Maybe it is because we both have long hairy arms or maybe it’s my monkey mind, but I seem to feel some kind of connection with chimpanzees lately. I came across a touching story on the Natural History Magazine web site. The story haunts me and so to try and purge myself of it I’ve decided to share it with all of you. The article is called Meshie: The Child of a Chimpanzee: A creature of the African jungle emigrates to America. By H. C. Raven
The story was written by Harry Raven in March-April of 1932. He begins by telling how he happened to acquire a baby chimpanzee in 1930 while living in Africa. A world-famous explorer and mammalogist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Mr. Raven spent more time in the wild in places like Borneo, Cameroon, Greenland and Peru than he did in his own country. Although he mostly writes the story of Meshie as a scientist, his affection for the chimpanzee is obvious throughout his narrative. He recounts how a year after living with her in Africa he brought Meshie to America on a ship where she had to be caged and became quite ill. He fondly recalls how Meshie adapted to life out of the jungle and living with his “other” children.
What really got to me about this story was how Meshie was one of the family. She played alongside Mr. Ravens other three children, rode tricycles and a kiddie car, played with the neighborhood children, indulged at ice-cream parties, went sledding and splashed about in a backyard pool. The three Raven children all loved Meshie although the oldest, Jane Orttung, was quoted as saying she felt her father loved the chimp more than he did her. “We never got to know father well,” she said. “Meshie was his only child in Africa. They spent a year there together. He knew her, he felt that he could depend on her, didn’t feel he knew us at all. He tried but didn’t do very well — I don’t think he knew American society very well.” Ouch!
I have since discovered that a fiction novel was published in 1994 that was based on Meshie’s story. It is called “Jennie” by Douglas Preston. In a New York Times interview with the author I also learned that Walt Disney studios had been in production to do a feature film based on his book. I couldn’t find anything on the film however so I’m assuming it never came to be. Douglas Preston talked of the startling affinity that chimpanzees have with humans. “The tragedy of these chimps that are raised in families is that they think they’re human,” Mr. Preston said. “And the truth is a chimp is 98.5 percent human. We only differ 1.5 percent in our DNA.”
Now to the part that haunts me. Meshie was a fully integrated part of the family but when she reached adolescence she became too difficult to control. According to tests an adult female chimpanzee is approximately three and one-half times as strong as a college athlete. Meshie, at about one-third grown, was about as strong as a grown man. It broke my heart when I read the following postscript on the Natural History website:
POSTSCRIPT: Meshie became hard to control after she became sexually mature, and Harry Raven reluctantly sold her to a Chicago zoo. He visited her about a year later, and described their last encounter to Museum anthropologist Harry L. Shapiro. The story is recounted by Douglas J. Preston in Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History (St. Martin’s press, 1994): “[Raven] told the keeper to unlock the cage and let him inside. The man refused, saying that it was far too dangerous, since Meshie had attacked several people and tried to bite others. Raven absolutely insisted, and the keeper finally gave in, washing his hands of all responsibility. ‘When Raven did go in the cage,’ Shapiro says, ‘Meshie threw herself into his arms and clung to him tightly. She began crying. The tears were streaming down her face.’ Meshie died in childbirth a year later, and the zoo shipped her body back to the Museum at Raven’s request, where he had it mounted and put on display in the Hall of Primates.
Mr. Preston said that the curator, Dr. Harold Shapiro, recounted how sometimes he would leave his office late at night and see Mr. Raven standing in front of the display case in the primate hall looking at the chimp with tears in his eyes.
What haunts me the most I suppose is the lingering sadness everyone in this story was left with. Meshie herself devastated that she had been taken away from her adopted family, Harry Raven’s deep sorrow over the result of his decision and the rest of his family who were also sad at losing Meshie but who also believe she robbed them of their fathers affection.
Today Meshie can still be found in the primate hall at the Museum of Natural History. She sits on a log, chin in hand, looking pensive and sad.