By Nicole Rivard 

The day before my 40th birthday, after a wonderful surprise party that brought friends and family together, I got into an awful fight with my then boyfriend back at the cottage we were living in. 

He was an alcoholic still reeling from his dad’s suicide six months earlier. 

I felt so alone, fearful and stuck, but I didn’t have time to have a pity party. On my actual birthday I was flying to Primarily Primates Inc. for the first time, the Texas-based animal sanctuary managed by Friends of Animals since 2007. I had joined FoA just five months earlier. 

Shortly after I arrived at the 78-acre sanctuary on March 20, 2014, it was easy to forget about my troubles. I could not believe how magical a place it was.  

“A better life starts here.” That’s Primarily Primates’ promise to its nearly 300 residents, including chimpanzees, who were rescued from research laboratories, the entertainment industry and the exotic pet trade.  

Everywhere I looked as I meandered around the sanctuary, I saw evidence of that kept promise.  

As it is not open to the public, there are no visitors gawking at the animals. Nothing is expected of the chimps, monkeys or lemurs—they don’t have to perform, entertain or get poked and prodded to provide data for infectious disease research. They get to choose how to spend their day and are provided the different forms of enrichment—social, object, structural and food—which all inspire curiosity, play, exercise and well-being. 

I saw with my own eyes the animal residents living with dignity and companionship—many for the first time in their lives. 

I remember vividly the first moments I got to spend time observing a group of chimps and giving them some food enrichment items to stimulate behaviors they would display in the wild. I felt so lucky to be there and grateful to be part of FoA . 

And there was comfort in that. 

During that first visit—I’ve been several more times over the last nine years—PPI care staff promised me that before I headed back home to Connecticut I would make a special connection with one animal. Everyone who visits always does. With hundreds of animals to meet in a short amount of time, I was skeptical. 

Until I met chimpanzee Mandy.  

There she was, with her strikingly pale, freckled, angelic face. She greeted me like we were old friends. And she stole my heart.  

That was before I even learned her life story. 

Before her arrival at Primarily Primates in 1997, Mandy and her daughter Holly were part of a zoo in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, once described by Parade Magazine as one of the 10 worst zoos in America before it eventually closed. Despite her horrible living conditions and lack of enrichment, Mandy was willing to trust her caregivers at PPI right from the start.  

That ability to trust astonished me.  

Right up until she passed at the age of 51 on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, from an inoperable tumor, Mandy was interested in grooming care staff and just about anyone she met—that was her way of extending an invitation for friendship. She once handed me a piece of bamboo through her enclosure and I will never forget that gesture of friendship. 

Speaking of friendship, in 2009, when chimpanzee Buck was released to Primarily Primates from a Missouri pet home, where he had been kept in an indoor cage for close to six years, it was very difficult to encourage him to accept a nutritional diet, such as vegetables and fruits. Since he had lived in a cage, he was also terrified of grass. He would stay inside or crawl like a spider on along the sides of his habitat. Sweet Mandy became his guide to all things chimp.  

They lived with April and Buffy. Mandy was always concerned about the other primates in her troupe and was known as the peacekeeper. For example, if Buck was having a “dispute” with chimps living in a nearby habitat, Mandy would give Buck a big hug. They were best friends. 

Mandy was not big in stature, but it was her inner strength that Buck and the other chimps, and I looked up to and admired. 

She was remarkable. And I am grateful to have known her and for the life lessons she taught me. 

Mandy did not let her terrible zoo experience define her or allow the loss of her daughter Holly in 2010 to harden her. She had a lightness about her. 

She was resilient, brave and open.  

I loved watching her be present, enjoying whatever was in front of her. Whether it was savoring a piece of fruit, basking in the sun with her gal pals or sitting contentedly with Buck.  

Mandy was even gracious enough to listen to me sing her happy birthday when she turned 50 in 2021. 

Most of all, I like how she embraced and lived in the moment. 

And now I do too.