Saturday, March 7, 2009

What the wild things are

March 7, 2009

By Charles Siebert

IT'S common to hear, in the wake of someone's sudden lethal outburst, exclamations of shock along the lines of: 'He seemed so pleasant and mild-mannered.' But when those same sentiments are voiced in the aftermath of a chimpanzee attack like the one in Stamford, Connecticut, last month - in which a pet chimp named Travis mauled a woman, robbing her of her hands, eyesight and much of her face, and possibly causing brain damage - they raise serious questions about us, the primates with the so-called higher cognitive functions.

There is something about chimpanzees that has always driven human beings to behavioural extremes, actions that reflect a deep discomfort with our own animality, and invariably turn out bad for both us and them.

The first live chimpanzee to set foot on Europe's shores arrived in The Hague in 1641, on board a Dutch merchant ship returning from Angola. The only known visual record of this unwitting pioneer's existence is an engraving done that same year by the Dutch physician and anatomist Nicolaes Tulp. A leading figure of the Enlightenment with its emergent emphasis on objective observation and realistic representation, Tulp proceeded to compose one of the more surreal depictions of a chimpanzee imaginable. The creature - seated atop a boulder with its mostly hairless torso and limbs, tapered elfin hands and feet, and sweetly smiling face - looks like a potbellied forest nymph dreamily sleeping off a good drink. Not a chimpanzee so much as an ape-human hybrid.

The fact that Tulp refused to let his hand depict what his eyes were seeing goes to the heart of the threat that the chimpanzee's near-humanness has long posed to our consciousness. By depicting a nymphlike creature, he reinforced an age-old anthropocentric conception of human-like apes as mythic beings.

Travis' tragic end is a sadly familiar occurrence within today's equally distorting framework of trying to coerce evolution in a direction it didn't quite go for chimps, by making them be us: living on our turf and terms, dressing in our clothes, acting in our films and commercials, suffering in our research labs.

While researching a book about my days living in a retirement home for former chimp actors - chimps work as actors only until about the age of six, after which they become too strong and wilful; they then spend the rest of their lives, often 40 to 50 more years, behind bars - I happened to visit Mike and Connie Casey, the breeders who originally sold the baby Travis to Ms Sandra Herold.

Mrs Casey saw Travis' mother, Suzy, shot dead in 2001 when this chimp, too, escaped and got into a tussle with a dog.

Chimps are, like us, given to occasional violent outbursts, but they have exponentially greater strength. Chimps also have, like us, minds enough to lose and memories that can hasten the process. Wild chimps 'recruited' by poachers for entertainment watch as their mothers are gunned down - the only way a chimp mother would ever relinquish a child.

Chimps born in captivity are spared that experience, but they suffer the same premature separation from their mothers, isolation from their normal social groups and often mistreatment from trainers and keepers, all traumatic events that have been shown to cause deep psychological scarring and, as in human beings, can lead an animal to overreact to the slightest stimuli: the look in someone's eye, the colour of someone's hair or, as with Ms Herold's friend that day, hair done up in an unaccustomed style. These are, in short, deeply conflicted beings, evolutionary anomalies that only we could have created: chimps with names and yet no recollection of trees!

The most tragic example of this is Lucy, who lived in the late 1960s and early 70s. Raised from infancy to age 10 as a human child by the psychologist Maurice Temerlin and his wife, Jane, Lucy made her own meals, mixed her own cocktails, flipped through magazines, slept on soft mattresses, raised a pet cat, learned sign language - and had no contact whatsoever with other chimpanzees. By the time she reached sexual maturity, however, she became more and more difficult to handle, and the Temerlins decided they had to let Lucy go.

They chose to send her to a place that was the complete opposite of what she knew, a refuge that reintroduces captive chimps into the wild. Lucy, it will perhaps come as little surprise, struggled mightily. She refused to socialise with the other chimps, to climb trees, forage for food, make nests. She took to waiting beneath trees for the others' crumbs to fall.

Eventually, Lucy adopted an orphan baby chimp and mothered him until he died three years later of a stomach parasite. She herself barely survived a bout of hookworm, then began to show enough positive signs of socialising with the others that they were all left for a time to their own devices.

A year later, Lucy's skeleton was found near the shores of the island refuge, without, some reports said, her hands or feet. The cause of her death isn't known, but speculation is that Lucy, always the first to greet human visitors, one day unwittingly approached a group of poachers, who readily seized upon their overeager prey.

Lucy, Travis and all the others died for the same reason that Tulp couldn't draw the actual being seated before him: our ongoing inability to see animals outside our own fraught frame of reference. The chimp that Tulp, in fear of science, preserved as a mythic human, Temerlin tried to make a human, in science's name. Lost in the shuffle of either agenda were the animals themselves, creatures we still can't regard and respect for what they are and just leave alone.


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