In less than 20 years, Sheila Siddle has built the world's largest orphanage for chimpanzees in the backyard of her central African farm. She also cares for a menagerie of other unwanted or mistreated animals that have appeared on her doorstep, refusing to turn her back even on a baby hippo. Her mornings start at 5:30 a.m. and are consumed in feeding and nursing, mothering and nurturing her "family."
But don't mention retirement or even a little time off to this compact 70-year-old.
"You retire from a job, you retire from work. I don't think of what I do as work," she says in an interview in Boston, her first stop on a tour to promote her new autobiography "In My Family Tree" (Grove Press).
In 1972, when Mrs. Siddle and her husband, David, bought Chimfunshi (or "place of water,") it was no more than a fishing camp abutting the Upper Kafue River in Zambia. The Siddles turned it into a farm, starting out small with some chickens. A few years later, looking for a challenge, they took on cattle.
Then in 1983, Pal a frail orphaned chimp rescued by a game ranger as it was about to be sold as a pet arrived at Chimfunshi. The Siddles knew almost nothing about chimps, and even less about animal conservation. "I hardly finished school," she says, laughing.
But the couple revived the malnourished Pal, and by 1984, game rangers had brought five more chimps to the Siddle farm, desperate to find them a safe home.
As word got out about their generosity, their brood continued to swell. Most chimps that come to the sanctuary are babies whose mothers have been killed by poachers.