Twenty-five years ago today, Igor was released from the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates and allowed to retire to IPPL. He had spent 21 years at LEMSIP and, before that, five years at a drug company. Igor was wild-born, probably in the rainforests of Thailand, so we will never be able to celebrate his birthday. But we can celebrate the day his life changed for the better: the day he came to our sanctuary!
Sadly, Igor had developed a tragic, neurotic habit as a result of his years in labs: whenever he caught sight of another gibbon, he would savagely bite his own arms. Some of these bouts resulted in life-threatening blood loss. He was forced to live in a windowless trailer behind a screen of black Plexiglas.
When he came to IPPL, we built him a special house out of sight but within earshot of the other IPPL gibbons, with the help of donations from generous IPPL supporters. Igor seemed content to watch episodes of Sesame Street, the wildlife from the nearby woods, and the birds that would visit his personal feeder. Then something astonishing happened.
When we started hand-raising Courtney (a surprise baby gibbon born here in 2002 and rejected by her mom), we decided to try taking her to visit him; she was so tiny and pink, she didn’t even look like a gibbon. Igor had no problem with her presence—even when she started looking like a regular grown-up gibbon and not just a hairless infant. We brought her to visit him every week for six years, until she grew too strong to be taken for walks around the property. Always fascinated by her, Igor never seemed to realize that she was growing up!
So a few years ago we built a nice large enclosure for one of our other bachelor gibbons within plain sight of Igor’s area. Igor never had a problem with Michael in view—and he doesn’t have a problem with Gibby (the current occupant), either. In fact, in all the time he has been here, Igor has not bitten himself once.
Of course, Igor does have a touch of cataracts by now, so it’s not clear what he can make out at that distance (about 40 yards). But Igor certainly can hear Gibby. In fact, Gibby and Igor often sing to each other! Gibby gets fed his lunch before Igor does, so when Gibby starts vocalizing at around that time, we figure he’s singing out to Igor what’s on the menu.
Although we can’t bring other gibbons to visit him now, our staff is always careful to give him plenty of quality time. We tempt his taste buds with various treats (he likes cilantro and sweet Vidalia onions). We give him leafy bamboo branches to play with. We brush his hair. Last week when I went to visit him, he looked down at his lap and leaned his forehead against the wire mesh of his run; I knew that meant he wanted me to groom the top of his head, so I spent some time combing my fingers through his fine, soft fur.
And I looked into his wise old eyes. Whenever I do, I see a gentleness and forgiveness there that is better than human.
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