Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Review: Non-fiction

We have seen the chimps and they are us Add to ...

What do you get when you take a baby away from its mother a few hours after birth and raise it in isolation, adding physical abuse that stretches on forever, all in the name of biomedical research?

The bad news is that, whether the baby is human or chimpanzee or probably anything else, the damage is lasting. The hurt done can never be fully healed. The good news is that some of us are trying. We are working with damaged human children and adults as well as damaged individuals of other species. One of us (let's try to look at this collectively, since we are all complicit in the damage) is doing it right this minute on a farm in Quebec.

Gloria Grow is the doyenne of a very special retreat, a place of sanctuary for damaged creatures from all kinds of traumatic pasts. She and her veterinarian husband began by rescuing the victims of Quebec puppy mills, but there was always someone else to save: a pig, a Belgian workhorse, a cow or an ostrich. Then, when Gloria met Roger and Deborah Fouts at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in Ellensburg, Wash., she knew she had found the underlying purpose of her rescue work. After meeting the three chimpanzees they had saved, she decided she wanted to build a sanctuary for chimpanzee victims of biomedical research.

This is the barest skeleton of the riveting story told by Andrew Westoll. He fleshes it out with the life histories of each of the 13 chimpanzees on Gloria's farm, and his intimate encounters with them during a stay of several months. As a writer, humanist and primatologist, Westoll is exactly the right person to describe the complicated nature of our closest relatives. And his adventures in the sanctuary feel only a little less fraught than the lives of its residents.

At first, they will have nothing to do with him. At New York University's Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, in a wooded area north of New York City, they had been taken from the nursery and put into small, hanging isolation cages, where they stayed for years, suffering invasive darts and surgeries and multiple exposures to hepatitis and HIV. Then, after a remarkable reversal of conscience by one of the researchers, several chimps were smuggled out to be saved by Gloria Grow. The chimps are terrified. They sometimes rage or refuse to eat or hurt themselves. How will Westoll earn their trust in order to tell their stories?

Fortunately, he has the time and patience to study each individual and learn to connect. Then, by interweaving past and present, he helps us understand the chimpanzee Tom, who has become the wise old face of the Great Apes Protection Project, and each of the apes Tom now sees as his charges. When the research chimps are joined by refugees from a zoo and a circus, things get even more complicated. Those pasts are not much prettier, but at Fauna Sanctuary, each chimpanzee is given a chance to form relationships of trust along with the sense of self every primate has a right to develop in infancy.

"Sometimes, as when I stumble on a forgotten children's toy in a remote corner, I am overcome with a sense of lightness, the conviction that this might be the happiest place on Earth. After all, the youngsters, like Binky, Jethro and Regis, have been living at Fauna longer than they lived at the lab - surely good memories have begun replacing the bad. But other times, such as when I'm picking through a mountain of stinking refuse to salvage reusable bottle caps, my thoughts turn dark and brooding. How messy their lives are, how weighted with consequence everything is in this false invented home."

The rehabilitation of a damaged individual requires profound empathy, time, regularity and choice. Lab animals cannot choose what they eat or where they sleep. They cannot choose to be part of a group or to go outside or to hide from invasive hands and tranquillizer darts. "Dignity," Westoll writes, "begins when an animal feels that she is the chief instrument of change in her life."

For Chance, a chimp who was kept in solitary confinement for the first five years of her life, it meant finding a truly private space when social interaction got too hard. For Tom, it meant learning to take care of the others, being mentor and comforter. For Toby, raised first in a human family and then sent to a zoo, it meant learning to be a chimpanzee. Andrew Westoll provides an opera of dramatic events, heart-rending tragedies and uplifting triumphs. For anyone interested in empathy and recovery, his book is required reading.

Linda Spalding is the author of The Follow, a study of Birute Galdikas and her work with orangutans in Borneo.

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeBooks

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories