Early one morning, deep in an African rain-forest, as happened for generations, a new chimpanzee was born. Life was good in the remote jungle. The new baby was embraced by his mother, aunts, and siblings. He looked up to the adult men of the troop, and to one day taking his place among them. The days were long, peaceful, and simple in his mother’s arms and on her back. This most natural form of life suddenly exploded one rainy afternoon when humans broke into the forest. They killed his family, kidnapped him, and the other youngsters, whisking them far, far, away. He would not see his mother, nor family, nor the African sun, ever again. He had become the property of men.
The year was 1946.
They called him “Billy”.
After early training, Bill performed in a circus with other young chimps in England; at one time performing before Queen Elizabeth at London’s Olympia.
At some point the circus act was sold to American interests and the chimps traveled over the Atlantic to the United States. During the sea voyage Bill master-minded a breakout of all the young chimps on board the ocean liner! After creating havoc for a few hours they were rounded up and returned to their crates. Once settled in America the circus traveled from town to town; the chimps entertaining families with their musical, boxing, and clowning antics. Their trainer, the famous Willy Lenz, was a good man who Bill was fond of. Bill was maturing now and becoming less cooperative in performing tricks. So in 1957, while visiting and performing in the misty seaside town of Eureka, California, it was decided to retire him from circus life. When the towns’ children found out they raised the $350 to purchase Bill and he was given residence at the small Sequoia Park Zoo where he lived the rest of his life, passing from his furry body in 2007, at the age of 61.
In the 1950’s, Sequoia Park Zoo was just a small-town menagerie with minimal funding and expertise, and Bill’s enclosure was crude. Over time it was improved but remained sadly lacking throughout his life. But Bill was basically happy. He liked it there. He was safe, and it was home. Many of the local children visited Bill frequently. And over the next 50 years, through two and three generations, they came regularly with their children, and grand-children. For many in the region Bill was fondly regarded as a family member. ………
With Africa and the traveling circus well behind him, Bill was deeply loved by the quiet Humbolt County community, and I think he felt this. Additionally, there was something special about Bill. It showed in his eyes, and in how he did things. He was intelligent, smart, sane, and mostly happy. Living alone much of his life he drew from a depth others sensed and valued. When he connected with people they couldn’t help but love him.
When Adi Da Samraj lived in Trinidad, just north of Eureka, he visited Sequoia Park several times to see Bill. Each meeting was a serious event for Adi Da, who had great respect for Bill. At their first meeting Adi Da stood quietly for a long while, witnessing the wizened chimpanzee’s life. Bill was very attentive. After a time Adi Da asked him, “Next time around, Bill, would you like to be out here (outside the cage)?”
Bill was famous for creative escapes. One time a mason was building a brick wall at the local school, across the road from the zoo. As the man reached back to grab a fresh brick, one was gently dropped into his hand. Turning around he was surprised to see a chimpanzee passing the brick; those deep, dark, eyes quizzically looking at him!
While visiting with Bill one day, in 2001, an elderly man joined us. Bill climbed up on a wooden block in front of the man to greet him. Stretching up on his toes, he pointed at the man, then at himself, clearly saying, “We’re old. We’re the same.” And the man replied, “Yes, yes, I know, Bill. We’re old guys.”
At different times in Bill’s life, he expressed an interest in painting. During Adi Da’s first visit, he was introduced to some of Bill’s art, and acquired a number of paintings and several prints. Adi Da compared Bill’s work to that of Jackson Pollock, saying that Bill communicated a real aesthetic in his paintings, as well as a strong representational intelligence. …………………….
A year after Adi Da’s first meeting with Bill he asked me to connect with Sequoia Park Zoo and offer to support Bill in various ways, saying to me, “Bring him some luxury in his ‘hermitage’ years”. I managed to effect several small projects in cooperation with the zoo, but Bill’s physical situation was more the zoo’s responsibility. What I was engaging had more to do with Adi Da’s interest in Bill’s spiritual depth and awakening, something that the zoo staff mostly couldn’t serve. Adi Da also referred to Bill as being a “likeness” of his.
Adi Da typically used the word, “hermitage”, to refer to a circumstance where a spiritual hermit could live and do his, or her, spiritual work, free from worldly intrusions. In referring to Bill as a hermit, he indicated that Bill was an individual of significant spiritual depth, who also lived alone. Adi Da’s suggestion that Bill was a “likeness” of his, instructed me to observe and connect with him as deeply as possible. And I found all that Adi Da had intimated was very much the case. Hidden away in this little fishing town was a profoundly spiritual being, who was a chimpanzee.
When I’d visit Bill it always went like this. We’d say hello, catch up with each other a little, and eat some food together. Sooner or later Bill would grab his burlap sack and take up his seat on the ground in front of the entrance to his inner quarters. This was meditation time and we’d sit together for around twenty minutes, me on the bench outside his enclosure. He would wrap himself in his sack if it was chilly, or sit on it. These meditations were always strong and deep. Bill reminded me of an Indian ascetic sitting wrapped in his ‘gunny sack’, absorbed in Divine communion. Eventually, Bill would nod his head or gesture in a familiar way, indicating we were done. Then he’d gather up his sack, shuffle through his little doorway and slide the hatch soundly shut, leaving me outside feeling only gratitude for his company and genuine ‘human’ example.
Bill understood a lot of English, and some Spanish. He loved people. He especially loved it when someone came to the zoo just to see him. That really meant something. He didn’t care much for those who were just cruising by, making noise, not being sensitive. One day soon after I’d arrived, a noisy family headed our way. Bill climbed up on the roof of his house and threw some fistfuls of dried dung at the approaching rabble. Once they retreated Bill came right back to resume our exchange.
The first time I met Bill was special. The zoo director introduced us. Bill was in his little house, laying back on a bench, arms folded, feet propped up on the wall. He was watching a TV program about painting in water-colors and was disinclined to break away from the show. Bill liked some movies and disliked a lot of others. He really liked the Heidi movies. He liked family movies, and musicals. Most wildlife shows were not his thing. He deeply disliked the predator-prey scenes.
After introductions, Bill and I spent some time alone. I was moved by his enthusiastic welcome. He darted into his house where I could hear him shuffling around. Then he emerged, walking upright, with a fistful of biscuits in one hand and a burlap sack in the other. Climbing up onto a heavy redwood table, he spread the sack-cloth with his free hand, carefully pressing out the corners to cover the whole table. Then he plopped down on the cloth and emptied the biscuits into his lap. While we conversed and kept company he munched away on his biscuits. I also had some snacks with me, so we ate together.
Bill, a chimpanzee, was loved but not deeply understood. So he was never related to on the basis of being fully known.
Adi Da, a great spiritual being, was also deeply loved but not fully understood by those around him.
In some ways they weren’t so different from each other. Both were essentially captives to the lack of real understanding in those around them. By observing Bill’s situation, I came to see Adi Da’s circumstance in a new light. The parallel’s were obvious. I was further impressed with how committed all of us are to our limited views of self, each other and life altogether.
Because of his spiritual depth, Bill was, paradoxically, more free than the rest of us, despite the limitations of captivity. Adi Da, spiritually Free, saw in Bill a sacred friend in need of help and support.
During the time I was getting acquainted with Bill, Adi Da went to Yosemite Valley for a lengthy visit. For several days, he put a lot of attention on Bill. He mysteriously began referring to himself as being just like Bill. He would mumble quietly to himself, “I’m just like Bill getting into the car.” “I’m Bill going to the hotel room”. “I’m like Bill eating dinner”. He did this continually for a number of days.
Although appearing and communicating in a human form, Adi Da often told us he wasn’t just a human being. Rather, he was Infinite Consciousness Itself, in human form. He always pointed out that we keep making the mistake of seeing him as an ordinary, or even extraordinary, man. He said we did this to protect ourselves from having to change. For us to fully recognize him, as he really is, and to see ourselves as we really are, we would have to be willing for everything to change. We would have to be willing to embrace the responsibility of being truly human, and free.
Bill lived in a nice, intimate, situation at the Eureka Zoo. The only chimp there for many years, he lived more or less alone. He was well cared for, well fed, and received good medical care when needed. He was deeply loved by all who served his life at the zoo. Everyone noticed something unusual about him, a brightness of disposition, kindness in his eyes, and a disarming sensitivity. He lived in a small space, though his own energy was large. Bill was a captive of human beings. We loved him, but we all fell short of the commitment required to really know him.
To really know Bill, at heart – both as chimpanzee and person – would require a change in our entire world view. And who is ready for that? So Bill was loved by good-hearted people but he was alone in a most fundamental way.
Interestingly, each one of us is in the same situation. Who knows us, who do we know, so completely, that such knowledge unites and sets us free? True to his pure character and strength of heart I think Bill knew all of us more deeply than we ever knew him.
As I got to know Bill I increasingly appreciated his spiritual depth. Despite his harsh early life he remained vulnerable and open. From the day he was caught he never again lived as a real chimpanzee. He was never physically free. Yet he was not ruined by this. If anything, the ordeal of life deepened, softened, wizened, and brightened him. He genuinely loved people, and even sought to comfort them. His eyes were often empathetic and always profound. People sensed they were in the company of a rare being.
I was fortunate to visit Bill one day, very soon after Adi Da described the “Midnight Sun” for the first time. For those not familiar with this concept, it is, at it’s simplest, a pure white sphere in a dark field; a sign of Adi Da’s benign spiritual appearance within the conditional world. On this particular visit, I was shown a recent painting of Bill’s where he had covered the canvas in a dark-blue/black paint, and in the middle he had splashed a big splotch of white. Made at this particular time, the painting strongly pointed to Bill’s intuitive connection with Adi Da, and his spontaneous response to Adi Da’s spiritual self-description.
In May of 2007 primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall visited Bill, spending about 45 minutes with him. She said she felt he was in good shape for his age. Bill’s intimate acknowledgment and tender attention for Jane can be seen in the photo at left here.
Late in June this same year (2007), Bill passed from the body. At the time he was among the oldest chimps on Earth. Adi Da received regular updates about Bill’s failing condition, and of his passing. On behalf of Adi Da, I attended the memorial service with Bill Dunkelberger who presented the zoo director with a special gift from Adi Da. This simple gift included a photograph of Bill that had been splashed by Adi Da with sacred water, dried flowers from one of Adi Da’s sacred temples in Fiji, and one beautiful fresh flower. This sacred ‘prasad’ was graciously received and given a place within Bill’s memorial garden. Sequoia Park Zoo always happily welcomed Adi Da’s visits to see Bill, and appreciated his obvious love and regard for Bill.
Bill the Chimp’s formal memorial (photo above) at the Sequoia Park Zoo comprises a fountain, benches, gardens, a statue of Bill and a plaque. Underfoot, a patio of brown bricks carry personal inscriptions from many of Bill’s friends and admirers. Adi Da very much wanted to leave some words on behalf of Bill, as did I. So among the numerous messages there are these:
“Bill was uniquely bonded to humans.
His paintings showed aesthetic intelligence
and representational intention.
My love and Blessings always.” – Adi Da Samraj
“Bill showed us that the qualities
of ‘humanity’ and ‘person-hood’
pertain to both humans and
non-humans, equally.” – Stuart Camps, Fear-No-More Zoo
A memorial for Bill, and Adi Da’s regard for him, will also be made at Fear-No-More Zoo at the Mountain Of Attention Sanctuary, when the Fear-No-More Zoo re-opens there.
From the Sequoia Park Zoo Website
Bill the Chimp, 1946-2007: He clearly preferred the companionship of his human keepers and his many visitors. Over the years he had been a loyal friend to many, finding time in his day to share his thoughts through hoots and raspberries, or send visitors scattering with a toss of his affections. As he grew older, like his human counterparts, he mellowed, took up hobbies (painting and lounging in front of the TV) and continued to enjoy his favorite foods – in Bill’s case, ripe bananas.
Bill’s keepers lovingly engaged with him in daily enrichment activities to keep his mind and body active, and Bill always enjoyed the regular fun days at the zoo. During Snow Days he tossed snowballs at his fans and hooted with pleasure as they all cheered. At Egg-stravaganza he watched the children searching for eggs from his favored viewing platform, and at Boo at the Zoo he always seemed interested in what people would be wearing next.
Most of all, Bill enjoyed interacting with his visitors, and always acknowledged his old friends with a wave or a nod of his wise old head.