When I was a child, I yearned to hold a chimpanzee. I used to watch the TV show “Daktari” as a little girl in the late 1960s and was downright envious of the actors who spent time daily in relationship with chimps. They were my favorite animals at the zoo, though I was always sad to see them trapped behind glass in what was then a very inhospitable enclosure (thankfully, many zoos today have rehabilitated their habitats to evoke a more natural setting).

Photo: Michael Neugeberger, Jane Goodall Institute

So, you can imagine my utter delight when I had the chance to make that lifelong dream come true when I was in Africa in 1993. As part of an overland safari I was on, we stopped at the Jane Goodall Institute’s chimpanzee orphanage in Bujumbura, Burundi, one of several the organization maintained in Africa at the time. The sanctuary provided care for chimps that had been abandoned as babies when their mothers were killed in the illegal bushmeat trade, or who were taken from the forest and sold illegally as pets, then later seized or abandoned after they became larger and more difficult to handle.

One of the younger chimps allowed to wander the grounds was “Amy,” a 3-year-old. When I approached her, she looked up and immediately raised her arms, asking to be picked up. I hefted her up and she hugged me tightly, wrapping her furry arms around my neck. I was astonished at how her hands felt exactly like human skin. She was quite curious about the earrings I was wearing, and, as if she were a human 3-year-old, I had to make sure she did not pull hard on them and tear my ear in the process!

JGI staff member with rescued orphan chimps

After Civil War broke out in Burundi the next year, the chimps in Bujumbura were moved to safety to the Sweetwater Sanctuary in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. When I met Jane Goodall after hearing her speak in Denver last year, she told me Amy was still living and doing fine in Kenya. I told Jane that holding her had been the fulfillment of that lifelong childhood dream, and Jane said, “She knew” – that Amy had sensed that yearning and offered herself for my affections. I like to believe that with as much connection as Jane Goodall has had with chimpanzees over the decades, she may well be right about that.

Today, 42 chimpanzees, orphaned or once abused, live at Sweetwater. Their wild cousins struggle to thrive in the forests of central Africa that are rapidly being cut down to serve the needs of a burgeoning population. War and bushmeat trade are harming their numbers further. When Goodall began her groundbreaking work with chimps in Tanzania 50 years ago, perhaps a million of them roamed wild in the forests of Africa – scientists believe there were certainly that many a century ago. Today, fewer than 300,000 remain, and threats to their welfare grow each day.

The largest chimpanzee sanctuary operated by the Jane Goodall Institute, the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Congo Basin, lies in the heart of the region where the commercial bushmeat trade is having the greatest impact on endangered species like the chimpanzee.

Jane Goodall with a chimp friend. Photo: Jane Goodall Institute

As part of its conservation mission, JGI’s sanctuary seeks to educate and support the local community through sponsoring development projects such as the construction of wells for clean drinking water, employing local people as staff, and buying all the fruits and vegetables needed to feed the chimps from local markets. Tchimpounga staff members also conduct public awareness workshops and other events to raise awareness about the problem of bushmeat and the value of biodiversity.

While the chance to cuddle a chimp, as I was so lucky to have, is rare (and JGI stresses the importance of never approaching or touching a wild chimpanzee), opportunities to help protect them are not. You can become a Chimp Guardian through JGI, donating between $25-$250 to support residents of the African sanctuaries. A great holiday gift idea that works to protect threatened chimp habitat is the Gombe Conservation Box: a $20 package featuring coffee grown by locals of the Gombe National Reserve, a JGI 30th anniversary commemorative steel travel mug, and a Gombe-logo reusable shopping bag.

And, through our partners at World Wildlife Fund, you can adopt a chimpanzee of your own to hug. Well, a cute, furry stuffed one, at any rate. A $50 animal adoption kit comes with a 12-inch tall plush chimpanzee, certificate of adoption, species info card, chimpanzee photo and gift bag.

In fact, WWF offers a multitude of threatened and endangered species to adopt, from ring-tailed lemur to Przewalski’s horse, each with a stuffed plush version of the animal to present to a charmed child (or grown-up!). See all of them here.

And for the ultimate gift for a primate-lover – which could, of course, be yourself – check out Natural Habitat Adventures’ Ultimate Primate Safari for a chance to see chimpanzees, mountain gorillas and colobus monkeys in the wilds of Uganda and Rwanda.

Yours in affection for our closest wild relatives,