August 2009

Barbara J. King

features

A Wild (and Captive) Wauchula Night for Chimpanzee and Man

Apes, chimpanzees in particular, are notably volatile. Measured in their behavior one moment, they are impulsive the next; calm of mood for a while, they agitate readily. Writing about chimpanzees (and other sentient animals) in The Wauchula Woods Accord, Charles Siebert mirrors this volatility. He tacks from insightful probing into animal-human relationships to over-the-top fancying of apes as living relics of our ancestral past. Siebert's narrative wobbles along as unsteadily as an infant primate taking its first steps.

The book is structured around a middle-of-the-night encounter between Siebert and a 28-year-old chimpanzee named Roger who is housed at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, a small town in south-central Florida. The CGA, in my brief experience a well-run and inspiring sanctuary to visit, houses 42 apes cast-off from stints in the entertainment industry -- apes like Bam Bam, the orangutan who played a nurse on a televised soap opera; Jonah and Jacob, chimpanzee stars of commercials and a movie; and Roger, who performed with Ringling Brothers circus.

Siebert arrived at the CGA as part of a cross-country tour of great ape facilities: some are state-of-the-art, like the CGA and the sanctuary called Save the Chimps, others are roadside attractions that should be ancestral relics in their own right, but aren't. As Siebert first toured CGA with its founder Patti Ragan, he met Roger. "The moment Roger saw me," Siebert writes, "he seemed utterly convinced that we already knew each other." Seibert racked his brain to think if he could in fact have met the ape before. Many years ago, he had encountered a few young chimpanzees, but he was certain that the dates and locations were all wrong for any of them to have been Roger.

Siebert becomes mesmerized by Roger -- a damaged, sad ape who is the only one of CGA's residents who cannot bear to cohabit with others of his species. One night, Siebert slips out of his cottage on the CGA grounds and makes his way to Roger's cage. (Depending on your point of view, this act constitutes either an obnoxious nose-thumb at the CGA rules, or an enlightened decision based on apes-first, rules-second thinking.)

In notes taken from 3:24 a.m. to 5:19 a.m. (he is oddly precise about the times), Siebert reflects on Roger's state of mind and on the nature of his relationship with the ape, intercutting these passages with others about the sorry history of people's treatment of primates, elephants, and cephalopods.

What Siebert tries to do is admirable and sometimes successful. He describes the 17th-century anatomist Tulp's "surreal" distorting of the figure of an ape hat he set out to render as he observed, day after day, a chimpanzee who had been shipped from Africa to the private menagerie of a Dutch ruler. "The creature," writes Siebert. "looks more like a potbellied forest nymph dreamily sleeping off a good drunk" than a chimpanzee. In other words, Tulp saw what he wanted to see, not the animal before his eyes. Nowadays, Siebert writes, our fellow apes are made to "pedal around circus rings on multi-seated bikes, and [in commercials] pull down their pants and sit on office copy machines… and all for the same essential reason" that Tulp couldn't fashion an accurate ape image, "an ongoing inability to see animals outside of our own fraught frame of reference. To see them for who and what they really are and just let them be."

When Siebert intends to shock us into recognition of human stupidity, he succeeds. As I turned from page 87 to page 88, I gasped. The image of Mary the elephant is one that will stay with me for a very long time. The photo shows Mary, in 1916 Tennessee, hanging by the neck from a huge industrial crane, her death penalty for killing a caretaker who had prodded her with a metal hook.

The book's central premise is spot on: "The degree to which we humans will finally stop abusing other creatures and, for that matter, one another will ultimately be measured by the degree to which we come to understand how integral a part of us all other creatures actually are."

Too often in writing about Roger, though, Siebert's prose is overwrought. As he considers the "uncharted terrain" he finds himself in with Roger, he describes "a steady shuffling off of my personhood in the direction of the non-me of being." As he spews out non-sentences, his agitation swells: "Another wave of unbridled terror upon which to keep riding away from myself. Before that relentless keeper that is human consciousness could begin to rein me back in. To close, one by one, the doors on all the other creatures I know myself to be, and to once have been, including Roger."

He fantasizes about touching Roger: "I see a hand, as though not my own, beginning to move through the air beyond the red line [meant to keep visitors a safe distance from the apes]. Tapping at the very edges of that tensile web Roger has woven between us, just waiting for him to fully awake to who I am and then take me in, his warm, musky scent melding now with the rusty essence of my own spilled blood, and that inner voice still droning 'Go on… and on… it's a fine way to die'." Later in the book, Siebert returns to the death theme: "[Roger] could kill me so easily that it somehow only heightens my desire to let him."

Maybe sitting and communing with a chimpanzee is a Rorschach test of sorts. Clearly, what Siebert see when he gazes into Roger's eyes is his own lost evolutionary past. This fact is beaten into readers' heads over and over, as when Siebert muses about "back in that not so distant time when he and I were, in fact, one and the same." At one point Siebert even sighs that he's tired of being "only a man."

And we get it too, because he tells us, that Siebert is "uncommonly attuned" to chimpanzees. Isn't that the kind of thing you're supposed to let other people say about you, rather than declare yourself?

Here's the real problem though: How can an insistence upon seeing a chimpanzee as some kind of nonstarter in the human evolutionary lineage fit with seeing apes as they really are? Siebert gives us a human-focused narrative just where he shouldn't -- in a book about the folly of treating animals as our species's playthings.

It's unmistakable that Siebert meant something to Roger. Had he, after all, met Roger as a youngster? The book's ending revisits this question. Siebert also also recounts a phone call he had with Patti Ragan: after he departed the CGA, Roger the chimpanzee changed. He began to relax around and even play with other chimpanzees. Although The Wauchula Woods Accord is only a partial success, the outcome for Roger of that wild and captive night in Florida has been wholly positive.

 

Barbara J. King teaches Anthropology at the College of William and Mary and can be reached at bjking09@gmail.com