Ashley Judd’s had many roles in her career, but none were more terrifying than what played out in her real life in 2021. The 52-year-old actress suffered a serious accident while visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo. In what became a 55-hour rescue for survival, Judd explained the details of the event that quickly turned into her worst nightmare.
Actor and activist Ashley Judd habitually visits the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with her partner to study the endangered bonobo ape population. Little did she know, on her most recent trip, she’d have a first-hand experience that would teach her more than she planned for.
On her twice-annual research trips to the DRC, Judd visits a local camp for several weeks to a month at a time. The lessons she learned strengthen the fire of her activism. However, in all the time she’s spent learning about the Congolese, the jungle, and its animals, she always returned to the US safely. This time in early 2021 was different.
At 4:30 in the morning, Judd walked with two expert trackers into the rainforest searching for the bonobo. As they headed through the dark of the jungle with only the dim light of Ashley’s headlamp, everything took a turn. While the men noticed an object blocking their path, Ashley hadn’t seen the trouble until it was too late.
Ashley tripped over a tree on the path and slammed onto the rainforest floor. Immediately, everyone knew her right leg was severely broken. It was an urgent situation, Judd needed medical attention STAT. But as she wept in pain, she knew emergency healthcare wasn’t available.
Medical resources in the DRC, particularly where Judd was deep in the rainforest, were scarce. Judd laid on the earth, unable to move, trying to cope with the pain. One of the trackers ran for help, while the other stayed by her side. After five excruciating hours of waiting, several men came through the brush to facilitate what was about to be a lengthy rescue.
In place of pain killers, Judd bit down on a stick as her rescuers came onto the scene. Before she could be moved, however, they had to brace her leg. One rescuer, Papa Jean, worked carefully to adjust the broken bones into place, fashioning a makeshift brace to hold everything together. Next, they lifted Judd up and through the jungle, beginning their hours-long journey towards help.
Judd was carried through the jungle in a hammock for a three-hour trek. After that, there was a six-hour motorbike ride to South Africa to reach the closest hospital. It felt like an impossible journey, and despite her best efforts, Judd was in bad shape on the bike, unable to hold herself up.
To stay on the motorbike, Judd sat facing backward between two of her rescuers. Whenever she was about to pass out, Didier, the driver, called for her to stay awake. Judd’s friend Maradona rode at the very back of the motorbike and propped up her leg. To distract from the pain as well as their own discomfort, they maintained playful conversation to pass the six hours by, something Judd won’t ever forget.
Finally, they reached their destination, Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg, and it wasn’t a moment too soon. By the time they arrived, Judd’s leg had no pulse, and she was still bleeding internally. Although it was a miracle she was still alive, the nurses and doctors made many split-second decisions to avoid amputating Judd’s leg, or worse.
While Judd had an intensive road of recovery ahead of her, she was lucky to keep her limb. She received a blood transfusion to replace all that she’d lost. Then, an external fixator was constructed around her leg to hold it together, which, unfortunately, had to remain on her leg until it healed further.
There wasn’t much more that could be done for Judd except to wait. The damage to her leg’s tissue was so intense that doctors couldn’t safely proceed with the surgery just yet. No, Judd had to recover a bit before going under the knife. While she healed, Judd was overcome with immense gratitude to all who helped her, so she decided to take action.
Judd reached out to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof from the hospital room, telling him she wanted to share her story and highlight the need for improved healthcare in the DRC. They spoke virtually over an Instagram Live stream, where Ashley recounted the catastrophic ordeal.
After hearing the details of Judd’s accident, Kristof said she’d obviously went through “an awful lot of pain.” Judd agreed, then added that primarily the experience left her with a broadened perspective of her own privilege, “I guess I would say I’m in a lot of love. I’m in a lot of compassion and I’m in a lot of gratitude.”
As she explained to Kristof, “The difference between a Congolese person and me is disaster insurance that allowed me 55 hours after my accident to get to an operating table in South Africa.” She continues to explain how things could’ve gone differently if she were someone else.
Judd confessed, her status as a famous actor is what saved her leg and probably her life. In an Instagram post, she thanked everyone who cared for her, including her father. Judd explained how her dad jumped on a plane immediately after receiving the most frightening text any parent could get from their child: “emergency, can’t answer questions, please come now.”
Since Judd’s accident coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many more complications, including travel restrictions. Though, as her father was fully vaccinated, he was allowed to make the 22-hour flight to South Africa in order to be by Ashley’s side.
Judd’s father handled everything, from talking with doctors to mild foot rubs to ease her anxiety while her leg tissues continued to heal. But, there was still the obstacle of her surgery to tackle. The medical staff at Sunninghill Hospital helped her recover enough to be discharged to travel to the US for surgery. Four different flights and about 22 hours later, Judd reached her final hospital stay.
Even after arriving in the US, Judd’s leg tissue had to heal more before they went ahead with the surgery. Eventually, they cleared her for an 8–hour operation to repair the bones, decompress a hemorrhaging nerve, and pick shards of bones out of the nerve. In the final hours of what had been a many weeks-long ordeal, her worried family got the news: the surgery was a success.
At the end of her recovery journey, Judd again shared her gratitude for the top-notch care she received. The Judds stepped up to continue the healing process, yep, that’s her sister Wynonna washing her hair, and she began physical therapy. Thanks to her status and resources, she was going to be okay, an unavoidable truth that fueled her to speak out.
Judd wrote in her Instagram post, “Let us always remember those without insurance. Let us remember those who do not have choices. Let us remember those who are lonely and afraid.” Judd’s gratitude to the people of the DRC isn’t just her verbal thanks, she’s promised that once she has recovered she is heading right back to continue her work conservancy work for the bonobo apes.
Even from her hospital bed Ashley spent a good portion of her time explaining to the press the reason she was in the Congo in the first place. “We get up about 3:30 am to walk for a few hours to arrive at where the bonobos nested in treetops the night before. Sometimes I’ve had to wade rivers in the dark, up to my waist, barefoot, as part of the treck!” Ashely explained.
She highlights that the bonobos are not like other primates, they are extremely unique, and unfortunately, extremely endangered. When you watch their huge, hulking forms swing from tree branch to tree branch in between intermittent bouts of bug-picking, it can be hard to believe that we are actually so closer related to bonobos on a genealogical level.
The bonobos haven’t been studied nearly as much as chimps, and according to Judd, our lack of understanding is only endangering their population further. One conservation in Iowa, oddly enough, is aiming to change that. They have a bonobo there named Kanzi who is blowing researchers minds with his special ability.
Kanzi is 35 years old male Bonobo who has lived at the Des Moines, Iowa Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative since birth. The initiative develops and accomplishes projects to help great apes all over the world, but in the meantime, they work with Kanzi on some behavioral lessons. In other words, they try and teach Kanzi to do things like a human would.
The organization’s work with Kanzi has been nothing short of spectacular. Now, he has all the makings of a world class Boy Scout! He can gather kindling, coax a flame, and roast a marshmallow so easily it might make you burn with envy. Somehow, though, that isn’t even his most impressive talent…
But first, how did Kanzi take his first steps towards the metaphorical cooking merit badge? According to Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh of ACCI, Kanzi “used to watch the film Quest For Fire when he was very young, which was about early man struggling to control fire. He watched it spellbound over and over hundreds of times.”
And now, “Kanzi makes fire because he wants to,” Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh said. Hopefully they won’t be dealing with a future arsonist at the initiative! Thus far, Kanzi just likes cooking marshmallows—though cameras have also spied him roasting hamburgers in a pan.
When Kanzi is all done with the fire—and after he’s eaten his ‘mallows—he even knows to pour some water on the flame until it’s extinguished. That’s enough to make Smokey the Bear shed a single, prideful tear. Still, Kanzi has another talent, one that far exceeds his penchant for fire safety and inhaling roasted marshmallows.
When Kanzi was a baby bonobo ape psychologists tried to teach his mother to use a keyboard. Unfortunately, they failed miserably. What they had succeeded in, however, was speaking loudly and clearly enough so that little Kanzi—who was always nearby, probably watching Quest for Fire—could overhear and pick up the lessons himself.
Now Kanzi understands enough English words to fill a tiny dictionary (about 3,000) and can point to symbols that communicate back to humans. He can’t talk, but he can take directions better than even most well-behaved children.
To prove it, in one popular YouTube video, Kanzi sat with an instructor who wore a mask over her face so he couldn’t just read her lips. The instructor said, “Kanzi, could you cut the onions with your knife?” and he did! Well, he did his best, anyway.
Kanzi may have had a lifetime of training to learn these impressive skills, but it just goes to show how intelligent bonobos really are. As Ashley says, “It has been my privilege and honor to follow bonobos in the Congolese rainforest, and learn from their unique way of life.” They are truly incredible animals.