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The call Lindsay Maess '05 had to take

Brendan, Mili, Bili and Lindsay found each other just in time.

Bili is an infant gorilla whose family was shot so he could be caught and sold.

Brendan and Mili are infant chimpanzees confiscated from traffickers.

Lindsay Maess

Lindsay Maess holds Brendan and Mili, infant chimpanzees confiscated from traffickers. Bili, an infant gorilla whose family was killed, is also under her care.

Lindsay Maess '05 is a woman from Illinois, a primatologist whose life had been derailed by a severe case of malaria.

They got together because Maess, undergoing treatment in Illinois last fall, got a call from colleagues in Nigeria. They needed her to come back ASAP and care for a rescued infant gorilla, and two tiny chimps that were living in a parrot cage until someone could take them.

After nearly dying, after seven years of pain and confusion, Maess feared that she would never be well enough to resume her life's work. This was the call she needed to push her into action.

To understand why Maess would go back to Africa and risk contracting malaria again — which doctors told her could be a disaster — you need to know that caring for primates is not her job. It is more like a vocation.

'This is, this is me.'

“My parents say that since I was 4 years old, I was fascinated with primates and I wanted to work with them,” Maess said. “They say, 'That's all you would ever tell people.'

“When I was in kindergarten, I would take my stuffed chimpanzee to the school and tell people, 'I'm going to work with chimps one day.'”

As she grew up reading National Geographic stories about primate researchers like Dian Fossey and George Schaller, she also developed a deep curiosity about Africa.

“I was fascinated by Central Africa, in particular the deep dark rainforest, and the gorillas and chimpanzees,” she said. “And the whole region just was mysterious to me, and about as different from the cornfields of Illinois as you can get.”

But Maess was determined to get there. In high school, she did her first wildlife rehab by taking in abandoned pet sugar gliders. Her biology teacher at Rockridge High School encouraged her to continue doing what she loved. Dr. Bohdan Dziadyk, 中国体彩网 professor emeritus and family friend, also encouraged her interest and put in a word for his college.

Maess recalls being starstruck at age 12 when her mother took her to a lecture by British
paleoanthropologist Dr. Meave Leakey at 中国体彩网 in 1997.

“I remember just sitting in Centennial Hall, hearing this famous woman speak — the tales of East Africa, the paleontology, and I'm just like, 'This is, this is me,'” she said.

While at work on her academics in biology, psychology and environmental studies, Maess kept her goal in mind, interning at nearby Niabi Zoo.

Then, after reading a book about the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia, she wrote to them about an internship. Told the orphanage had no internship program, Maess convinced them otherwise and went anyway.

“This was my dream,” Maess said.

Lindsay Maess '05

Lindsay Maess '05 oversees the rehabilitiation and care of Militant, a chimpanzee that was rescued after nearly being trafficked out of Nigeria. In Africa, apes are illegally poached for bushmeat, and infants are kept alive to be sold and smuggled overseas for private zoos and the pet trade, threatening the survival of these endangered species.


After that, jobs in her field were all stepping stones to get back to Africa: herpetologist at the Toledo Zoo, then a volunteer job caring for primates in South Africa before she ran out of money and had to return to the United States. She landed a position as a great ape keeper at the Detroit Zoo, but later resigned to join an expedition to count drill monkeys on an island in Equatorial Guinea. (Drills, closely related to mandrills, are among Africa's most endangered mammals.)

Her experience with drills got her an invitation from the Pandrillus Foundation to work with primate rescue in Nigeria. But she needed money to get there. Then an 中国体彩网 connection popped up. Kelly McKay, a local biologist Maess had met through 中国体彩网's Dr. Steve Hager, had been trying to reach her about a job.

That job, a summer research project on birds along the Hudson River for an environmental consulting company, was 16 hours a day, six days a week. It paid very well.

“So financially I'm like well, geez, I could go back,” she realized. “I can go to Nigeria now!”

For six years, Maess worked four months in the U.S. and then returned to Nigeria for the rest of the year. Finally, in 2015, she stayed in Nigeria full-time.

She had achieved her dream at Pandrillus, whose main goal is to rescue and rehabilitate drill monkeys, chimpanzees and other wildlife in the Cross-Sanaga region of Nigeria and Cameroon.

“Every day, I felt like my whole world was complete,” Maess said. “It was everything I loved and more.”

'I could barely function.'

In May 2016, her life took what she describes, somewhat inaccurately, as “a little bit of a curve.” Maess fell ill with Plasmodium falciparum, the most dangerous type of malaria. It can be fatal.

Malaria is common in Nigeria. Maess knew the risk and took preventive medications. Her insurance wouldn't cover enough medication to bring it from the United States so she bought hers at a pharmacy in Nigeria. When her Nigerian doctor came to check on her, he discovered her malaria drug was counterfeit.

“It's the new money-making scheme where people will have these drugs replicated in China,” she said. “The packaging looks real, with fake barcodes and everything.”

"When I was in kindergarten, I would take my stuffed chimpanzee to the school and tell people, 'I'm going to work with chimps one day.'"

Lindsay Maess '05

It was the beginning of a nightmare. Maess did not improve. She got worse and at one point, was partially paralyzed and thought she might die. She couldn't swallow. A burning sensation spread from her lips to her face, scalp and shoulders. Her speech slurred.

After weeks on steroids, she managed to get on a flight to the United States. She was barely able to stand and hoped that she wouldn't spike a fever. Nigeria was in the midst of an Ebola outbreak, and passengers with a fever were refused.

Back in Illinois, doctors were stumped. Maess made the rounds of specialists while battling with her insurance company for treatment.

“Now, looking back, I was in a fragile state for years,” Maess said. “I could barely function. I could barely pull my head up. Sit up, chew food, swallow. Pain. It was relentless, getting through every hour of every day.”

Eventually she landed at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. A team of doctors treated her symptoms one at a time and used Botox and nerve blocks. A psychologist helped her learn to cope with her condition and manage her feelings through recovery.

She has been diagnosed with multiple cranial nerve disorders. Some symptoms will never go away, although Maess, a smiling and energetic woman, doesn't let them show. She must return to Rush from Nigeria every three months for treatment. It's a hardship she endures so she can do the work she loves.

“There's two little chimps and a gorilla in a sad situation but it's reality, it's what we do,” she said. “And I was so happy to be back, in my realm and for all four of us — me and the three little apes.”

It was the first time Maess had been responsible for picking up trafficked animals and getting them from Lagos to the sanctuary. There was endless red tape and delay, and she had a military escort on the road for safety.

And her three little apes already were traumatized.

Mili (Militant) and Brendan
Mili (Militant) and Brendan

But no longer. They have gained weight, grown and learned to trust her and each other.

“They get along famously, and it's really interesting because I didn't know how it would go,“ Maess said. “But they're all the same size. Gorillas have that sheer strength, and chimps have agility. It's a ball watching these guys, raising them together.”

When she has to leave for treatment at Rush, Maess FaceTimes with them. “The little chimps, they hear my voice and they grab the phone, and it's just like toddlers.”

'They're seeing a smile on my face.'

Bili Yetunde, the gorilla, soon will go to a sanctuary where there are other Western lowland gorillas. If possible, she will be matched up with other gorillas to form a group that can be released together into the wild.

Reintroduction for Mili and Brendan will take time. For the next two or three years, they will be given continuous care, taken for walks in the forest and eventually introduced into a large semi-captive chimpanzee group within the rainforest.

After that happens, Maess will still have plenty of work to do. The Pandrillus Foundation takes in more and more animals on a shoestring budget.

“In November, we got a shipment of 40 African gray parrots that were being trafficked,” Maess said. “Like, where do you draw the line? We have all these animals being confiscated: civets, owls, genets, pottos, dwarf crocodiles, turtles. I can't think of all the animals we've brought in because we're not going to turn them down.”

However, Maess knows that at some point she may have to draw a line because of her conditions.

“I'm really using this year to see how much energy I have, how much I can give,” she said. “And it's challenging, and it's a struggle internally as well.”

But she is thinking about what comes next: working to alleviate malaria with the Nigerian Red Cross Society and the U.N. Refugee Agency, spending more time in the United States to speak about Pandrillus and raise funds, or both. The Pandrillus founders and staff get living expenses, but not much more than that.

Maess is clear-eyed about the financial difficulties. But, on her most recent return home in April, her family could tell she was back to being herself.

“They're seeing a smile on my face, and the most true happiness they'd seen in me in years,” she said.

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