Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Chimpanzee Chronicles

Debra Rosenman, ed. The Chimpanzee Chronicles: Stories of Heartbreak and Hope from Behind the Bars. Santa Fe, NM: Wild Soul Press, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-7324651-0-7. $28U.S. paper. 378 pages. Illustrated.

“It’s a difficult and complicated relationship on both sides of the cage.” Diana Goodrich (194).

Debra Rosenman’s The Chimpanzee Chronicles presents a totally unvarnished, often gripping, and deeply emotional survey of primate persecution and some salvation at the hands of humans. In part, the word chronicle points to an accurate, historical accounting of factual details. These are stories of suffering and, in some cases, redemption – for humans as well as apes. The collection consists of twenty-five contributor essays, including a Foreword by renowned ecologist Marc Bekoff with an Introduction and Afterword by Rosenman. The book includes one hundred and thirteen exquisite black-and-white photographs that capture the glittering essence of some of the chimpanzees.

I didn’t know what to expect before reading this book, and I’ve been reared for at least a decade on scientific papers and monographs by primatologists and anthropologists, including field narratives like those by Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas, Dian Fossey, and Shirley Strum. I was not prepared for the words in these pages. Why? Although many of the contributors to the volume are qualified professional researchers, veterinarians, psychologists, primatologists, and anthropologists, the narratives offer a much needed qualitative and not merely a quantitative perspective. By the time I finished the book, I had gained intimate knowledge not only of the characters of the authors but also of the ape persons they cared for. For anyone interested in animal studies or ethics, particularly of great apes, this book is necessary reading. For anyone interested in human-ape communication, using that word broadly, this is an impressive book. While there is indeed some joy and hope in these pages, I must admit you’d have to possess an ironclad emotional constitution to get to the end without having shed tears of sadness.

Drawing from Rosenman’s overview in her introduction, the book reveals the physical, psychological, and emotional lives of captive chimpanzees, whether in the U.S. space program, biomedical labs, the entertainment industry, or as part of trafficking to become pets or zoo spectacles. In one instance, we learn that a lab in Texas housed three thousand baboons and hundreds of chimpanzees at once, staggering numbers. The historical arc of the book is excellent. Many of the contributors offer for the uninitiated a timeline of how chimps were used, and where, across facilities in the U.S. and elsewhere. Moreover, the chronicling continues with the lives of particular apes after their persecution as lab subjects or humiliation as circus performers to their experiences in sanctuaries. The book reinforces how each ape person has an individual personality and temperament with his or her own quirky needs and desires. Contrary to the flawed philosophy of seeing “animals” as automatons without souls, this book demonstrates qualitatively (and quantitatively) that great apes are indeed persons in the full sense of that word.

Commercial deforestation deprives chimpanzees of essential foods and habitats. Families are slaughtered so babies can be sold into captivity, and then the dead apes become bushmeat for someone’s meal. In the early twentieth century, Rosenman goes on, there were about one million chimpanzees in the wild; today, a high estimate puts them at about three hundred thousand. Human encroachment devastating chimpanzee lands spreads disease, and yet, not without irony, the chimps in labs had been used for decades as test subjects for drugs to treat a range of human ailments, from HIV and AIDS to Hepatitis. As I write, primates are being used as subjects for a Covid-19 vaccine. One dreadful facility that comes up repeatedly is the now shuttered Coulston Foundation lab in New Mexico, where maltreatment of chimps occurred routinely. Another facility, also closed, that pops up across contributors is the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, N.Y., which in 1988 had nearly one thousand primates and about three hundred chimps. The name alone gives you an idea of the Frankenstein torment that transpired behind those concrete, cellblock walls. Early on, when chimps became test subjects, there were no care or welfare protocols – experimenters had free reign, separating babies from mothers, engaging primates in painful and intrusive operations, subjecting each of them to hundreds of rounds of anesthesia, and forcing all of them to endure a solitary life in a small cage with little or no mental stimulation or psychological nourishment. In one account, a chimp was under anesthesia for seventeen consecutive days. As Rosenman rightly says, clearly the researchers were totally unaware of how the apes lived, their wants, or simply did not care. If chimps and other apes were the subjects of medical experimentation because they are so like us, to paraphrase a paradox of primatologist Frederick King, then wouldn’t that likeness be a reason not to experiment on them?

I cannot offer a synopsis of the many contributors to this remarkable, award-winning book – my scribbled notes amount to twelve pages, and I did not even record as much detail as I could have. Besides, I don’t want to give away any “plots” but, instead, encourage readers to purchase the book and read for themselves. Part of the proceeds go to chimpanzee causes. This is a substantial contribution to our understanding of ape lives in captivity. While there is some overlap across the contributors, I think that was a strategic approach by the editor. Certain ideas and themes are effectively repeated, but from different angles depending on the perspective of the writer. To my reading, there is a lot of wisdom in this book about interspecies communication and caring. Captivity comes up often, including guilt by the caregivers for confining chimps who know humans are free. Individuality is also a recurring theme. As for ideas, there’s an underlying assumption in these pages that “animals” (a horrid word) are not on earth for human convenience or exploitation. Another theme that repeats strongly is how incredibly forgiving of their human captors apes tend to be; there’s a lesson in there for all of us.

As you read, it becomes clear that the apes were victims of abuse. In one story (Gloria Grow), Jeannie had been experimented on for fifteen years and suffered a breakdown. In this broken condition, the facility she was in decided to euthanize her, but she was rescued to live her remaining years in the comfort of a sanctuary. A filmmaker (Allison Argo) tells about her trip to the infamous Coulston lab after its 2002 bankruptcy. Carole Noon, a primatologist who was then in control, literally broke down walls so the inmate chimps could roam freely and socialize instead of facing persistent confinement in very small cages. The film would document the chimpanzee transfers out of the facility to sanctuaries witnessing, even in the aftermath, overwhelming injustice.  

Some of these narratives (Debby Cox) understate the immense amount of physical strain and emotional stress these exceptional humans endured in rescuing or relocating chimps. Readers cannot help but feel heartened that there are indeed courageous and virtuous people among us working for the benefit of all living creatures. One of the authors (Jenny Desmond) tells the harrowing story of the sixty six chimps literally abandoned, by the N.Y. Blood Center, on an island off the coast of Liberia. This was big news at the time, and keep in mind that in addition to facing starvation and dehydration, these chimp persons had been subject to years of experimentation, like countless liver biopsies. One writer (Mark Bodamer) says that the director at one lab facility viewed the inmate primates as little more than “hairy test tubes” (232). The cruelty is almost beyond comprehension, salved only by the stories of restoration.

In many of the stories, we learn that female chimps were used as “breeders,” and their babies would be taken from them soon after birth. In the wild, great ape infants, like humans, require a prolonged span of caring years. As Jenny Desmond is correct to say, “grief and sorrow transcend all differences between species...” (80). One contributor using a pseudonym is a whistleblower having worked at a biomedical lab where there was such insensitivity that part or all of a chimp’s organ would be removed. This facility provided no enrichment for the primates and those running the lab exhibited a total lack of empathy. Male macaques who protected their young were disciplined. Baby monkeys were taken from their mothers at birth, put in black boxes, and used in eye research – nearsightedness, for which we have corrective lenses! While not explicitly stated through the book, but certainly touched on from time to time, funding dollars were important to facilities for experiments that likely duplicated research already done or for studies with no proven purpose.

More than a few of the contributors who started sanctuaries did not work from a blueprint. Their commitment to animal welfare or rescue eventually blossomed into new directions, sometimes haphazardly, but always with noble intentions and good outcomes. In one turnaround (Lesley Day), the writer who had bought a baby primate started shopping for an infant chimp when the monkey died. This led her to a breeder, and utterly dismayed at the living conditions of the apes, many in states of depression, she decided on a rescue mission to start her own sanctuary. Importantly, the best sanctuaries are set up so that chimps can make choices about socializing and enrichment for themselves. Some of the accounts involve those who went into biomedical labs with the sole purpose of helping care for babies separated from their mothers or setting up enrichment programs for the chimps while training the technicians. Painfully, it’s not clear how much of these efforts lasted after the interventions absent stringent legislative guidelines to enforce.

These stories of physical abuse and mental trauma are difficult to read but necessary as part of the historical record, to ensure that we try to eliminate whatever remnants of this experimentation still exists and prevent it from ever happening again. Across many of these authors one reads how the chimps and other primates spend decades upon decades – their entire lives – in cramped cages behind cinder block walls. Nevertheless, there are also buds of color in the stories of rescue and integration into sanctuaries where many of the authors make meaningful connections with our primate cousins. Some of the more painful accounts to read are those involving apes who learned how to use sign language. They could communicate not only their thoughts but their innermost feelings, and quite often we read how they ask an interlocutor to unlock the cage and set them free. Their lives of captivity deprive them of many natural tendencies, like roaming and foraging, and experiences, like socializing with conspecifics. However, reading what apes have to say and how they feel will be a breakthrough moment for many readers unfamiliar with primate intelligence.

I cannot but marvel at the moral integrity of this editor and these authors, many of whom made (and continue to make) great sacrifices as they work to provide care for sentient and sapient beings. This is an important book since it questions our ethical obligations after having captured or bred apes without their consent. We are not powerless. In the words of contributor Rosa Garriga: “One person cannot change the world, but small gestures from many people can go a long way” (131). So in some respects this book is also a call to action. Work on behalf of our fellow creatures; speak out; enlist the help of others; donate what you can, either money or time; lend moral support to causes for animal welfare; consider a vegan ethos.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., Professor of English/Interdisciplinary Studies and founder of The Evolutionary Studies Collaborative, St. Francis College. Author, most recently, of An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood (2020).

Copyright©2020 by Gregory F. Tague. All Rights Reserved