When I lived in Nigeria, I used to cross the city of Calabar to visit the defunct zoo, taking food for the animals—a constrictor snake, some crocodiles, a male drill monkey—still trapped in cages. Jacob, a large juvenile chimpanzee, lived in that zoo in a cage roughly ten feet by ten feet. As I walked onto the zoo grounds, Jacob would greet me with an exuberant pant-hoot and I would respond back (my Intro to Anthro students are endlessly amused when I demonstrate my pant-hooting skills). Though I carried food for him, what Jacob most wanted to do was play with me.
Jacob loved to play tag first, swinging back and forth across the front of his thickly barred cage, sticking a hand out to see if I could catch it. We would rush back and forth together, Jacob generally favoring the role of being chased. Then we’d settle down for some tickling. Believe me, being tickled by a chimpanzee is, I am sure, rather what my boys feel when I get overly excited about tickling them.
Jacob’s fingers were powerful, and his arms more so, but I made myself laugh in the chortling sound of chimpanzees. If he got too strong, I could simply let out a sound of pain and he’d stop. Then we’d get started again, because of course I loved to tickle him back. I remember times, our heads together, pressed against the bars, his hand at the back of my neck, my fingers digging into his ribs. It was such fun, yet I never could quite shake the thought in that moment that he could crush my head so easily against the bars.
Continue reading “Taking Play Seriously”