Chimpanzees Have Feelings, Too: A book review of Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

If you have ever, even once, wanted to feel the connection between humans and primates, and get a glimpse into their human-esque emotions and behaviors, Andrew Westoll’s book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary will satisfy that need, but with a dark twist.

Westoll tells the story of the tumultuous lives of thirteen chimps from labs and zoos all over the United States, who now live at Fauna Sanctuary, an animal sanctuary in Quebec.  The author focuses on how they cope with the physical and psychological damage done to them over decades of testing.  Specifically, he focuses on the first chimps to arrive to the sanctuary in 1997; chimps who underwent decades of invasive surgeries and tests as test subjects in a biomedical research facility in upstate New York.  He uses the traumatic stories of each individual chimpanzee to successfully tell a vivid story for why medical testing on chimpanzees is unnecessary.

The first thirty pages, however, leave you wondering if the author will even make it through his time at the sanctuary.  On his first day and first visit, his immediate feeling “is the fear, which runs up [his] spine like a silverfish” and as he walks further into the chimp sanctuary, “an eerie sound rises, like something large and hollow being dragged across the floor.”

His own intimidation from these enormous, strong and violently disturbed animals leaves the reader expecting the next line to be him running out of the chimphouse and never coming back.  This is in stark contrast to how the author set up the book, as an observation trip to have his Jane Gooddall “live with the apes” experience.

His fear entering the sanctuary and the true intimidation factor he felt just hearing these animals make you wonder what he got himself into.  By relaying his emotions and physical responses, he gives the reader an understanding of both the real risk being so close to these massive creatures and also the legitimate psychological trauma he sees in them from the start.

The story is really that of the revitalization of these chimpanzees and the slow, hard, emotional process both them and the caretakers must undergo in order to regain their trust and teach the chimps the idea of freedom.  For these “severely institutionalized animals, freedom is far from absolute; it is more a state of mind.  The goal at Fauna, then, is to change the concept of freedom that each chimp holds in his head.”

Westoll also dedicates a large portion of the book to what the chimpanzees dealt with before they came to Fauna.  He specifically focuses in on those who were in a biomedical research lab called LEMSIP, the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates run by New York University.  .

The author uses graphic details of the lab conditions to share the history of these chimpanzees at the laboratory.  He does not leave out the details in order to paint the traumatic picture of their experiences.   One of the chimps, when being returned to his cage after surgery, was tossed in, landing “with a sickening thud, face-down in his own shit and piss.”

He balances this trauma with the true human-like characteristics these animals possess.  Their legitimate psychological issues are disarmingly similar to what a person who experiences trauma goes through.  Such as Binky who is described as a luckier chimp because “he had three whole months with his mother” before he entered the lab.  And now, retired to Fauna Sanctuary, “he’s only recently started pulling out his hair.”  It makes the stories depicting the horrible, invasive tests these animals went under and their human-like psychoses even harder to read without empathizing their pain yourself.

There is a dry side to the book.  The author makes a point to keeps you up to date with legislation and the difficult road, especially in the United States, to protect the chimps.  The lives of these animals wrap together to culminate in a political discussion of the needs to protect the chimpanzees.  Gloria goes to D.C. to help introduce the Great Ape Protection Act and Westoll makes a plea to the reader for support.

It appears at the beginning that Westoll’s aim, as a primatologist turned writer himself, was to satisfy his own interest to learn more about these chimps, the animals closest to humans in the ecological chain.  After finishing the book, however, he used it as a very expressive way, through the humanization of each chimpanzee, to push the envelope for more aggressive animal rights laws and the truth of whether or not animal testing is even necessary.

As the author significantly points out, “the United States is the only developed nation that still subjects chimpanzees to invasive research and testing.” Using the traumatic lives of these chimpanzees, he pulls at the reader’s emotions.  His argument is vivid, convincing and motivating to support organizations such as Fauna Sanctuary and legislation that will work to stop research on chimpanzees in the United States.

***

By Rachel Futrell

***

Book Information:

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery

By Andrew Westoll

266 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Available May 10, 2011. $25

Advertisements

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: