by John Mulcahy
fall 2002 newsletter
Moja was the most beautiful person I have ever met. Though she did not live at the Fauna Foundation, Moja had a tremendous impact on many of us here. In fact, she and her family at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) were in many ways responsible for Fauna's creation. Were it not for them, Gloria would never have decided to rescue chimpanzees, and Diana and I would not be here. Thus, we were terribly saddened to learn of her death in July of 2002.
Moja was born at LEMSIP, the same laboratory that the Fauna chimpanzees came from. However, her life took a different path than theirs when she was chosen by two behavioral researchers to be part of a sign language project. She and a handful of other chimpanzees changed the way we see the world simply by talking to us. In hindsight, it is sad that it took this much to convince us that chimpanzees are intelligent, emotional, and deserving of our respect. But I cannot deny the influence her abilities had on my view of the world.
I never planned on becoming an animal rights activist. I wanted to be a primatologist and undertook an apprenticeship at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute so that I could study chimpanzees. As I sat outside one day, watching the chimpanzees in their enclosure, Moja was in the tall grass wearing one of her favorite red sweatshirts. On the front of her sweatshirt were different cartoon pictures, all having something to do with New Orleans, I believe. She just sat there ignoring me and the other chimps as well. In fact, she ignored everything around her, as she examined her sweatshirt. She pointed to each of the pictures and signed to herself what each one was: THAT BERRY, THAT HAT, THAT HORSE. She wasn't doing it for my benefit or to impress visitors. She was just signing about the world as she saw it. And it was at that moment that Moja turned my world upside down.
Of course, Moja had an amazing effect on everyone she met. To call her eccentric would be an understatement. Everyday, people would be talking about the dress she had on or the boots she was wearing. Or the way she looked in the mirror as she adjusted the blonde wig on her head. She was crazy about uncooked beans. She would get so excited about sandwiches that she would almost eat the sign SANDWICH, biting her hands as she held them together in the sign. She had the ability to make everyone around her happy, just by being herself.
I know that Moja's chimpanzee family will miss her always, especially her friend, Tatu. Tatu and Moja were inseparable, always playing together or grooming one another. They loved to steal each other's favorite objects, at which point they would launch into an enthusiastic game of chase that would last half an hour.
Moja was one of the thousands of unfortunate chimpanzees born into a life of captivity. Yet, given the circumstances, she was lucky to find a home where she was loved and well cared for, by both by her human and chimpanzee friends. She did a lot of good in her life; the 15 LEMSIP chimpanzees who came to Fauna are proof of that. And I know that we are better for having known her.