Baby chimps are absolute maniacs. This is clear from the start of BBC America’s documentary series Baby Chimp Rescue. But what is just as apparent is their capacity and need for love and care, especially since every single chimpanzee we meet is a survivor. Before arriving at the Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection home run by American couple Jimmy and Jenny Desmond, all of these rescued babies saw their mothers killed for bushmeat. With many of the babies sustaining bullet and shrapnel wounds and broken bones from the capture, they were then illegally sold as pets.
It’s an incredibly hard but essential part of this story, because the first thing you think when you see all of these adorable baby chimps is: I want one. And while the babies are incredibly sweet and playful, the series notes that chimps become increasingly hard to control as they age and grow stronger, leading many who are first taken on as pets to end up killed. In an area where they are critically endangered after an 80% population loss, that cannot stand.
The beating heart of this three-part series (that is produced, directed, and filmed by Rob Sullivan), are the likable, impassioned, down-to-earth Desmonds. Husband Jimmy is a wildlife veterinarian who, along with his conservation-focused wife Jenny, has been working with animals in various international programs for decades. Arriving in Liberia after the dismantling of an American research project eventually left many chimps without a home and unable to fend for themselves in the wild, the Desmonds stepped in to adopt every chimp that needed rescuing. What started with two ended up expanding to over 60, all but two of whom are under seven years old per the organization’s website.
With the help of a team of local carers, the Desmonds have devoted their lives to rehabilitating these chimpanzees—including an ambitious but necessary move to a protected land area to help with overcrowding issues. The series details all of this and more, including the Desmonds’ relationship with local law enforcement to assist with confiscations and the arrest of poachers. But nothing is more compelling than the story of a chimp who has lived their life in bondage—often chained, beaten, and neglected—end up rescued, loved, and socialized within the sanctuary. That moment where a timid, traumatized chimp eventually stumbles in with the others to enjoy play and the embrace (and tickles!) of their new found family will bring joyful tears. Watching these scamps crawling all around a car, beeping the horn, licking the windshield, and half-destroying everything with insatiable curiosity will make you laugh. Seeing them run back to their carers and hug and cuddle them will make you cry again. These little fiends are absolute legends.
For those familiar with other BBC documentaries, the same measured rules apply. There is limited narration and the score is quiet and hopeful; the circumstances are largely explained by those in the middle of it and living it day to day. The camerawork has a guerrilla-style nature to it (especially when a large, older chimp escapes and a cameraman chucks the camera down to get out of the way), but the editing is crisp, expertly delivering some exceptionally great shots alongside explanations by the Desmonds and others that helps keep the momentum constantly moving forward. Baby Chimp Rescue is never stodgy, maudlin, or over-hyped. It presents the basic facts of an extraordinary situation with practiced aplomb.
Arguably, information that comes in the third and final episode should have been included earlier on, where we get a quick explanation of what brought the Desmonds to Liberia in the first place, but it’s no less effective once introduced. As noted briefly above, after 30 years of biomedical experimentations by an American company, the remaining chimps at the facility were “retired,” which actually means being abandoned to starve on a nearby island. The Desmonds were part of an international aid group to help those chimps, and ended up quickly realizing how much more work really needed to be done. One of the best human stories in the series is learning that many of those who worked at the laboratory with the chimps—and haunted by their experiences there—are now carers at the sanctuary where they can love the babies and know these precious creatures will not come to any harm.
Speaking of babies, everyone treats the chimpanzees like tiny humans: holding them, singing to them, encouraging. There is so much laughter and love, and the docuseries is also wonderful in how it details things like “chimp school,” where the babies are taught things they’ll need to return to the wild, things they missed out on because of the early deaths of their mothers. Some of the chimps that are a little older know, for example, the snakes are dangerous or that you can use a stick to get termites (or in this case honey) from a big dirt mound. Watching the Desmonds and their close friend and chimp expert Ben Garrod teach their lessons and have the babies succeed is like watching a human baby take its first steps or say its first word. It’s absolutely beautiful.
The series also stands as an innate call to action, as the Desmonds raise funds to build their expanded sanctuary. Its highly effective; you want to help every single one of these rescued chimps, and assist the Desmonds with their work in any way you can (and I haven’t even mentioned the pack of rescue dogs who also bond with the chimps. Everything is the actual best). But the show also doesn’t push in that direction; it just reveals the highs and lows, the successes and frustrations, of running such an operation. It’s not just about the cute baby chimps, it’s also about a larger need for conservation, and end of deforestation, and a crack down on illegal animal trade—which is often unfortunately born out of the dire financial hardships faced by locals. There’s no quick or easy answer to any of it. Nevertheless, in this small corner of Liberia, the Desmonds have found a way to make a huge, meaningful impact in the lives of these incredibly smart, playful, loving baby chimps. And we are blessed to be able to get a little glimpse into this very special world.
The first episode of Baby Chimp Rescue premieres Saturday, December 5th on BBC America.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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