“Perhaps they are not stars but rather openings in heaven where our loved ones shine down and let us know they are happy.”
Yoko had cirrhosis of the liver. He was strong and he fought his disease a very long time, rarely letting on he was so ill. Yoko wasn’t ready to give up. He loved his family and his sanctuary life but the disease was draining him of all his strength. Yoko had been ill for many years, but his last year suffering from liver disease was a long and painful process. Seeing Yoko like that was very difficult for all of us, but it was toughest for his chimpanzee family.
In his last months we offered Yoko a chance to move from his family in the large space to a small, quiet room where we could care for him and visit more easily. He looked at what we had to offer and declined. Yoko did not want to be alone in a room away from his family and friends. I respect him for making that decision.
Those last months were bitter sweet, watching Yoko try to follow his group: Jethro, Regis and his dear friend Petra, as they would head to the window resting areas. Once together they would sit in the sunlight grooming one another, Yoko in the middle, so small and frail, surrounded by his loved ones, their love and their bonds so strong.
The most difficult for us was watching as he grew weak, trying to move to the different locations in the chimphouse where meals and special treats were served—his favorite time of the day. His feet were so swollen from the disease and his body grew weaker by the day, but his spirit stayed strong. It made him happy to come and see what we had to offer. He was usually the first to arrive for meals, when suddenly he was the last, and then he could not get there at all. Once he was in palliative care, our loving staff would serve him in his bed. Those months were tender and sweet, but so hard on everyone.
While witnessing these moments so many things came to my mind: the love the chimps have for one another is undeniable, their compassion and understanding of pain, illness and even death is far beyond what we could ever have imagined possible. Tatu would point at Yoko and sign “hurt” and “there”…knowing he had something wrong with him. We know they know and we see their grief in their body language and witness their protective instincts coming out while hurrying over to spit at us, or when they faithfully guard their loved ones anyway possible. Hearing their calls after realizing their friends are really gone—it’s not possible for these moments not to touch us profoundly.
Those days when the end was near and Yoko’s family had to leave his area so his human family could go in and care for him were so telling, their understanding of our intentions and our purpose so clear and deeply touching. How they seemed to understand when asked to go, leaving Yoko behind. They sat close to the place where he and I were separated by the bars, watching and listening for any sign of distress. They understood why I was in there and they were strangely calm and patient, perhaps hoping we could do something for their friend. Not this time.
For me these are moments of truth. Although Yoko was very frail and weak, his temper was still the same. He was scared and he must have felt terribly vulnerable. Yoko never really trusted humans and rightfully so. He only “gave us the time of day” because he needed us to survive. He was smart and he had such a strong character and will to survive, he never gave in. Even in the last days he was flapping his arms at me to get away from him while barking at me with what was left of his voice. My dear Little Man, always the warrior, always the brave and fearless one…even in his final days.
It was a painfully difficult time, knowing he needed attention and help, but unable to allow himself to accept it. This, I feel, was the hardest of all, but of course I have the greatest respect and regard for our “Little Man” and his commitment to never trusting humans. How could I not understand?
As the end was near and his quality of life greatly diminished, a difficult decision had to be made. It did not come easily. I could see Yoko’s family slowly moving away, sitting further away and becoming depressed and withdrawn. It seemed they had realized before I had that their friend was already gone. Although his body was still there, he was rarely awake and could no longer do anything.
The disease had won, fogging his mind, swelling his body, sending him in and out of consciousness. I could see it in Regis as he sat close by, legs crossed over, head slumped down towards his chest, hands placed across his lap, each day further and further away. I could see he had moved on, as though he had accepted what we had not yet been able to. He had lived with his friend day in day out for the past 16 years, of course he knew his friend was gone…
It was in that moment I knew what I had to do—Regis let me know it was time. Our dear sensitive, fiercely protective young Regis revealed the truth in that moment; Yoko had no quality of life anymore, it was time.
“To live in the hearts of those we love is never to die.” —Thomas Campbell