Today marks my two-week anniversary of my trailer burning down in the bushfire. People fail to realize that many places in the world are already burning. But on the bright side, the resulting dismal air quality in Sydney forced us to wear face masks, or “bird-beaks'' as I heard a kid call them, before the pandemic even started for the rest of the world.
I adjusted my own mask as Sandra, my boss who I considered as more of a coworker, came in. She went straight to the sink and washed her hands aggressively. Without having to ask, she explained.
“It was the tapira. But don’t worry, he’ll be fine.” She went to dry her hands but knocked over the paper towels which unwound like a wedding carpet across the floor. She cursed. “Oh, and Ken, can you check the chimps? I heard Olivia’s having trouble with the air. Tried taking her temperature but she kept trying to put the thermometer in her mouth.”
I stifled a laugh, relieved to work with the chimps again.
“But I don’t want you in there too long. Don’t forget there’s other work to do if you still want to get paid. The animals are freaking out cause there aren’t visitors and the sky still looks like mango juice.”
I know she purposely didn’t mention the fact that the zoo might shut down soon and that all of our jobs were on eggshells.
I stepped outside and noticed how bad the air was. It was like you were looking around with a pair of orange-tinted sunglasses that you couldn’t take off; breathing in was like sucking cloudy water that tasted like smoke through your mask and pushing it into your lungs. This morning alone I had to deal with respiratory problems in three of the seven kangaroos. It felt like Earth was becoming less of a home for many. I walked through the service door of the chimpanzee enclosure. In the middle of the expansive outdoor section was a playground with ropes and tires and branches sticking in all directions. Patches of soft grass were kept in the shade from tall trees and sprinkled with bushes. Right through it all ran a small natural creek. Sitting on the edge of that creek were seven Ugandan central chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes troglodytes. George and Anne both glanced at me as I approached but were not deterred from their task of lying on the grass cooling their feet in the water. For them, all day was siesta time. I checked up on all of them, taking their temperature beneath their armpits and listening for wheezing. Although they were healthy, the hot weather and thick air locked them in a lethargic mood.
“You know you guys can go inside where the air is fresh, right?” I said. George, the alpha, grunted and rolled onto his stomach.
I felt a tug on my pants. Fudge, a five year old chimp recovered as an illegal pet, was standing beside me. He has an unusual patch of white hair on top of his head, which reached my knees when he stood on his knuckles.
“Hey, buddy,” I said. Fudge replied by knocking my shin and running away. I watched him bound up the big tree in the middle, hang from one arm on a branch right above my head, only for him to drop and tumble down the hill I was on. As he reached the bottom he sprang up and looked at me.
“Very impressive,” I admitted. “But,” I kneeled to his height as he approached, “my boss said I have other work to do so I can’t play right now.”
Fudge snuffed, and looked at the other chimps lounging by the water.
“Don’t blame me that they’re boring, get them to play.” I rose and started to walkaway but Fudge used my belt to clamber his way onto my back.
“No, don’t— bother George instead.” I grabbed his wrists which were on my shoulders and placed him back down. He started to make his way back up my right leg when I picked up a stick and tapped him with it. He released my leg. I dug the stick into the ground, pretending to look for something. Fudge was immediately fascinated; he laid down on his stomach with his face a fist length away from the divot in the ground. I knew there was nothing there, not even bugs. But despite doing this trick for years he’s still curious to see if the digging leads to something. After a minute I gave him the stick and left the exhibit, knowing he took over the placebo excavation.
That evening I climbed back into my hammock which was set up in the chimp enclosure. I hadn’t found a new trailer yet, and the big boss insisted on locking the facilities of the zoo for the night. I explained my situation and they let me sleep in the exhibit since they knew how close I was to the chimps. But only until you find a new home, the big boss told me. But I didn’t even have the money.
I woke up the next morning with Fudge sprawled across my stomach. He must have considered me not comfortable enough because he padded me with straw and leaves. The air was still full of smoke and coronaviruses; I couldn’t even see the sun amidst the orange sky and the zoo still had few visitors.
Just as I was thinking this, four teenage heads popped over the railing and looked into the exhibit. One of them saw me and their eyes widened, nudging their friends. Another pulled out a phone that seemed too large for their small hands and pointed it in my direction, giggling.
I gave Fudge a nudge, who noticed the teenagers but wasn’t bothered. “Come on, I gotta work.” Years ago, I was the one to name the young chimp when he first arrived at the zoo. I decided upon Fudge because of how difficult he was to budge once he was asleep and Fudge was just a letter off and looked better in the zoo’s brochures. But today was even worse and I had to wonder if I fed him something wrong or if he, too, was finally being affected by the air. Truth is, none of the animals should live here. Nor the zookeepers. I saw one of the volunteers coughing profusely yesterday and sent her home, unable to tell if it was from the wildfires or the virus.
Sandra passed by the viewing glass of the enclosure and saw me slouching in my hammock. I could see her silently yell “KEN! GET, TO, WORK.”
“What do you think, everyone, would an artificial log be too much?” The habitat designer asked. He was supposed to be a specialist but he seemed kind of phony to me. Clueless not in design but rather in what gorillas actually want in their enclosures.
One of the older keepers replied, “I agree the room needs more unique shapes to look at, but that’s too close to the viewing glass.” The other keepers agreed.
I spoke up. “Imagine you were Kibali. I would prefer open space or ropes instead of decorative logs. What about you?”
The habitat designer looked at me for the first time, laughed. “But I’m not the gorilla. How am I supposed to know what it wants?”
I was about to reply when Sandra called my name.
“There’s some people here for you in the main office, Ken.”
I’ve never had visitors before. I followed Sandra, meanwhile expressing my dissatisfaction for the new habitat designer. At least she listened.
In the main office, a young man and a young woman stood by the coffee machine, trying to figure out how to use it. I’d never seen them before, neither had Sandra. I walked up behind them, pressed a button Pour, and steaming coffee started dispensing into the cup.
“Oh,” said the young man, who was wearing sandals and cargo shorts. “Are you Ken?”
“We’re looking for a chimpanzee who needs to be seized and we think you know where he might be,” said the man.
The woman nodded sternly but burnt her tongue on the hot coffee. “He has a white spot on the top of his head.”
“That’s Fudge. Are you guys inspection?”
“No, we’re grad students from Singapore. We’ve been searching for your chimp for a long time and need to return him to our university.”
Even though he was wearing sandals, the young man was wearing colored sports glasses that made it seem like he just returned from a gun range. I didn’t know ranges that were even remotely close.
“Why do you need Fudge?”
“His DNA encodes one-point-one million dollars worth of Bitcoin encryption keys,” she said.
The woman gave her coffee to sandal-man. “DNA can store a lot of data. That’s why it can contain all the information on how to build complex things like humans. A single gram of pure DNA can hold about two-hundred and fifteen million gigabytes of data. That’s around a hundred million downloaded movies.”
Sandals returned the coffee to the woman. “We learned how to manipulate DNA of living organisms into information we want to store. Your chimp was forced to hold the password needed to access over a million dollars of bitcoin in his DNA. Why do you think he has that mysterious white spot on his head that makes him standout? That’s not an accident. That’s a design feature to make him stand out.”
I struggled to believe them; Fudge and money belonged to two different worlds. Although last week I did read an article called Piggy-banking, the Newest Form of Money Laundering, where someone in the Middle East used the DNA in live pigs to smuggle money across some border.
“But what will happen to Fudge after you get the money out of him?”
Ignoring me, sandals slid his gun-range glasses on his head. “Listen: if you help us transport Fudge back to Singapore to the lab where we can extract the keys from his DNA and report it to the police, we might be able to cut you a slice,” continued the man. He took a step closer and I noticed that he smelled like AXE body spray, something I stopped wearing at nineteen. In a hushed voice: “A hundred thousand.”
And I thought the Australians burnt a lot of bush.
On the other hand, that was enough for a new trailer. “Follow me.”
I led the grad students down to the enclosure and held open the heavy metal door leading in.
“Are you sure—can’t you just bring the right one in?” Sandals asked.
“Oh no, the others are very friendly,” I replied. The students and I walked in and the door closed behind us.
George, the alpha, got onto his knuckles and glared at me. Only zookeepers ever went into the enclosure.
“Fudge?” Immediately a small figure sprang out from a bush and ran up to me. The young chimp looked up at me as he started tapping my shin and then the ground with a stick. He offered it to me.
“What’s he doing?” Sandals asked.
I knelt down. Fudge’s beard was becoming silver and to me it seemed like his eyes were an even deeper amber than before. I’d known him since he was two and no larger than a human baby. Despite the fact I’ve known the others longer, I connected with Fudge more. We both know what it’s like to lose your home.
“I— I need to speak to his alpha first.” I leaned in. “They’re trying to take Fudge. Can you keep my visitors occupied for a moment?” I asked him softly.
“But play nice, ok?” I gave him a pat on the arm, then stood. I returned to Fudge, took the stick, and started digging it into the ground.
George called out, and the other chimps started rallying. One by one they started bothering the students like a gaggle of geese when you show them bread.
Sandals flinched every time he was touched. “Ken, would it be possible to leave now?”
“I thought you worked with chimps in Singapore?”
"Well, mostly in the labs.”
“Behind glass and on textbook pages, you mean?” I motioned for Fudge to climb onto my back. On my way out I saw George grinning as he and his community ushered the students away from me. I winked back.
Sandra met me outside the exhibit.
“Let them have their fun for a moment,” I said. “But then get those kids back to Singapore.”
“What happened?” She kept glancing into the enclosure through the glass, watching the chimps peacefully yet immovably surround the students. “And where are you going with Fudge?”
“It’s been tremendous working with you, Sandra. But we’re going to find our new homes.” I left her standing there as I got in my truck and took off.
A few weeks later I found myself slumped in a hammock with Fudge on my stomach close to the border of Uganda. The air was better there, and I’d already discovered a small hut to rent as well as a wildlife sanctuary that needed people who were experienced with animals.
I also heard that the price of Bitcoin plummeted, making my chimp friend practically worthless to the rest of the world.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Karen Horton, main image courtesy of Cormac Mulhall.
This post connects to the post DNA: Storing the Internet in 1 kilogram.