TURIN - “They killed my mother. And they killed her to take me...”

Michael was around 10 years old, which is still young for a gorilla, when he realized that he could communicate with sign language. And naturally, he went straight to his therapist, in her white coat, and told her about the day his mother was kidnapped. “I still hear gunshots. At night I can still see them cutting off my mother’s head.”

Michael died a few years ago. But there are many other apes with traumatic and violent pasts that can be helped to recover emotionally and adapt to their new life of freedom at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda. Here, for part of the year, Italian Mariangela Ferrero works as a psychotherapist. For the rest of the year she works with human patients in Pinerolo, near Turin. 

In the heart of Africa, she works with the primates and has put in place the Picture Making Emotional Enrichment (PME) program. “As with humans,” she says, “pictures help the primates to establish a rapport with others from their species, thus returning to a new life in freedom.”

Just like humans, all apes are able to draw, even if they’re not all “artists.” “Some however, understand that the material that we offer them is for drawing and they’re inquisitive. And, when they finish one, they give that specific picture a title,” she says.

This relationship between primates and pictures has already been noted, but what Ferrero brings forward is the use of drawing for emotional recovery; with humans, art therapy has been used for quite some time now. “PME has given us some very interesting results in regard to the improvement of mental well-being and painting production,” explains the psychotherapist.

Meet Medina, the shy artist

There are two reasons that convinced Ferrero to continue on with the project. “One has to do with enthusiasm, the other with hope. On my second day at Ngamba Island, a very gentle adult chimpanzee named Pasa, who, after having observed the first session of PME with one of the other monkeys, decided to lock herself in the enclosure, refusing to go back to the forest like usual in the evening. She completely refused all efforts to get her to leave. Then, when the staff decided to leave her, Pasa called me, letting me know she wanted to paint something.”

[A painting by Pasa. Photo by La Stampa]

Another similar case was with Medina: “He’s a sweet and shy five-year-old chimpanzee who would withdraw into himself in group situations, had difficulty making his needs known or playing with the others. He was always worried and protected his food. However, he had a special talent for using complex techniques in pictorial experimentation.”

[A picture by Medina. Photo by La Stampa]

Medina uses crayons instead of tempera, and even folds up his artwork to make some of them three-Dimensional. “When he's finished,” says Ferrero, “he pauses to observe the result. He’s the best artist among all the participants at PME. Art allows him to overcome the trauma he experienced when he was young, and now he has a better relationship with the other chimpanzees.”

The PME project unfortunately now risks closing. “We need funds to go on. I work for free but we need materials and structures. The mental health of animals is just as important as the physical – just like for humans.”