Pick From the Past
Natural History, March-April 1932

Meshie: The Child of a Chimpanzee

A Creature of the African
Jungle Emigrates to America

Quiet Contemplation

HILE hunting gorillas in the great forest of the French Cameroun during February, 1930, I had a camp about fifteen miles from the nearest negro habitation; I had just finished a rather late luncheon, and was talking with some of my eight or ten negro companions, when two men walked into camp.

To my companions they said “Embolo” as a greeting, but to me they said “Morning,” this being in the Pidgin English of the Cameroun the proper greeting, regardless of the hour of the day or night. One of these men carried in his arms a baby chimpanzee.

Children like the company of other children

Children like the company of other children. African children frequently asked to be allowed to play with Meshie, and she enjoyed their company.

The little creature weighed about ten pounds; the skin on her face, ears, hands, and feet, was a rich tan color, but on her body beneath the hair the skin was as white as it is on a white man’s scalp. Her hair was black, fairly coarse, straight and rather long, very long on her cheeks, where it grew down like side whiskers below the level of her chin. The only hairs that were not black were the short, inconspicuous, fine ones about the front part of her lips and mouth, and a tuft of longer coarse hairs that stuck out in the position of a tail. There was a small bald or bare area on her forehead just above the supra-orbital ridges, a character of the particular variety of chimpanzee to which she belonged.

I approached the man who held her and put out my arms. The little animal looked at me a moment, then stretched her arms toward me and I took her. She grasped me tightly as if she feared she might fall. She looked at me curiously for a moment and then stroked the hair on my bare arm. She seemed to sense that I was unlike the black natives, the only other humans she had seen.

I asked the man how he happened to come to my camp, to which he replied that in passing along the road at Djaposten, he had been told that I was looking for gorillas and chimpanzees and might buy the one he had. He had shot the mother of this baby chimpanzee with a poisoned dart from his crossbow while he was following a trail far away to the east between Yukaduma and Molundu. The mother chimpanzee had been eaten by him and his companions. He had kept the little one for about a month and had fed her on whatever she would eat of their food; including cassava, plantains, bananas, sweet potatoes, calladium, peanuts, maize, and papayas. The little animal was thin, however, and I was not at all sure that I would be able to keep her alive. I bartered in true native fashion for some time, through an interpreter, but as I considered the price too high, I refused to pay it. After the men had left, I heard the interpreter make some remark about the price, and I.said,

“Why, that was the sum I told you to tell him I would pay.”

He replied, “I thought you meant a hundred francs less than that.”

I sent him running after the men and a few minutes later they returned; the baby chimpanzee was given to me; they took the money and departed without a word.


Play: While Meshie romped about Mr. Raven’s African dwelling, she often amused herself with sticks or other objectes. Here she is playing with a bit of rag.

I played with the animal a short time and she seemed to take a fancy to me, for when I started off through the forest to hunt, she attempted to follow me, and screamed when I turned her over to Samkum. Sankum was a boy about twelve years old, an orphan, who had adopted my camp as his home.

The little chimpanzee was spoken of as “mon a waa,” which means in the Bulu language “the child of a chimpanzee.” She was never fastened or caged and seemed perfectly happy to play about camp with Samkum. He became her chief companion and they played tag for hours on the tall saplings and lianas that overhung the little space we had cleared in the heavy forest. At this time I had four dogs in camp and I feared they might harm her, but in a few days Opat, the youngest of the dogs, had become well acquainted with her, and thereafter joined the play every day. The older dogs, however, simply growled and walked away when she approached.

If she were not given sufficient food, she ate leaves and buds of certain trees growing within a few yards of camp. When we shifted camp, Samkum carried her pickaback, her hands over his shoulders and her feet on his waist. One day when we broke camp; I sent Samkum on ahead with her; an hour later I came up with them, the little chimp sitting in a sapling and Samkum sitting on the ground crying. He said the “mon a waa” wanted to get down from his shoulder and when he did not let her; she bit him on the neck. She was simply tired of being carried, but if he attempted to walk off and leave her she screamed and followed after him. I carried her some distance and then showed him how to carry her in a sling of cheesecloth on his back. After she had been carried pickaback for a considerable length of time, her hands would be so tired that she could not walk on her knuckles in the usual manner, but would either move about resting on her wrists and the backs of her hands or on the whole of her forearms. This fatigue passed off in a short time.


Washing: Captive chimpanzees like playing in water, washing their hands, feet, or other convenient objects. Meshie will stamp in the water for the joy of seeing it splash.

In camp I made her a bed in an empty chop box, but if she were not placed in it at dusk, she would climb up among the branches of some trees above camp and there make a nest for herself. The natives feared she might be lost and, if she did not come down when I called her, one of the natives would climb up and bring her down.

When we returned to Djaposten, she played about the house where I lived and had access to a number of small native houses near by. There were several small negro children with whom she became very friendly. By this time all the dogs, too, seemed to regard her just as they did the human babies, and if she pulled their ears or their tails or their legs, they would simply whine and walk away. These African dogs were very fond of bananas and papayas, but if a piece of banana were given to one of them while she were hungry, she would whimper and cry and peevishly stick out her lips while holding out her hand in a begging attitude. If this were of no avail and more food were given to the dog, she lost patience and rushed at him, making a scolding noise and striking him with her hands and even attempting to bite. This procedure always succeeded in driving the dogs away.

It was while the little chimpanzee was playing with her many black friends at Djaposten, that I first heard her called Meshie Mungkut. I was told that they had given her that name, which in their language was a nickname for a chimpanzee and was especially applicable to a small one that fluffed up its hair so that it looked big, though in reality it was very small. The name Meshie seemed a good one and has been hers ever since.

Sometimes I went off on trips of several days, at which time Meshie was left in the charge of one or another woman of the village who had no children of her own to care for. She would take her to her garden early in the morning, carrying her like a child, and Meshie played around while the woman worked. About eleven o’clock the woman returned from her clearing, carrying the day’s supply of vegetables and firewood as well as Meshie. Next she would go to a spring or a stream to bathe and to get water, and there Meshie was washed, or at least sprinkled with water.

Swinging from a pole. Chimpanzees have long hands and fingers which afford a much surer grip on a branch than the shorter and proportionately weaker hands and fingers of man.

Just as good care was given to Meshie by these women as if she had been their own child, but her human playmates were all infested with parasites—lice, itch mites, skin diseases, and an assortment of internal ones—and it was inevitable that Meshie with an almost human constitution should be preyed upon by some of these.

First she developed a scabby skin that apparently caused considerable itching, for she scratched incessantly, and when she was not scratching herself the natives were scratching her, for that is their way of making friends with any animal. Later on, when she was entirely over her skin disorders, she retained the habit of scratching, and even now, though her skin is perfectly clean, healthy, and has been free from parasites ever since she left Africa, she scratches herself from habit, especially when she is nervous, as when she is impatiently waiting for her dinner.

When the time arrived for me to make preparations for my departure from Africa, I had to think of accustoming my little pet to be either tied or caged, and I thought being tethered would be preferable; so one day I tied her to a post supporting an extension at the side of a native hut. The roof was six feet high and the whole structure was fastened together with rattans and covered with palm leaf thatch. Meshie screamed, cried, rolled on the ground, kicked, and bit her hands and feet. She was simply having a tantrum. Then she jumped up and down out of sheer desperation, scratched the ground with her fingers and stuck out her lips, crying peevishly. She would get hold of the next post or any object within reach and would pull with all her might, only desisting from pain caused by the rope pulling on her neck.

I left her tied like this and, upon turning a couple of hours later, I hardly recognized the place. I called to my boy,

“Where is Meshie?”

He replied, “Mon a waa live kitchen.” (The child of a chimpanzee is in the cook house.)

Then he said, “See what she has done.” She had pulled the palm leaves off the roof and had broken the palm stems to which they were tied. These with their fastenings of rattan were scattered about as if a cyclone had hit the place. Eventually, however, she became accustomed to being fastened.

Oral hygiene

Oral hygiene: Meshie willingly opens her mouth and holds it open while her teeth are being brushed and her mouth inspected.

During the last days of my stay in Cameroun and for ten days after embarking, I was unable to care for Meshie myself, but at Kribi, before sailing, a supply of tinned milk had been secured for her, as well as some fruit; I persuaded the ship’s steward to feed her, and Captain Philips kindly put at her disposal a cage in which he had kept a chimpanzee on a previous voyage. During this time Meshie, too, became ill, and when I was able to get about I saw that she was very sick. I dosed her and in a short time she began to pick up, but it was many days before she would take any food but milk and orange juice in small quantities. She had always been fond of bananas but now she refused them as well as all other solid food. Eventually she began to eat again, stewed fruits such as peaches, pears, and apricots being the first solid food she ate.

From where I kept her on the upper deck of the steamer, she could see a large locker that had been filled with bananas at one the ports, as food for eighty-five monkeys destined for Yale University. Everytime Meshie got loose while recuperating, although she refused the bananas I offered her, she made for the locker, chose a green banana, peeled it and ate the puckery inner portion of the skin but would not eat the fruit itself. This behavior continued until near the end of the six weeks’ voyage, when she was again quite well and would eat ripe bananas but not the inner skin unless she were especially hungry.

Sometimes she was tethered on the hatch amidships and there she had a little cup. When, as frequently happened, one of the ship’s officers would come on deck with a cup of tea or coffee, Meshie would put out her hand and beg for some or go and get her cup and hold it out. This of course always won her a drink.

During the latter part of the voyage the weather suddenly turned cold. It was necessary to put the six or eight large cages containing several species of West African monkeys and some baboons down in a hold. Meshie was also put down there though she resented it. By this time she had succeeded in breaking the wire of her cage, but she was chained to it so that she was free to go in or out. The cages containing the monkeys were boxes six feet long by approximately half that in width and height and they were piled two deep. It was almost dark down there. The next time I went down two of the cages were upset and monkeys were everywhere. Meshie, though barely able to reach the cages, had pulled two of them down and then removed the cord and stick from the staple, opened the trap door, and allowed the monkeys to escape. Fortunately only a few had escaped to the deck and the rest were running around in the hold.

With a flashlight I looked in Meshie’s cage, for she had not come out as usual when I called her. She sat crouched in the corner and looked up pitifully. Then I saw she was holding a baby monkey in her lap. I scolded her and called her to come out. She came, walking on her hind feet and holding the baby against her body. I was surprised to see what appeared to be mother instinct so far developed in a baby chimpanzee. She carried this half- grown baby monkey a whole day before it was put back with the others.

Poor little emigrant

Poor little emigrant: The weather grew quite cool on the homeward voyage, so Meshie was equipped with a sweater, which Mr. Raven fashioned from some heavy woolen stockings.

Long before I sailed from Africa, while still in the interior of the Cameroun, Meshie sat beside me during meals at my little table in camp, and when I had nearly finished my soup, I would hand her the spoon but would not let her put her mouth down to the plate. She learned immediately that she was to bring the food to her mouth with the spoon. I would leave a little food for her in my plate after each course during the meal.

When hungry, she would eat most of the kinds of food that I had, occasionally some meat, though she was not very fond of this. We had soup made of peanuts or calladium nearly every day. Then there were such vegetables as green beans, sweet potatoes, plantains, green papayas, cassava and cassava leaves, and occasionally others. Of fruits she preferred mangoes to all others available there. The only fruit offered her in the Cameroun which she seemed to dislike was the avocado pear, lately introduced and now widely distributed there.

As the weather grew cool on the homeward voyage, I made a sweater for Meshie from some heavy woolen stockings. The first time I put it on her she tore it off, though, afterward, when the nights were very cold, she apparently made no attempt to remove it.

It was the middle of February, 1931, when we arrived at Boston. Meshie was very much excited and interested in all the things she saw and heard. I think the outstanding incident of Meshie’s arrival in the United States was her alarm on seeing a team of horses while she was being driven across Boston in a taxicab. She heard the clatter of horses’ hoofs on the cobble stones and looked out of the back window. Upon seeing a team of great, dappled gray, draft horses blowing steam through their nostrils, she uttered a little scream and grabbed me around the neck, but her curiosity was stronger than her fear, so a moment later she was again looking out of the window. As it happened, the team followed us on the ferry and drew up just behind our cab. When the horses came so close, Meshie actually got down on the floor once in an effort to get as far away as possible, but a moment later she was back and looking out of the window. Each time thereafter when she looked out, she made a peculiar sound which might be translated as a very soft “oh-ooooo.” This sound I had never heard her make before, but during the past summer I heard her make that same sound again when she saw a snake.

A few weeks after we had reached home, when the weather was warm, I built a little house for Meshie on the top of the frame of the children’s swing in the back yard, ten feet from the ground. Wild chimpanzees always sleep in trees at night and Meshie seems to feel safer when she is off the ground. I made a sliding door in the house that she could open and close at will. Every night at dusk I carried out her blankets to her and she would lean out the little door and catch them as I threw them up. She would pull each piece into the house, arrange it around her, and then lean out for another piece. After twisting them around her in a kind of nest, she would go to sleep, usually as soon as it was dark. Early in the morning she would open the door of her house and climb out, at first sitting quietly for a few minutes on the crosspiece that supported the house, then doing all her housework for the day by throwing down her

Bedtime but not very sleepy:  Next to playing in the water, Meshie enjoys a bedtime romp with the children.
blankets one after another to the ground. If it were cool, however, she would wrap a piece of blanket around her shoulders and sit contemplatively on the crosspiece, reminding me of an Indian in his blanket, squatting before his hut in the cool of the early morning.

One morning she was sitting on her house when we heard her give a sudden scream of terror. When I looked out of the window, she was gazing down at a piece of black cloth which had been torn from the edge of an old coat she had used as a blanket. This piece of cloth had fallen into curves and I believe she thought it was a snake. At a second glance she had apparently realized her mistake, but all her hair was standing up.

Meshie had ridden with me in a motor truck for more than two thousand miles in Africa and, except when the wind blew in her face, causing her to wrinkle it in a most comical manner, she enjoyed it thoroughly. While I drove, she sat on the seat between me and a black boy. At first she had to be slapped and scolded when she attempted to play with the wheel or other machinery. However, when the car stopped, she would climb up on the steering wheel and, grasping it with both her hands and feet, rock back and forth to the great amusement of the natives.

At home she often screamed when she saw us going out in the automobile, leaving her behind, and when she was allowed to accompany us she would say “uh-uh-uh” repeatedly to show her pleasure.

We hope that Meshie, emigrant from Africa, may continue to grow in health, weight, and knowledge in her new American home.

More Meshie Photos

Return to Web Site Archive, Picks from the Past