Something Wild

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Something Wild

By Charles Siebert, New York Times

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.” “She never bothered anyone.” But when those same sentiments are voiced in the aftermath of a chimpanzee attack like the one in Stamford, Conn., 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 — their tantalizing closeness to us in both appearance and genetic detail — that has always driven human beings to behavioral 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 sat day after day in the private menagerie of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, and 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 drunk. Not a chimpanzee so much as an ape-human hybrid.

The fact that Tulp, a man of science, 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 humanlike apes as mythic beings, fearsome man-beasts, living cautionary tales against our own often beastly and rapacious tendencies.

Tulp’s willful distortion may seem laughable now, something that we modern-day humans have advanced beyond, but we need look no further than Travis to dispel that conceit. His 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 6, after which they become too strong and willful; 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 Sandra Herold and who raise and rent out their own chimps for commercials and children’s birthday parties.

Connie Casey saw Travis’s mother, Suzy, shot dead back in 2001 when this chimp, too, escaped and got into a tussle with a dog. In 2005, four former chimp actors undid the lock of a retirement home known as the Carson Center for Chimps (as in Johnny Carson) on the grounds of a roadside animal attraction called Zoo Nebraska. As patrons ran for cover, three chimps were killed. One, named Ripley, managed to return to the Carson Center and close himself back in.

Six months before that incident, two former chimp actors who had grown up and trained with Ripley escaped their enclosure at a retirement sanctuary in Southern California and badly mauled a visitor much in the same way that Travis did Ms. Herold’s friend.

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 color 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 socialize 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 socializing with the others that they were all left for a time to their own devices. A year later, however, 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.


Read In Loving Memory of Dorothy, a chimp who lived for decades on the end of a chain at an amusement park; she was rescued and completed eight wonderful years at In Defense of Animals' Sanaga-Yong Center surrounded by chimps and people who loved her.


Dorothy

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