THE BLOG
08/02/2011 09:41 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

How a Wild Chimpanzee Made Me a Better Father

"You sure have an ugly kid there," whispered one of the fathers at the park. He looked at me and grinned.

"Thanks," I responded proudly as I glanced over at Babu hanging from the top support bar of the swing-set.

Other parents at this Palo Alto, California park had also been staring at Babu, a two-and-a-half-year-old chimp wearing diapers. He loved leaping across the playground equipment, then dangling with one arm as he surveyed his surroundings.

When frightened by a dog or shrieking child, he would run to me, lunge into my arms, and hug my torso with all his might. He would then continue to cling to me with his power hug even as I strolled around the park until he was reassured enough to go back to his magnificent aerial acts.

People were curious about our relationship, wondering why a 20 year-old college student would be hanging out in a park with a young chimpanzee in store-bought Pampers. Even I wondered at times how other people would view us.

Babu was born in West Africa, only to be snatched away from his mother by poachers as an infant and placed on sale for food at a local market. An animal-loving older American couple visiting the market bought Babu to save him from becoming a steak dinner. Their rustic home in Woodside, California was Babu's new dwelling for the next few years. By two years of age, however, Babu was growing more aggressive, as is natural, and he needed constant supervision.

They had heard from friends that I would be studying chimpanzees in Tanzania, East Africa with Dr. Jane Goodall, visiting professor at Stanford University. They assumed that I knew a lot about these primates but in fact, I didn't have a clue as to how to handle a young chimp.
They proposed that I take Babu on field trips, so they could have a respite from the constant demands of their busy house guest. Each week, Babu and I enjoyed a new adventure together going to different parks and nature trails.

But I knew that Babu would soon be moving to a large chimp compound where he was to be integrated with other chimpanzees and give up his human contacts. It was the only alternative for him as he naturally became stronger and more difficult to contain in a home. I knew that I would not be able to interact with him again.

At the end of a year, our final hug brought big tears to my eyes. I felt sad; it was ironic that he would soon be placed in an outdoor compound at Stanford with other chimpanzees while I ventured into an African forest to learn what his life would have been like had he not been taken away from his mother in the wild.

My time with Babu had taught me a lot about responding to the needs of a young primate. I provided reassurance for him in our travels by letting him cling to me -- and he, in turn, provided me with my first feeling of fatherhood.

Today, 38 years later, I often reflect on my eight months in the African forest studying wild chimpanzee mothers and their infants at Dr. Jane Goodall's study site at Gombe. I've incorporated lessons I learned from the chimpanzee mothers at times while raising my own sons and even in giving advice to my patients as a family physician. The importance of a strong emotional attachment, physical contact, and reassurance for young chimps stand out as crucial elements in their development.

I constantly remind myself to be patient with my boys as a result of seeing the matriarch chimp, Fifi, use this skill with her son, Freud. And when I witness the curious exploration of my young patients rocketing around the exam room my memory fills with images of Fifi's patience and tacit approval of Freud, her three year old son's uninhibited and joyful behavior. Of course when a dangerous situation arises in the African forest, the maternal patience turns to a swift grasping and tight clutching to their infant as they head for the hills. I've incorporated this into my child rearing and medical practice also.

But my memories of Fifi are mostly filled with images of her playful interactions with Freud and her gentle guidance as he learned how to use a tool for termiting, how to build his own nest in the trees for sleeping, and her always being available to him for reassuring hugs. Freud became the alpha male of the community but maintained a close bond with his mother throughout her 46 years of life.

There is no blueprint for parenting. For me, better than any parenting class or book, was closely observing a skilled chimpanzee mother interact with her three year-old son in the wild.