'She was part of the family' - Growing up in an Edinburgh tenement with Seamus the chimpanzee
LOVING Lawrence McTaggart and his baby sister shared the same experiences as any close siblings growing up together.
They played together in the living room of their Old Town tenement, ate together, chatted together and got up to mischief together.
But there was one stark difference, Lawrence’s sister Seamus was a chimpanzee brought home from West Africa.
“That was then and this is now, people’s first and understandable reaction is you can't keep wild animals in a house and I totally agree with that,” says Lawrence, who is from Meadowbank.
“In fact, personally I'd go further and would advocate that there is no longer a need for zoos. All that being said, I feel blessed to have had such a remarkable experience as a child.”
Seamus was introduced to the McTaggart household by Lawrence’s uncle Mike Lynch on his return from Sierra Leone in 1967.
Famed naturalist and writer Gerald Durrell gave the infant chimp to Mike for his help during the filming of children’s television series Catch Me a Colobus.
The show followed Durrell’s expedition to catch colobus monkeys for his zoo in Jersey.
“Again that was back at a time when Gerald Durrell would source animals for zoos before he got into conservancy,” says Lawrence.
“She was not named after anyone that I know of other than we thought she was a little boy at first but just kept the name after we knew better.”
Seamus would soon settle into her surroundings in the family’s second floor two-bedroom flat in Lower Viewcraig Row.
“She was part of the family,” recalls Uber driver Lawrence, who was five at the time. “I can’t recall being introduced but I remember playing with her on the couch and her having porridge.”
Seamus fast became one of the family - sleeping on a cushion in mum Anne and dad Walter’s bedroom.
Anne would go shopping to dress Seamus in outfits including dungarees while she also wore a nappy.
And like any little sister, she got up to no good with Lawrence and his younger brother Dawson.
“Seamus lived with us as part of the family and I can't think of her in any other way than calling her my sister, we would play and communicate just like any other sibling.
“I remember one clear memory where my brother and I communicated with Seamus to climb up to the biscuit tin that my mother stored above the kitchen unit.
“We got her to open it and pass down the biscuits in a mission impossible manner before being caught in the act by my mother.
“Seamus went jumping and running with us to avoid the scolding, I can still hear her high pitched squeal knowing that she'd been caught.”
One of the photos from the time shows Seamus happily tucking into favourite snack of spaghetti hoops at the kitchen table.
“She liked spaghetti hoops, they were her favourite, but we gave her fruit as well and porridge.”
Perhaps most remarkably of all, Lawrence credits Seamus with teaching him how to communicate in her own language.
“Seamus taught me to speak chimpanzee, I learned just as any kid learns English growing up, it was just natural.
“Obviously we could convey instructions but also feelings and what was funny and what was interesting while playing together.
“It’s a mixture of sounds and grunts and tones, as well as gestures and eye contact and not eye contact but side glances and eyebrows and showing teeth and so on - to the point where you come to an understanding of minds.
“It was so natural learning the chimpanzee language with my sister - just like learning English with my brother.”
Seamus became so assimilated into life at Lower Viewcraig Row, she became quite the local celebrity.
“Everyone knew her and would talk about her climbing the bannisters,” says Lawrence. “There was a photograph of my mum with a crowd around them.
“There was also an article written in the Evening News at the time because she ate some of my mum’s money in her purse and my mum had to go to the bank to get the money replaced.
“She still had it but it was in pieces - the bank replaced it for her.”
Seamus went on to live with the McTaggart family for more than three years before sadly succumbing to pneumonia - yet her legacy lives on.
Lawrence even credits Seamus for opening a door on a fascinating world and helping him better understand the animal kingdom.
“Obviously as much as I’ve grown and now realise she belonged in the natural world, I feel so blessed I had that experience,” he says.
“It’s totally shaped my life and how I feel about animals. How they can convey feelings like love, like laughter. They are able to articulate feelings like that.”
And he hopes his story will inspire others to support a chimpanzee orphan sanctuary in Kenya.
“I was delighted when on a recent trip to Kenya when I went to the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, that I could still speak and naturally communicate with the chimpanzees, “ he says.
“They do a remarkable job there working as a chimpanzee orphanage taking care of chimps that have been abandoned because of poachers in a natural environment.”
He adds: “Ultimately although having a chimp in your house as part of the family is something that quite rightly can no longer happen, I feel totally blessed and lucky and honoured that I was able to know that beautiful little soul.
“She taught me so much, gave me an understanding of communicating and touching minds and the love within primates that very few human beings get to experience.
“She was a clever, beautiful and loving sister who I will always remain grateful to and will always think of in terms of a sister.”
Anyone wishing to support the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary can do so online.