Sunday, March 4, 2012

Can you hear the song of the ape?

There is truly a divide in this county, and I’m not talking about red states and blue states… There is a growing abyss between people who understand the unique magnificence of chimpanzees as chimpanzees, and those who continue to seek to humanize the apes for the mere benefit that accrues to themselves.
A brilliant new book, The Song of the Ape: Understanding the Languages of Chimpanzees by Andrew Halloran, brought this realization home to me, with a figurative slap on the back by Higgy, the alpha male who takes center stage for most of Halloran’s story. (If there is any doubt about the wonder of chimpanzees, in and of themselves, Higgy removes the final shreds.)
Halloran leads his readers through an exploration of chimpanzee language, using the stories of Higgy, Hank, Little Mama, and others. When he gave me that connection to real chimps who faced real challenges, I was finally able to make more sense of the language debate that took off with Washoe and Nim and Koko. Of course! Researchers back then (and even still today) were judging the apes on whether they could “speak” a language that we were imposing on them, rather than appreciating chimpanzees for the natural language they have spoken for millennia. Pant hoots are not, it appears, just noises.
Halloran has a sly way of inserting science into an absorbing and, at times, emotionally difficult story. Using a timeline starting in the 1930s, he translates peer-reviewed research into storytelling, weaving threads of chimpanzee life as it exists in the wild, in private ownership, and in accredited animal facilities. The graceful and brutal true stories gave me a better understanding of the commonalities that make chimpanzees so uniquely wonderful. I also came away with a deeper appreciation of the tragedy that comes from “humanizing” chimpanzees as pets, entertainers, and research subjects.
My aunt and her chimp, in the
1950s. We didn't know, then,
how wrong it was to turn chimps
in mini-humans. Some people still
don't get it.
Of course, I didn’t have that appreciation for most of my 60 years on earth. Like millions of baby boomer kids, I adored the funny chimpanzee shows staged at the Detroit Zoo. I was tickled by cute videos showing chimpanzees in costume, doing tricks. I was thrilled by my aunt’s chimpanzee, all dressed up for entertaining kids at birthday parties. I wasn’t alone in my misunderstanding, I know. The book’s timeline gently walks the reader through discoveries by primatologists, especially since the 1970s, that need to inform today’s debates on chimpanzee issues.
Halloran explains it better than I can:
“In the same way that we assume a culture in another part of the world would function better if its people adopted our own cultural traits, we assume that chimpanzees are members of a more relevant species if they act and communicate just like a human. This is why we put them in films, make them learn sign language, watch them ice-skate in circuses, and make them dress up for tea parties in zoos. This is why we are surprised when, in the end, they don’t quite act like little humans. This is why we are shocked when a chimpanzee gets violently aggressive toward a human caretaker. This is why we are disappointed when we realize that a chimpanzee really can’t use sign language in any meaningful way. However, when we look at chimpanzees relating to each other and their own given environments, we see the miracle of a species inheriting, teaching, and surviving by learned behaviors that fit their own situations.”
It seems that every week we get new evidence of the great divide between people who appreciate the miracles of chimpanzees, and people who want a chimp for their own fulfillment, without a real recognition of the chimpanzee’s needs.
To her immense credit, Charla Nash is pursuing a legal case against the state of Connecticut for failing to protect citizens from a known dangerous animal ‒ the “pet” chimpanzee Travis. Charla is the woman went to the aid of her friend Sandra, who was trying to stop a rampage by Sandra’s 200-pound pet chimpanzee. Travis ripped off Charla’s face and hands before he was finally stopped and killed. Connecticut’s attorney general is trying to prevent the lawsuit, on the grounds that state government only has to protect the “general public,” not individuals. Is that really how society works? Government can know a danger exists, deliberately does nothing to protect innocent people, and then turns its collective head when that predictable tragedy happens?
In Missouri, private chimpanzee owners are up in arms about a relatively innocuous bill, SB 666, that would require them to get a permit. It seems the pet owners and breeders like the freedom to exploit animals. Once they’ve “paid for the chimps, paid for the cages, for the property…” they have fulfilled their responsibilities, they assert. Do we imagine that they will be able to give a life back to someone like Charla, once the predictable happens again?
In both instances, the chimpanzee owners do not understand, as Halloran shows conclusively, that primates cannot survive - in any humane sense of the word - without socialization with their own species. If they did understand that, they would never breed them to sell as entertainers or pets, to live as pseudo-humans. And if you don't understand and respect the animals you breed and sell, you are putting communities and the animals at risk.
The Song of the Ape, thankfully, ends on high note. (Spoiler alert: Just when I was about to start yelling at the book, to stop a chimpanzee war between groups affiliated with Higgy and Hank, Hank’s group is transferred to Lincoln Park Zoo. It seems that zoo always comes through for chimpanzees!) We leave the intertwined stories knowing the chimps better, understanding the issues on a deeper level and, thanks to helpful footnotes throughout, with an enticing pile of suggested readings.
And, thanks to Halloran, I can even speak some chimpanzee! Now if I could just figure out why private chimpanzee owners cannot hear the song of the ape...

1 comment:

  1. I received your suggestion on this one and it is now in my queue! Cheers!