Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hard times for people and apes

Last week, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, objecting to their use of an exploitative photo of a costumed monkey riding a racing dog. It didn’t surprise me to see a comment complaining about my objection. I was expecting someone to attack me for taking away the glorious fun of laughing at the inhumane treatment of primates but I didn’t expect this comment:
“I wonder if all these commenters are as concerned and involved with helping the human race as they are for lower primates? I'm thinking they have all got jobs and couldn't care less.”
Yes, I have a job. But the commenter was wrong about whether that means that I don’t care for humans. I’ve had my (sometimes extended) bouts of joblessness, even at one point staying in a disgusting flophouse, but I especially remember the awful time after dad lost his job at the Detroit Zoo.
In 1964, the zoo had enough of Art Brown. His drinking was getting worse, and they finally fired him after he was seen throwing a chimpanzee against the wall in fit of rage. I cannot imagine the despair he must have felt. He had so many strikes against him during his young life, but he had finally found redemption as a chimp trainer. He loved the work, and he loved the chimps. His self-inflicted failure must have been devastating. I’m so conflicted about much about dad, but still my heart aches, now, to think of his pain.
In addition to the crushing blow to his ego, dad had to deal with the practical reality. He had a wife and five children who depended on him for support. The arguments with mom grew increasingly violent. His drug use increased. He spent days (and nights) out of the house, only to come home and sleep for two or three days at a time, a sign of his growing amphetamine addiction.
After the zoo fired dad, money was tight. We soon went on welfare, and we made do with government food, which was pretty gagging stuff to a kid. One day I walked into the living room and saw mom crying. She was in front of the television set, watching President Johnson. He was announcing a new program that would provide more help for welfare families. It was August 31, 1964, and Johnson had just signed the Food Stamp Act, establishing the federal food stamp program to help poor families. I think mom was crying with a sense of relief, but maybe the relief was mixed – or overcome – with misery.
Many charitable organizations helped us through those terrible times, and I try to repay that help now with financial contributions, every year. Kids still need help.
But animals need our help as well. There are no food stamps, no school lunch programs, no Medicaid or Medicare, no government safety nets at all for chimpanzees who are in most sanctuaries. WE are their safety nets and, with this tattered economy, those safety nets – never overly strong to begin with – are growing more frayed with every drop of the stock market, with every dip in housing prices, with every passing week of high unemployment.
If ever there was a time to think about how much your donation could help a sanctuary, that time is now.
Anyone who has had a rough childhood
can identify with 37-year-old
a survivor after my own heart.
My support goes to the Center for Great Apes. I know the people, and I’ve seen the care and respect they give their animals. It would be wonderful if the Center could install state-of-the-art technologies, or set up new living quarters for more apes, or buy iPads for each of the animals, but that’s all something to consider in the future. Right now, there are electric bills to pay, and salaries to meet, and medical supplies to purchase. We are talking real, practical, basic needs.
Patti Ragan started the Center for Great Apes with her own money, 20 years ago. The center now cares for 13 orangutans and 31 chimpanzees, for about $1.1 million a year. (With only $170,000 for administrative expenses, the 20 employees definitely work for love, because they are obviously not looking to get rich.) Like just about every other animal charity these days, the Center for Great Apes’ expenses are now higher than their revenues. Grant programs, which used to come to the aid of animal welfare organizations, are being slashed. Big donors are increasingly hard to find. According to Giving USA 2010, environment and animal organizations received only 2% of all the contributions in the U.S. They are at the bottom of the pile, and times ahead are not looking brighter.
We can turn it around, though. We can come to the aid of the people who are dedicating their lives, their personal assets, and their careers to providing shelter, food, medical care, and an abiding love and respect to animals that no one else can take care of.
I’ve found that most ape lovers had a “chimpanzee moment” or an “orangutan eon” (the red apes can teach you the secrets of life, I swear!) when you looked into those dark brown eyes and recognized the intelligence and empathy looking back at you. I sure remember my chimp moment when I was a kid, and my orangutan eon when I met Lucy at National Zoo. My mom remembered her moments, too. When she was in her last year, she didn’t have much money. But remembering the chimpanzees who brought her children so much joy, she donated a fleece blanket from JC Penney’s, so the chimpanzees at the Center for Great Apes wouldn’t get cold. I think if dad had lived, he would have tried to do everything in his power to protect the chimps.
Now, it’s my turn. It’s our turn.
Please join me. If you ever had a chimpanzee moment or an orangutan eon, please honor it by donating today to the Center for Great Apes. We can help our primate cousins even as we come to the aid of human children as well.


  1. Of course I care deeply about humans,as well as all living species. I have helped people all my life, and now I choose to help those that cannot speak for themselves.I will continue to help all those in need,including my planet. I,personally will do everything I can for those in need,it doesn't matter to me if you are man or beast......

  2. Ah, if only we had a whole country of people like you, itsmewanda! You are an inspiration.

  3. One of my favorite posts of yours, ever, Dawn. I spent a day at the Center and was so, so impressed and moved by the inventive, compassionate approach to helping the wonderful apes. I teach my students about this place and yes, anyone who can, we should all donate.