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Former veterinarian recounts life's work saving chimps from bush meat trade

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sheri Speede, who spends part of her time in Africa to help protect chimpanzees from imprisonment in the bush meat trade, is back home in Cedar Hills to promote her new book, 'Kindred Beings: What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection.'When a chimpanzee Sheri Speede rescued from the illegal ape-meat trade in Cameroon, Africa, died of old age, a photograph from Dorothy’s funeral clearly showed the grief her fellow chimps suffered.

Published in National Geographic, the 2008 photo led many to ask Speede, who cradles Dorothy as the apes mournfully look on, if the reaction caught her off guard.

“It didn’t surprise me at all,” she says. “They feel grief just like us because we’re so similar. They experience emotions very similar to humans.”

The reaction created a spark of awareness about the treatment of chimpanzees that Speede, a former Portland veterinarian who lives in Cedar Hills, had come to know all too well through her work as a conservation advocate in Cameroon. Arriving there in 1998, Speede’s original mission transformed when she encountered the shackled and chained chimpanzees languishing in plain view — their last stop before slaughter.

“I’m an activist at heart, and an optimist. I actually think I can change the world,” Speede says. “I saw such an injustice in the illegal meat trade. I wanted to stop it, at least with the chimps and gorillas. I couldn’t come back to my life in the U.S. and forget about them. And there was no indication anybody would do anything different if I didn’t.”

Starting the In Defense of Animals-Africa organization, Speede went on to found the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, essentially a forested orphanage for potential victims of the ape-meat trade. That’s where she met Dorothy, along with dozens of other furry friends who got new leases on life through the center and the efforts of Speede and a bevy of like-minded volunteers.

Speede, 54, documented her journey in a brand-new book, “Kindred Beings — What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection.” Published by HarperOne, Speede’s first book weaves together personal aspects of her life with the rewarding, challenging and sometimes perilous work she undertook to help transform animals’ lives and a culture that failed to value them as living beings.

Now back in the Cedar Hills home she rented out while living in Cameroon from 1998 to 2011, Speede hopes the book will spread awareness of her work and the ongoing struggle against animal abuse while conveying a compelling, heartfelt story of personal transformation.

“I’ve taken 73 chimpanzees to the forest, where I’m responsible for them,” she says. “I want to play a significant role in changing things in the country and the region. A lot of that depends on having funds to do the work. I hope the book brings more recognition and more support for my work, my organization and more sympathy for chimpanzees in general, and certainly more for those in Cameroon. That’s really my goal.”

Finding her purpose

A Jackson, Miss., native, Speede moved to Oregon in 1988 after finishing veterinary school at Louisiana State University. She was one-third owner of Pacific Veterinary Hospital on Southwest Barbur Boulevard when her passion for advocacy led her to start In Defense of Animals-Africa.

A trip to Cameroon on the west coast of Africa honed her focus from environmental conservation issues to animal rights.

“During my veterinary trips there, I saw the captive chimps that languished in small cages for decades,” she says. “I met others who (were interested) in building a sanctuary. First, we wanted to move them out of the cages. This evolved into the idea of taking them back to the forest, on government-owned, national land.”

The Cameroon government, she explains, lacks the manpower to practically enforce laws against the bush meat trade.

“The (ape) population is really vulnerable. The meat is rare. It’s now a delicacy, a status symbol with which you honor your guests. It’s something the affluent people eat during the holidays. There’s not much economic opportunity there, so (hunting and trapping) is a form of economic assistance.”

Setting up the sanctuary, Speede provided shelter to her first baby chimp in December 1999. By April 2000, four more had found a safe haven.

“Today, we have 73,” she says. “Some as adults, some as babies.”

She and her fellow activists spent three years spreading awareness about the chimps’ plight and their protective mission through radio spots, including a four-episode drama.

“It was broadcast thousands of times. I don’t think anyone in Cameroon doesn’t know it’s illegal to keep chimpanzees prisoners and eat them,” she says. “They’re still having them killed for meat. People are still (keeping them) in private compounds. You’re not seeing them held publicly. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

Friends for life — mostly

“Kindred Beings” resulted from a New York-based literary agent who encountered the National Geographic photo. She reached out to Speede and encouraged her to submit a proposal.

“The human reaction (to the photo) was so big and so surprising, she thought it would be a story that touched people and was worth telling,” Speede says. “I took about a year to write the proposal. We sold it to Harper Collins in a month.”

Although based in Beaverton again, where she lives with her 12-year-old daughter, Annarose, Speede doesn’t see herself returning to a private veterinary practice. In addition to promoting the new book, which received an endorsement from noted chimp champion Jane Goodall, Speede plans to concentrate on activism, the sanctuary and a children’s book for Cameroonian students on which she’s collaborating with two East Coast authors.

When she makes it back to Cameroon these days, the affection and genuine appreciation her chimpanzee friends share with her is palpable.

“Some of them really love me back,” she says, noting that Coffee, who apparently never cared for Speede’s visitation schedule, proves the exception. “She’s held a grudge against me for years. She just doesn’t like me at all.

“I wouldn’t want to meet her on a trail.”

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