Desolate Lives

A close-up look at the horrors humans visit upon animals. Wayne Grady

In a recent issue of The Globe and Mail, poet and novelist Lynn Crosbie explained why she will not be going to see the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes. When she sees chimpanzees, she writes, she feels “the nausea and fear I have long associated with … apes.” She does not like “the way they stare at you,” and finds in their unwavering gaze evidence that “nature hates us.”

“Is no one but me terrified of apes?” she asks.

Well, no. When Andrew Westoll entered the chimp house at Fauna Sanctuary, a privately run home in Quebec for “retired” research animals, the first thing he felt was “fear, which runs up my spine like a silverfish.” In The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery, his eloquent and passionate book about 13 great apes living in retirement near Chambly, Westoll argues that western society has long been terrified of apes. “Nineteenth-century explorers,” he writes, “refused to enter the Congo without an arsenal of guns, for fear of attack by the murderous beasts known as kivili-chimpenze (Bantu for ‘mock-man’).” Not until Jane Goodall studied chimps in Tanzania in the 1960s, he says, did we begin to view African primates as something other than implacable enemies. The problem, of course, is that we started to see them as valuable research tools instead.

Chimpanzees are great apes, and our closest relatives in the primate family. Just how close is a matter of debate, but they are very close: chimps share between 98 percent and 99.4 percent of our DNA. “Humans and chimps,” writes Westoll, “are genetically closer than rats are to mice. In a pinch, if the blood type is a match, a chimp’s blood can be safely transfused into a human.”

That is pretty close, but in fact we and chimpanzees may be even closer. At least rats and mice are different genera (a sewer rat is Rattus norvegicus; a house mouse is Mus musculus). In 2001, evolutionary biologist Pascal Gagneux noted that despite “striking differences” between humans and other primates, “the remarkable similarity among the genomes of humans and the African great apes could warrant their classification as a single genus.” In other words, humans, chimps and bonobos could one day all be grouped together within the genus Homo.

That would make mistreating chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) illegal under the same protocols that prevent the unwarranted confinement, enslavement and torture of human beings. As it stands, since the early 1920s, thousands of chimps have been removed from their native habitat and kept in cages in research laboratories throughout the United States (the only country still using chimps as test subjects for the treatment of such human diseases as polio, hepatitis B and AIDS). In New Mexico in the 1960s, chimps served as what Westoll calls “living crash-test dummies” in experiments to determine the effect of sudden deceleration (from 2,000 to 0 kilometres per hour in seconds) on the human body. They are still used as test subjects, the biomedical industry has claimed, because they are “almost human,” to quote the title of one of the first studies of the suitability of primates for human research; using them for experiments that cannot be conducted on humans is justified, the same industry reasons, because of Gagneux’s striking differences.

In 1986, when hepatitis vaccines were finally able to be tested on humans, the plan was to euthanize the 1,500 chimps then held in various research facilities. Then AIDS came to their rescue: it was thought that by injecting chimps with HIV, researchers could study how HIV-positive subjects develop AIDS. Despite decades of injections, however, not a single chimp has developed AIDS and no effective vaccine against hepatitis B has been developed from chimp research. The work, Westoll writes, has been “an ethical, financial, and scientific disaster.” But still it goes on.

The U.S. has between 800 and 1,000 chimps, as well as 6,000 other primates, among some 25 million research animals, including mice, rats, pigs and dogs, housed in labs across the country. Many of the chimps are too old or sick or insane to be useful, and so something has to be done with them. In too few cases, they are farmed (or smuggled) out to sanctuaries like Fauna, where they receive the care and attention that has been denied them all their lives.

Fauna Sanctuary is run by Gloria Grow and her veterinarian husband, Richard Allen. It consists of a 510-square-metre chimp house and a 9,300-square-metre outdoor recreational area that includes three islands, a tower and a few trees. Fauna received its first seven chimps in September 1997 from the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, New York University’s biomed facility, one of several similar institutes throughout the country. Typical among the arrivals was Tom, now a 34-year-old chimp who had been caught in Africa at the age of three (chimps normally spend their first seven years with their mothers, learning to socialize with other chimps), spent 16 years at the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico, then 15 more at LEMSIP, where he was injected with HIV and hepatitis B, shot with dart guns 369 times and subjected to 63 invasive biopsies. Eight more LEMSIP chimps arrived a month later, and in subsequent years Fauna received four retired chimps from zoos and circuses, making 19 in all: six have since died.

Westoll’s book is a chronicle of the three months he spent at Fauna, living and working with Grow and her staff, getting to know the chimps and appreciate the horrific depths of despair from which Fauna is trying to raise them. Fauna’s aim, he writes, is to “find ways to counter the profound distrust, fear, and anger that each chimpanzee held inside,” to restore these desolate animals to themselves. Westoll’s aim is to understand how “these particular selves are still in existence at all” after the physical and mental abuse they have suffered at places like LEMSIP.

There are, he says, three stages through which humans who work closely with chimpanzees pass: first they dream about chimps; then they feel that their own lives have been transformed by them; and finally they begin to search for lessons from the “chasm” that separates the chimpanzees’ lives from ours. By chasm, he does not mean the gap in nature that divides wild animals from us; he means the unnatural gulf that separates the tortured and maimed from the relatively protected. As Pat Ring, the local farmer who befriended Tom, describes it, “Put me through half of what Tom went through [at LEMSIP], and I’d want revenge. But not Tom … They’re better than us.” When Annie, one of Fauna’s original seven chimps, died at the age of 43 in 2002, Westoll writes that “for Gloria … Annie’s death meant the loss of a great mentor.”

Westoll devotes the first three quarters of his book to getting to know the chimps themselves, as individuals. Each emerges as a distinct self, from the “hoodlums” from LEMSIP—Jethro, Regis, Binky, Petra, Rachel and Chance—to the older survivors Tom, Pepper and Donna Rae; to Toby the loner; to the matriarchal Annie, who was born in Africa in 1959, captured and placed in a zoo and, when she was too old to perform, sent to a breeding facility; and to Spock, Maya and Sophie, who came to Fauna from the Quebec City Zoo. When Sophie died, of diabetes, an autopsy showed that her pancreas had either shrivelled away or been surgically removed.

The last quarter of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary recounts Grow’s and other animal rights activists’ attempt to convince the American government to pass the Great Ape Protection Act, legislation that would phase out the use of chimps as research tools, place a ban on breeding programs (there is currently a moratorium on captive breeding; GAPA would make it permanent) and retire all federally owned chimps to sanctuaries like Fauna. Westoll travels with Grow to Washington to speak to some of the act’s co-sponsors in the Senate. This is where we are given the wealth of evidence that prolonged captivity, even without invasive medical experimentation, has put chimpanzees “in a constant state of physical, mental, and psychic agony” that results in the heartbreaking behaviour we have seen in the rest of the book: “the uncontrolled aggression, the constant fear and anxiety vocalizations … innumerable episodes of self–mutilation … proven cases of [post-traumatic stress disorder] … [and] signs of progressive psychological deterioration.”

Despite the bill’s 157 co-sponsors and testimony from witnesses and supporters such as the U.S. Humane Society and the powerful New England Anti-Vivisection Society, GAPA remains in limbo. The Senate has other things on its mind these days. If you Google “GAPA” you will get links to Grandmothers Against Poverty and Aids and the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance before you get the Great Ape Protection Act.

Every Washington senator should read this eye-opening and heartbreaking book, as should every voter in Chambly: in response to Fauna Sanctuary, with visions of HIV-positive apes running loose in its streets, Chambly’s town council passed a bylaw prohibiting the importation of exotic animals. “By law,” Westoll writes, “Gloria cannot accept any more chimpanzees into her sanctuary.”

Nonetheless, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is a powerful testimony to the need to close the illusory gap between nature and us. Nature does not hate us; if anything, it is the other way around. In 1785, Robert Burns wrote despairingly of “man’s inhumanity to man,” which “makes countless thousands mourn.” Burns did not know the half
of it.