Skip to content

On “The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary” by Andrew Westoll

June 10, 2011

As a vegan and animal rights activist, I can easily review Andrew Westoll’s “The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery” by focusing, perhaps to the point of ranting, about speciesism and exceptionalism. After all, what discussion about any kind of rights for chimps or other apes doesn’t come down to how much they are like humans; they’re exceptional because we’re exceptional. We should treat them better than we treat other nonhumans simply because they are fortunate enough to share so many qualities (and genes) with we who are at the top of the evolutionary heap.

But a rant like that would detract from the good a book like this could do for its target market: the mainstream “animal-loving” public, and for animals. Yes, there’s some linguistic housekeeping. For instance, there’s a bit of confusion about animal rights and animal welfare. And yes, I would love to meet the person who made the decisions about when animals were to be called “he” or “she” and when they were to be called “it.” Perhaps the strangest choice of verbiage comes at the end of a description of the horror and anxiety chimps in laboratories experience when their friends are shot with dart guns in order to render them unconscious. The page-long passage gave me the chills but then ended with: “Even if the knockdown is only for a blood draw or cage transfer, to the casual observer it looks and sounds and smells as if the ape believes it is about to be murdered” (70-71). “It” is about to be “murdered”? My chills were replaced by irritation. There’s also a jab at vegans: “In the lab the chimpanzees had been fed a joyless diet of water and monkey chow—dehydrated ricks of protein, carbohydrates, and nutritional supplements that would be enjoyable only to the most abstemious of vegans” (93). But I’m going to look beyond my pet peeves, which are well represented, and focus on the many positives the book has to offer.

Onward.

Thirteen chimps are housed at Quebec’s Fauna Sanctuary when primatologist-turned-writer, Andrew Westoll arrives for his several month stay. He will volunteer and learn/write about them, their primary caregiver, Gloria Grow, and, as he discovers, himself. The majority of the chimps are research subjects who “had endured years of pain and deprivation as living test tubes for the study of human diseases. They’d been torn from their mothers just days after birth. They’d been imprisoned in cages, sometimes in solitary confinement. They’d undergone blood draws, invasive surgeries, and viral experiments. Some had been knocked unconscious with dart guns almost every week” (10). The rest are from nearby zoos. Regardless, all had been in the same position for years: the basic choices of their everyday lives were taken away from them, and they were prisoners.

Ironically, they’re still prisoners, and that fact is discussed. It’s not as if they could possibly be returned to the wild, as that’s not where most of them are from (they were captive bred). Their needs are met as best as any human could ever meet them, and that’s really what the book is about. There is history of research with chimps as subjects and the individuals are placed within the context of our use of animals for science as well as entertainment (and food is briefly mentioned). Current legislation is discussed and there are calls to action. All but a few people have used and continue to use the chimps. We continue to take from them, even when we visit them, expecting them to present us with some profound lesson as if that’s their job.

But the real story is the individual chimps and the woman who has dedicated her life to listening to them and doing her level best to provide them with an environment and opportunities that will help them heal. It’s a story of unconditional love. Not insignificant is also the story of the writer who longs to have a fraction of what Gloria has with the chimps. He’s well aware of the costs of what she has and I’d say he probably doesn’t think he could handle more than a fraction.

Here at Animal Rights & AntiOppression, we’ve spent quite a bit of time exploring what works in animal rights advocacy. Westoll speaks of “a peculiar truth” he “realizes” and I’m fairly certain some activists would disagree with his pronouncement of truth. Nevertheless . . .”[I]n order for people to commit themselves fully to fighting injustice, they must first witness an extreme example of it” (143). What do you think of that? Far less controversial is Westoll’s realization that the day we begin to see animals as individuals is the day our world begins to turn upside down (to paraphrase him, 168). I’m sure every vegan can relate to that; helping people see animals as individuals is a large part of what we do.

Finally, Gloria originally thought that once people learned what the chimps have been through, their lives would be changed, just as hers was. But that’s not what happens. She wonders what it will take to get people to make the connections that are right in front of them, clear as day. I certainly empathize with that. We show graphic footage, we tell the stories of individuals without graphic footage. We provide unfathomably large numbers—uncontested numbers—to attest to the carnage we create for something as trivial as our palates. We describe health problems and environmental devastation. And yet, the vast majority of people will continue to not care (as measured by their actions).

Westoll provides an insider’s view of the lives, loves, habits and quirks of the individual chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary. Many passages describing the sentient nonhumans, if read alone, can easily be about humans. From their gestures to their emotions to the games they play, they are so much like us that it’s especially unfair for us to use them the way we have. Or so the story goes.

I’m torn because though all chimps being used by humans right now deserve sanctuary, for me they don’t deserve it because they are chimps. The rats and mice and pigs and dogs in laboratories around the world are just as deserving of the opportunity to heal from the hells we have created for them. Perhaps chimps will be the gateway animals, and rights for others will follow. It might not be able to be said that granting rights to chimps or banning invasive research on them will necessarily be good for all animals. But it will definitely be good for chimps, and I don’t think I can come down against that.

What do you think?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. nakedthoughts permalink
    June 10, 2011 1:09 pm

    Distancing oneself from vegans is a surefire way to make the book more acceptable. I would imagine the comment knocking vegan food is to assure carnists that its still ok to eat meat and that the book isn’t asking them to do anything “ridiculous” like become vegan.

    that annoys me lots.

  2. Olivia permalink
    June 10, 2011 1:16 pm

    I sooo identify with every comment you make in this excellent book review, Mary.

    I’ll be sending it to a friend who founded the Center for Great Apes, a sanctuary for orangutans and chimpanzees in Wauchula, Florida.

    I’m reminded of the documentary a few years ago (was it on PBS?) that featured primate sanctuaries Fauna, Save the Chimps, CGA and I think also Chimp Haven and maybe others. I’ll never forget Carole Noon, who founded Save the Chimps in Alamagorda, NM; she sadly passed away two years ago.

    Please consider posting this blog as a book review on Amazon and elsewhere, Mary. It will surely help raise the consciousness of those who believe apes are exceptional compared to other lab animals, who thoughtlessly refer to animals as “it” instead of “she” or “he” and who still think that vegan food is for the birds.

  3. June 14, 2011 5:05 pm

    I would agree with you. And rights for all animals may have to come one species at a time, especially because as you said, the vast majority of people still don’t care.

  4. June 23, 2011 9:59 am

    Excellent review!

    When I think of gateway animals I have this image in my head, perhaps someday I or someone else, will put it in visual, physical form… But it goes something like this:
    Humans can use all animals except chimps.
    Humans can use all animals except chimps and dogs.
    Humans can use all animals except chimps, dogs, cats and horses.
    Humans can… Well, you get the idea. And followed to it’s logical conclusion it’s quite absurd. Sadly I too have every idea this is the way it will go – One small “special” pecies at a time.

    Perhaps when it does we will have gone full circle to even include ourselves in the sacred sphere of reverence and thus all wars and human genocides will fade as well? It’s a lovely thought! And if it starts with chimps – I’m all for it too.

    Thanks for all you do Mary to bring clarity to these issues.

Trackbacks

  1. The Captive The True Story

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: