April 2009

Barbara J. King

features

Gorillas at Risk, Animals at Play, and a Writer’s Place in the World

It’s ill-timed with spring’s joyful renewal and all, but I’ve been lost in post-apocalyptic anxiety. This I attribute to reading two books in the same week, an unplanned pairing that spawned a dose of dread.

On the science side, I read, for The Washingon Post, Anthony Barnosky’s Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. More than any other single source, Barnosky’s treatise convinced me that, because of climate change, we’re headed for animal extinctions on a scale unprecedented in our planet’s history.

On the fiction side, I found myself muscle-taut and dream-dogged by James Kunstler’s novel, A World Made by Hand, set in upstate New York in the wake of unspecified bomb-laden calamities.

I read and I worried. Barnosky forces the full-on realization that even as ecologists work to preserve particular tracts of land, the climate surrounding those tracts is warming and drying so much that many animals are pushed off them in search of more hospitable temperatures. Kuntsler’s main characters, as they endure the collapse of a high-tech consumer society, seem all to be hardy flu survivors who know how to jerry rig a shower from spare parts or concoct a delicious evening meal out of weeds and bones. They revert to a rigid division of labor where the ladies clean the clothes and make the food, and the gun-toting guys refer to “their women” in ways that made me twitch.

From there, it was a short step to fretting of a smaller and more personal nature. In such a world, what good would I be? What could I contribute? Would there arise among my neighbors a clamor to be taught about the development of cognition, consciousness, and communication in primates? Could my research on ape gesture become a bartered skill as I publicly interpreted the nonverbal nuances of people running for local political office? Could I organize Fahrenheit-451-style oral recitations to promote the literary arts?

Would people write books in longhand on scrap paper and beg me to review them? Would anyone pledge to read my own books, if I kept on writing them?  These questions bubbled up and then boiled down to this: What good is a writer in a post- apocalyptic world?

When my mental flailing wound down, an answer came, and it came through books, two nonfiction children’s books I’d been meaning to read and finally did.

She caught my eye, the bright-eyed gorilla youngster on the cover of Looking for Miza: The True Story of the Mountain Gorilla Family Who Rescued One of their Own. Most of the authors, Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff and Dr. Paula Kahumbu (working with photographer Peter Greste) were known to me from the wonderful Owen & Mzee books, tales of friendship between a baby hippo and an old tortoise living in Kenya. This time, the team writes about a gorilla family caught up in events in a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, the former Zaire).

Hatkoff et al. focus on the family led by Kabirizi, a magnificent silverback male with a proud posture (Greste’s photographs are themselves magnificent). Kabirizi’s group, like others in the DRC, struggles to survive and to stay together in the face of threats from poachers and loggers. One day in summer 2007, park rangers who protect the gorillas discovered that a two-year-old infant was missing from the group. This was Miza, and her absence upset the rangers. “The bamboo forest seemed unnaturally quiet,” Hatkoff et al. write. “It was clear that something frightening had happened. A silverback’s protective sense is very strong. Kabirizi had led his family high into the mountains to hide.”

When the gorillas re-emerged, the rangers saw that Miza and her mother were not among them, nor was Kabirizi. Several days later, they finally did see the silverback. When Miza peeked out from the vegetation too, the rangers exulted, because “Kabirizi had found Miza and brought her home.”

Wisely, Hatkoff et al. leave the probable fate of Miza’s mother up to the imagination. It’s clear that Miza herself was troubled:  “Upon her return, Miza was very shy and timid, and she was very, very hungry. She was afraid of the rangers and hid behind the bigger gorillas… The skin on her hands had turned bright red and had peeled, and her hair was beginning to fall out. She was in pain” and had trouble feeding herself.

What the authors describe is, I believe, post-traumatic stress: readers familiar with large sentient mammals will intuit that the infant had experienced a trauma, most probably as she witnessed the violent death of her mother.

There’s a happy ending for Miza, and thus for the book: The rangers consult a veterinarian, who decides that Miza should recover with her family rather than being whisked away into a sanctuary. Miza’s big sister and her half-brother carry and comfort her. Her family is the key to Miza’s recovery.

Admittedly, the trained-to-a-fault skeptic in me wondered: Can we really know that Kabirizi searched for Miza and brought her home? But academic head games would miss the point. Looking for Miza teaches kids about some harsh realities of our world, yet with a gauze of protection; this is as it should be, because only with hope can we move forward to help our fractured world. The book’s epilogue makes this viewpoint explicit: “Miza’s story is an important reminder. It shows that family care and protection can help one get strong and feel secure. It shows that dedicated people can help endangered animals survive.” An appendix invites readers to help the gorillas of Africa.

The subject matter is lighter in Marc Bekoff’s Animals at Play: Rules of the Game (illustrations by Michael J. DiMotta). Bekoff, an ethologist who sometimes teams with Jane Goodall, and whose work is becoming a national treasure of insight and activism, writes frequently about animal emotion. Here he showcases a behavior all kids resonate with: play. There’s good science conveyed here: “Look closely. You’ll notice a similar pattern with all days at play. Shorty wants to play, so he approaches Cody. He stops in front of her, crouching on his front legs, his rump in the air, wagging his tail. This is a play bow. It’s how Shorty asks Cody to play.”

Bekoff probes the play of different species, and DiMotta’s illustrations enliven the words: “Imagine if elephants played like dogs -- running, jumping, chasing! The forests and savannas, or grasslands, would be in shreds. So might the elephants! Elephants don’t play quickly. Their play looks like a dance. They move slowly toward each other, swaying their heads and trunks… they rest their tusks and trunks on the other’s back…”

Bekoff doesn’t directly address animal conservation or protection issues (as he does brilliantly in books for adults), but what better foundation for kids’ kindness to animals than knowledge of those animals in all their joy and sorrow and smartness? The playing animals in this book apologize to each other when things get too rough, and shun those who lie. Kids will relate.

These children’s books helped me remember that we humans have told each other stories, orally and through art, often about the animals in our world, for many thousands of years. Now, writers create stories pre-apocalyptically to ensure that our planet never lives post-apocalyptically.

In Kunstler’s fiction world, the survivors haven’t quite gotten the hang of how to make anesthesia. Visits to the dentist are grim affairs, a need for the surgeon even worse. Let’s run with the metaphor: One way that writers (in dynamic conversation with readers) contribute is through a refusal to anesthetize ourselves against the growing environmental crisis. We write for ourselves, we write for our children, we write for change.