Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Chimpanzee in America

Washoe (photo courtesy of Friends of Washoe website)
 A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel over to Ellensburg, WA and visit the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute.  The remarkable center, founded by Roger Fouts, is the home to a very special family of Chimpanzees.  Their matriarch, Washoe, was the first non-human ever to learn a human language -- American Sign Language.  (Other language experiments had been done with chimps -- but those had all used some form of invented symbolic language, not a real human language like ASL.)  Even more amazing, Washoe and her companions passed on the language to her adopted son, Louis.

Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees
Next of Kin by Roger Fouts
The center is not open to the public on a daily basis, but they have special educational events called Chiposiums where visitors can come in and learn about chimpanzees and see the chimps who live there.  Washoe had been one of my heroes for many years, and I can say, without any exaggeration, that Roger Fout's book Next of Kin changed my life.  So it was an enormous pleasure to finally see her, in the flesh (and fur).  The day I visited it was Louis who was most active, displaying for the guests.  But Washoe was seated high up in the common play area, watching everything that went on like the dignified matriarch she was.  The whole afternoon I had a hard time speaking to anyone without crying.

That experience became even more poignant the following year, when Washoe died.  (Not long before another of my non-human heroes passed on -- Alex the Grey Parrot).  I think it is safe to say that Washoe's death affected me more than that of any "celebrity" I can remember.  If it had been up to me, she would have been given the Nobel Prize, or at least the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  (I can hear the howls of protest from less enlightened primates even as I suggest it.)  The medal is supposed to be given to those who "have made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."  It is hard to imagine who deserves it more than Washoe who, despite having to live most of her life in one form of captivity or another, stepped across the species divide in a way unprecedented in the history of life on earth.  Not honoring her with our highest award only shows the intellectual poverty of our species.

 The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery

So I come to a book like The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll with certain predispositions.  I've read a lot about chimps, both in the wild and in captivity, and I know how tragic their stories can often be.  Fauna Sanctuary is in rural Quebec, and it is run by Gloria Grow.  It is home to chimpanzees rescued from the biomedical industry.  Actually "rescued" is a little too kind a word -- most of them were retired by companies that had exploited them for decades and no longer had any use for them.  Fauna Sanctuary was created to be a home for them, and hopefully to help them heal. 

Binky (photo Copyright 2011 by Frank Noelker)
 "Binky stares at me, and I stare back.  I am immediately, hopelessly entranced ... the only chimps I've seen before have been in zoos, where they do everything they can to ignore their human visitors.  But Binky holds my gaze.  What's more, he returns it.  With most primates, looking an individual in the eye is seen as a threat.  Not so with the chimpanzee ... We are simply two great apes considering each other, sizing each other up, perhaps wondering what the other is thinking, much like two perspective roommates...."

This is Westoll's first encounter with one of the chimps at Fauna, as he arrives on his first day of volunteering there.  A trained primatologist turned full-time writer, Westoll is drawn to the chimps for many reasons.   He "is surprised at Binky's beauty, his lack of any visible signs of distress."  Gloria Glow explains:

"Binky is the luckiest one here," she says.  "He had three whole months with his mother before he was taken."  Gloria reaches up and gently strokes his enormous fingers.  Binky keeps he eyes on me.  "He's only recently started pulling out his hair."

And so begins the terrible and beautiful story of the chimps at Fauna Sanctuary.  Of:

·         Binky -- tough on the outside, but sensitive and funny underneath. 

·         Regis, who loves to paint and listen to music, and suffers from anxiety that only his friend Jethro can calm. 

·         Jethro, the peacekeeper.

·         Rachel, abandoned by her owner when she became too old to keep, she enjoyed wearing filly dresses and taking bubble baths -- "now she is very fragile". 

·         Yoko, intense, passionate and loyal.

·         Petra, highly intelligent, watchful, always learning. 

·         Spock, raised as a human child, prefers female companionship, likes to drink out of a hose. 

·         Maya, Spock's foster sister, spends hours peering into treat bags and investigating their contents.

·         Chance, nervous and cautious, "doesn't like peppers on her pizza".

·         Tom, Fauna's most famous resident, "can fit five apples into his mouth at once".

·         Sue Ellen, the elder of the group, creates very intricate nests for herself to sleep in.

·         Pepper, who lived a lab, barely seeing the light of day for twenty-seven years, loves to eat kale and pick tomatoes in the garden.

·    And Toby, who loves to groom his friend Rachel and wear a scrunchy on his wrist like a bracelet.
Along the way, Westoll gives us a good (albeit, tragic) history of chimpanzees in America, and the horrific uses they've been put to.  But it is ultimately these chimps, so beautiful and damaged and individual, that stay with me and haunt me.  

Like Billy Joe.

Billy Joe (photo Copyright 2011 by Fauna Foundation)
 "Of all the chimps that lived at Fauna, Billy Joe had the most difficult time rediscovering what it meant to be a chimp.  Before he was sold to research, Billy was forced to work in the circus, and when he was under the big top he taken on car rides, fishing trips and regular excursions to Diary Queen ... Billy was dependent on humans for all his social and emotional needs.  According to Gloria, Billy thought he was more human than chimp.

In the lab, he was hostile, uncooperative, and aggressive.  One day, while recovering from surgery, Billy chewed both is thumbs off.  At Fauna, his troubles continued.  He rejected the other chimps, much preferring to interact with humans, and eventually the other rejected him ... they severely beat him a number of times.  That is why he chose to isolate himself."

Billy was a very large chimp, and could be frightening to humans when he displayed aggression.  His teeth had all been knocked out when he was young.  But

According to Gloria ... Billy had a heartbreaking way of negotiating with his human caregivers in lieu of violence.  "He would start doing handstands or lips flaps, just like in the circus ... As if he were saying 'If I entertain you, will you not hurt me?'"

Experts diagnosed Billy as suffering from a recurring depression, "the result of a species-identity disorder" resulting from his fostering by humans as a baby.  During Billy's last days, Gloria's responsibilities forced her to leave him.

"I stayed with Billy as long as I could," says Gloria ... "I held him, hugged him, gave him a kiss goodbye.  Then everyone told me I had to leave."

That was the last time she ever saw Billy alive.

If wise beings survive on Planet Earth, we will someday look back on the human treatment of Great Apes -- and especially, I'm afraid, of chimpanzees in North America -- as one of the most terrible crimes in history.  Equal to the Genocide of Native Americans or the African Slave Trade or the Holocaust.  But we will also remember the people who stood against that evil -- Roger Fouts, Jane Goodall, Gloria Grow and others -- the way we remember Oskar Schindler or Harriet Tubman.

If you are not fond of books that you have to read through tears -- tears of sadness, tears of rage, tears of triumph and gratitude -- then The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is probably not for you.  This is book filled with darkness with and light. With suffering and redemption. With cruelty and compassion and incredible courage.  It is a book filled with many heroes.

And a few of them are human.


Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.


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