey comfort the chimps are fond of. The sanctuary said it typically goes through three boxes of tea a week.
Other items — like the popcorn machine — will be used to make problem-solving games and puzzles. The pieces of popcorn can easily be hidden, so the animals have to search for them, Jensvold said.
But sometimes, it’s the simple things that make them happiest.
“You know that brown wrapping paper that comes on the big rolls? That’s super enriching,” she said. “The chimps love that tissue paper. And streamers is another thing that’s on the list.”
Some of the requests are specifically for certain chimps.
“Sue Ellen likes hula hoops, so hula hoops are on there. She sort of puts them on herself,” Jensvold said. “And Tatu likes lipstick and Chapstick.”
Jensvold said the list and all the items that the chimpanzees receive have to be carefully considered. Some of the animals have come from medical research facilities and have lingering trauma from their time there.
For example, hairbrushes — “they do brush their hair, and they’ve got it all over their body,” said Jensvold — need to be made out of wood, because one of the chimpanzees eats plastic due to her time in a lab.
And something for the humans, too
But the animals aren’t the only ones who could use some help: Jensvold said they’re also asking for equipment for the caretakers.
Good quality knives and broom-heads would help them with their day-to-day tasks, she said. Gift cards are also helpful, especially for pharmacies, like Jean-Coutu.
“Some of the chimps are diabetic, so they need medical supplies,” Jensvold said. “But it costs money.”
Jensvold said the Fauna Foundation is a non-profit, but it doesn’t receive any government assistance — and the vast majority of its funding comes from private donations.
“It takes a village to take care of these chimps,” she said.
But the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all their in-person programming and has thrown a wrench into their fundraising, she said.
“We still need everybody to be on our caregiving team,” Jensvold said. “We hope that everyone will consider helping and supporting the chimps of Canada.”