In Defense of Animals
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By Dr. Sheri Speede
(from the 2004 Bush Telegraph - click here to read full newsletter, including a story of restored vision for two village women by the same doctor who restored Jacky's vision) 

Jacky spent at least 30 years of his life in a small, barren cage at a resort hotel in Limbe, Cameroon. He grew from infancy to adulthood, then to middle-age, in total privation. By the 1990s, Jacky was known around town as the “mad” chimpanzee, meaning he was insane. He showed his anguish in bazaar stereotypical behaviors – rocking frenetically back and forth or pounding the top of his head with one fist while he held his other hand in his open mouth – and he was very aggressive toward humans. Anyone coming too close to his cage paid a high price for the mistake – one man lost a finger and at least two others were left with permanently impaired function in one of their hands. Whether or not he was insane, Jacky definitely was angry.

In 1998, when we talked about taking Jacky back to the forest and allowing him to live with other chimpanzees at the new IDA-Africa sanctuary, some people thought he was too dangerous. In fact, I spent many sleepless nights wondering if we were making a mistake.

Jacky lived in this cage for 30 years before his rescue by

None of us were sure if he could be socialized with other chimpanzees. But on September 1, 1999, Jacky became one of the first three residents of the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center. During the following three years, he astonished us all. Within the continuously enlarging chimpanzee family at the Center, Jacky was gentle with the adult females and gently playful and loving with the juveniles. With the support of the chimpanzee women, Jacky became the alpha male of his family and learned to play this most important role very well.

Jacky (background) with Nama
(facing) and Gabby

Then, in December 2002, Jacky’s caregivers noticed that he didn’t seem to see well. When reaching for sticks at the edge of the forest or for fruit from the caregivers, he would sometimes miscalculate the distance by a few centimeters. I determined that Jacky had cataracts. Over the next three months, Jacky and alpha female Nama became inseparable. As long as Jacky stayed with Nama, he seemed to get around just fine, both inside and outside of the forest. During this time, he stopped climbing trees, and on the ground he was always with Nama, following closely behind her wherever she went. I was very concerned about Jacky’s safety in the forest, but at the same time, I was reluctant to lock him up in the satellite cage alone.
Then one afternoon in early April 2003, Jacky got lost from Nama in the forest. His vision was so poor that he couldn’t find his way out of the dark forest. He thrashed around screaming in desperation until he finally emerged from the forest with scratches and scrapes all over his face. In panic, he ran into the electric fence three times trying to find his way back to the comfort of the satellite cage, where he and all the other chimpanzees sleep. I was shocked at how bad Jacky’s vision had become in such a short time, and so thankful that he hadn’t been badly injured.

After this terrible day, I couldn’t let Jacky outside of the satellite cage. Each day he stayed alone in the satellite cage as the other chimpanzees went out to the forest, and soon he became completely blind. He was unable to see fruit held right in front of his face, or to find it if he dropped it. It broke my heart to see him become increasingly frustrated and resume his old stereotypical behaviors. I had begun looking for an ophthalmologist who was willing to come to Cameroon on a volunteer basis and with all of the sophisticated equipment required to remove Jacky’s cataracts.

My request was turned down over and over. Then, in July 2003, we got lucky when my friend Susan Labhard, a nurse and naval reserve officer, walked into the San Diego office of naval ophthalmologist Dr. Jim Tidwell. With the US Navy Dr. Tidwell had traveled all over the world, including Africa, removing cataracts from humans. He had already restored the vision of thousands of people.

On January 1, 2004, Dr. Tidwell took some of his vacation time and flew across the world with his surgical microscope to perform cataract surgery on Jacky. Using equipment that takes precise measurements of the internal eye, Dr. Tidwell gave Jacky artificial lenses that were made for humans, restoring what he believes to be perfect vision. Certainly, a few of the most joyful moments in my life came on that day after the successful surgery, as I watched Jacky gaze in wonder at trees, birds, and my face as if he were seeing it all for the first time. And the little boy chimps who for several months had been stealing Jacky’s food from under his nose got quite a surprise that day.

Dr. Tidwell, assisted by Dr.
Speede, performs cataract
surgery on Jacky

After surgery, Jacky spends time in the forest
with renewed eyesight.

Jacky with Lilah in new enclosure

On the first of April, Jacky and his family were moved to their new enclosure, which encompasses 20 acres of beautiful, lush forest. Jacky’s terrible experience with blindness seems to have given him a deeper sense of responsibility. When babies from the nursery were integrated recently into his family, he carefully watched all interactions, assuring that no one got hurt – scolding the older juveniles when they got too rough, embracing and calming the fearful newcomers.  He has earned the deep respect and love of all of us who know him well, both chimpanzee and human. Jacky is the alpha male of a family of twenty-six chimpanzees.  He is an exceptional leader, strong and powerful but also gentle and patient.


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