Northwest Scientist Discovers Unlikely Father

Jun 13, 2013

Lissa Ongman hugs her dad a few months before his death in 2007.
Lissa Ongman hugs her dad a few months before his death in 2007.
Credit Gudrun Ongman

There are lots of great dads out there. Not all of them are human. Lissa Ongman is an animal scientist who grew up in Woodinville, Wash. She's known two great models of fatherhood in her life. One was her own dad. The other came from a place she never expected.

Letting Go

“I feel like a really lucky daughter,” Ongman said about her own dad. “He was funny. He was kind. He was involved in our lives. We always knew my dad was there.”

In 2006 Ongman’s dad developed a deadly form of pancreatic cancer. Ongman longed to stay close to her dad during his illness, but her aspirations were tugging her to Africa, where she dreamed of working with chimpanzees. Her father helped her make the choice. He told her to go, to take advantage of life’s great adventure.

“That must have been so hard,” she said. “He knows he has a terminal cancer and he only has a certain amount of time in his life — and he gave me the gift of no guilt of me leaving, and that he loved me. And that’s a really good parent.”

Ongman went to Africa. When her dad’s cancer got worse, she came home to Woodinville. After her dad passed away, she followed his advice: she embarked on a life adventure. She joined a research organization that was collecting data on chimpanzees. Soon, Ongman found herself stationed at a rustic camp in a remote part of Africa with a few other researchers. Her job was to spend 16 hours a day hiking through the forest, following chimps and taking notes.

Two weeks into the assignment, Ongman came across a baby chimpanzee without his mother.

A baby chimpanzee at the Chimpanzee Conservation Center in Guinea, West Africa.
A baby chimpanzee at the Chimpanzee Conservation Center in Guinea, West Africa.
Credit Chimpanzee Conservation Center

The Orphan


“He had these big eyes,” Ongman remembered.  At first, she hoped the baby had just lost his mother, but he was walking with a limp and looked malnourished. “So we knew something was up,” she said.

Chimpanzees are dependent on their mothers for almost everything: milk, grooming and protection. A typical chimp will nurse until the age of five and then stay with its mother a few years after that. This chimp was just about two years old. “So, to see a baby without a mom is kind of like a huge alarm sign,” Ongman said. “It’s like a death sentence.”

As researchers, Ongman’s team could not help him. It was Ongman’s job to simply observe as nature took its course. Her team named the orphan Victor. 

It was Coula nut season when Ongman first met Victor. That’s a time of year when chimpanzees feast on the nutrient-rich Coula nuts after cracking open their tough shells with rocks and logs.

“It’s a beautiful sound,” Ongman said. “I hear this crack, crack, crack, crack all around the forest.” Victor lifted heavy rocks and tried to crack open Coula nuts. But he was too young to break the shell. Ongman watched him get skinnier and skinnier.

Then, something totally unexpected happened. An older chimpanzee named Freddy came into Victor’s life. Ongman said Freddy looked a lot like Santa Claus. “He had a white beard. The top of his head was balding a little bit. You could tell he ate pretty well. He was a pretty big, round chimp.”

An Unlikely Adoption

Freddy started taking care of Victor. He cracked open Coula nuts and picked fruit for him to eat. He carried him on his back during the day. At night, Freddy built a nest for them to sleep in together high in the tree tops. There was one particular activity that Victor seemed to love most of all: the times when Freddy groomed him.

“Being there, you felt like you were watching something that maybe even shouldn’t have been seen because it was so intimate,” Ongman said. “He’s a big adult male, eight times stronger than man. And, he’s got these huge, leathery black hands. And then you look down, and in his hands is this little baby. And, there he is grooming him, top to bottom. Victor would role his head over to the side and then you’d see Freddy’s big hand grooming behind his ears. He felt safe in those moments. And maybe, in my opinion, he felt loved.”

An adoption like this is almost unheard of in nature. The chances of an adult male taking a baby into his care almost never happens. So, what Ongman was seeing was extremely rare.

Freddy couldn’t give up his traditional role as a dominant male in the group just because he had adopted a baby. He still needed to hunt, defend his territory, court females, and fight for his own social ranking. “He had to be both,” Ongman said. “He had to be single father, and he had to be an adult male defending his group.”

Surprise Attack

Then, one day about seven months into the adoption, Ongman lost sight of Freddy and Victor. They had wandered away from the main group to the edge of their territory. It’s a dangerous spot because rival groups of chimpanzees sometimes attack.

The next day, Ongman heard screams echoing through the forest. It sounded like an attack. She followed the noise. Then, Freddy burst through the trees.

“His hand was bleeding, and Victor wasn’t there,” Ongman recalled. She searched and searched for Victor. But, he never turned up. He could have run away or been killed in the attack. Ongman likes to imagine that Freddy tried to defend him; there’s simply no way to know for sure.

But, there is one thing about Freddy that Ongman is sure about. “He gave a large portion of his time and his life to this baby chimp. And he did things that no one expected him to do. How remarkable from an animal that is never supposed to be a father.”

Jim Ongman teaches his daughter Lissa to explore the natural world during a family trip to the beach.
Jim Ongman teaches his daughter Lissa to explore the natural world during a family trip to the beach.
Credit Gudrun Ongman

So, half the world away from her home in Woodinville, Ongman discovered a new way of thinking about the time she had with her own dad. “It’s okay to love something that’s going to die,” she said. “And it’s okay to care about something that’s going to die. Victor had seven months of something so remarkable and so rare and so real. My Dad might not be here anymore, but I had the best father for 28 years of my life. And that’s a really big gift.”

Ongman serves on the board for Project Primate, an organization that supports the rehabilitation of orphaned chimpanzees at a sanctuary in Guinea. She dreams of returning to Africa soon to continue her life’s adventures, just as her father hoped she would.

You can find her on June 21 at Chaco Canyon in Seattle where she will be showing photos and chimpanzee-created artwork from the Chimpanzee Conservation Center.

Video of Lissa Ongman playing with orphaned chimpanzees at the Chimpanzee Conservation Center Guinea (West Africa) in 2008.  Courtesy of the Chimpanzee Conservation Center.