Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2012/ The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

Every so often a book affects enough that I feel compelled to promote that book to others. Maybe it is no surprise that The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is one of those books -- I heard about it on the CBC and I think it won some book prize. As a cultural elitist I am obligated to like it. In addition to my class obligations, this book feels personal, so much so that maybe it is stupid to convince others that it is a worthy read.

The book mostly consists of author Andrew Westoll's experiences while volunteering at Fauna Sanctuary, a wildlife refuge near Montreal. He spends several months attending to the needs of thirteen chimpanzees, most of whom were retired/rescued from a research lab called LEMSIP, the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates at New York University. (For those of you who have seen Project Nim: this is the same lab where Nim ended up.) Westoll explores the lives of these chimps, their pasts, their personalities, and the humans who tend to their needs. Along the way he relates the tortured relationships between chimps and humans, the history of animal experimentation on chimps, and American legislation known as GAPA, the Great Apes Protection Act.

A common saying at Fauna Sanctuary is "the only thing less natural is where they came from." (p. 19) The chimps live in enclosures of concrete and steel, with access to some small islands built into the sanctuary. They eat human food and play with human playthings. Some of them enjoy wearing human clothing. These chimps live nothing like their cousins in the jungle forests of Africa, and in many ways they are nothing like their African counterparts.

For one thing many of these chimps were not raised as chimps, and have never learned chimpanzee social skills. Some of them were raised as human children, or raised as pets, and then abandoned at research labs when they were no longer cute. Others were circus animals. A few were taken from the wilds of Africa as babies (and presumably their chimp families were massacred so that the babies could become research animals). Some were born in labs, and were taken from their mothers as infants to have relatively calm but definitively non-chimp infanthoods raised by humans before becoming research specimens. A few of them were from zoos. Since so many of them were separated from their mothers and family groups at birth, they had few opportunities to learn the cultural and social skills helpful in getting along with other chimps.

In addition to lacking social skills, the chimps are traumatized. Life as a research chimp involves small cages with little stimulation, living in the company of other terrified and traumatized research chimps, being shot with tranquilizing darts, and being subjected to diseases and invasive treatments. Some of the research chimps were infected with HIV and hepatitis. To assess research progress they were given regular liver biopsies. When they were in pain they were denied pain meds in case those meds interfered with the research results. And then there is the way that most of the chimps were separated from their mothers at birth. In terms of research goals I can see the justifications for these practices -- other than mistreatment by caretakers, none of these actions is deliberately intended to traumatize the chimps. But the side effect of these practices (and many others) is trauma.

So by the time these chimps come to their retirement home at Fauna Sanctuary, they are physically and psychologically damaged. Yoko expresses trauma through violence. Rachel expresses it through self-harm. The circus chimps are toothless -- their teeth had been knocked out by their circus handlers to make them less dangerous. The job of the human caretakers is to give the animals comfort and choice, and to give them opportunities to heal when possible. But it is hard. For one thing, the chimps are not always nice to each other. Occasionally they are brutal. But many other times they cooperate and interact and resolve conflict and heal. Westoll tells the stories and does not take sides, but manages to build our compassion for the chimps throughout.

Westoll is not afraid to relate to the thirteen chimps as individuals. They have names and pasts and stories and personalities and psychologies, and Westoll does not hesitate to ascribe qualities usually reserved for humans -- like psychology -- to the chimps when he feels it is appropriate. Westoll was also a primatologist in the spirit of Jane Goodall, and he is fully aware that the chimps are not human beings, either. The book contains a quotation from Charles R. Magel that succinctly illustrates the dilemma (p. 65):

Ask the experimenters why they experiment on amimals, and the answer is: "Because the animals are like us." Ask the experimenters why it is morally OK to experiment on animals, and the answer is: "Because the animals are not like us." Animal experimentation rests on a logical contradiction.

Much of the book explores the tension caused by chimps being like humans and not human enough. Westoll does not anthromorphize the chimps, but he writes about them with dignity and humanity, so that we see the chimps as individuals too. The middle of the book contains pictures and portraits of each of the chimp residents. By the time I reached the portraits I found the captions describing each chimp as ridiculously inadequate: "Petra, a highly intelligent chimpanzee, quietly watches and learns from others. She and Chance are half sisters."; "Toby never misses an opportunity to groom his best friend, Rachel. He enjoys chasing geese and wearing a scrunchie around his wrist like a bracelet." These little captions are not false, but by the time half the book has passed I found myself protesting because we have learned so much more about the chimps and their stories by that time.

Despite building empathy for the chimps, this book cured me of any desire whatsoever to visit a chimpanzee sanctuary. The chimpanzees are loud and demanding. Staff have to walk within painted lines to reduce their chances of being grabbed, and because Westoll is tall he has to crouch whereever he goes to avoid seeming aggressive to the chimps. The enclosures are cockroach infested, hot, humid, littered with chimp poop and half-eaten food that needs to be powerwashed out once a week. The chimps spit and throw food at their human caretakers -- sometimes for fun. It's worse than living with undergrads. I am glad that Westoll sought out the experience and wrote about it, but I am glad I don't have to.

At times I found myself wondering whether the human staff were too indulgent with the chimps. One of the foundations of Fauna Sanctuary is to give the chimps choice, and another is to refrain from coercing the chimps to submit to human will. Partially this is because the chimps have been coerced all their lives, and I see the value in this. But for the most part the chimps lead idle lives, and it is not clear that they want to. One of the chimps is given the opportunity to participate in his own healing process after a wound, and he not only learns the task but participates in it willingly. There is other evidence that the chimps recognize the work their humans do, and in one moving passage demonstrate their desire to share in that work. In my experience idle humans tend not to fare well; they tend to do better when they are busy -- in particularly when they are busy in the service of others. I can't help but think that chimps might share this trait, and that they suffer unnecessarily because their human keepers don't want to coerce their charges into doing stupid pet tricks. This dilemma brings to mind another memorable book: What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage by Amy Sutherland. That book documents modern animal training techniques, in which animals (even "unintelligent" ones like tortoises) can willingly participate in their training without coercion. I wonder if some of the chimps would be happier if they had more opportunities to participate in their environment. Or maybe I am guilty of anthromorphizing now. Or maybe the staff at Fauna Sanctuary are fully aware of this issue, and have addressed it already.

The last portion of the book increasingly focuses on the Great Apes Protection Act, and the efforts of Fauna Sanctuary founder Gloria Grow to convince the US Congress to support the legislation. This is where the book turns into a bit of a polemic. The argument is that all chimps in research should be retired to sanctuaries. Many of them are too old or too damaged for research, and they are more expensive for the government to house than they would be in sanctuaries. (Apparently slaughter was ruled out as an option, which mystifies me given that the research establishment views chimps as being like any other animal.) Furthermore, he argues that chimp research is ineffective, that it has not contributed to significant advances in fighting HIV. Overall I sympathize with the argument, but something nagged at me as I was reading it. Throughout the book Westoll makes the case that chimps deserve dignity, and should not be subjected to animal research because it is immoral. But at the end of the day, he argues that the primary reason to stop chimp research is based on its practicality. Say that the world was different, and that chimps made an excellent animal model that led to many scientific breakthroughs. Would it then be okay to perform invasive, traumatizing research on them? The misery of politics is that it is never permissible to admit one's real motivations for advocating change.

I have probably made this book sound as appealing as cod liver oil. Maybe it seems like something you ought to read, but not something you would want to. Please don't be misled by my ineffective communication skills: the book is gripping. Westoll knows how to craft a non-fiction narrative. He knows how to build suspense, how to make us care for his characters, how to structure his narrative to keep us engaged throughout. This is the kind of book that carries you along. When fact-checking and taking excerpts from the book for this review, I often found myself rereading far more pages than were strictly necessary, simply because Westoll's writing carried me along. This is easily the kind of book you could read twice or thrice without getting bored.

So what made this book feel personal? Firstly, I identified with the chimps. Thankfully, I have never been jailed in a research lab, and I have not experienced even a small fraction of the trauma they have. But I am also broken and have poor social skills. Secondly, I expect many second-generation Canadians will empathize with the idea of being partially chimp, partially human, and never fitting in with either. Thirdly, I grew up being obsessed with animals, and it was not until later in life that I realized the cruelty that animals live through (whether in nature or at human hands). This book revived my admiration for animals, even as Westoll acknowledged and explored the complexities of our relationship to animals. It gave me heart that Fauna Sanctuary and sanctuaries like it exist, even as my miserly mind questions their expense. Fourthly, this books seems clear-eyed, not romantic. It looks clearly at the nature of the chimps, at the consequences of invasive animal research, and of the complexity and messiness and contradictions of his experiences at the chimphouse. I appreciated that clarity. Fifthly, it revived hopes (however faint) that we can do science and learn useful things without the endless destruction I learned in my high-school biology classes. Finally, the book was entertaining, informative, and moving -- just the kind of book that feels like a good use of time to read.