June 2011

Barbara J. King


Thirteen Hearts and Souls: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

I expected to like Andrew Westoll’s nonfiction account of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. The topic, chimpanzees brought to sanctuary, after tough years consigned to biomedical research in many case, is dear to my heart. Westoll paid rite-of-primatological-passage dues watching monkeys in the Suriname forests, so street cred’s clearly on offer.

I expected to read descriptions of chimpanzee behavior and reflect back on books written by experts Jane Goodall, Christophe Boesch, and Frans de Waal. It’d all be territory familiar from years of observing, teaching about, and writing about apes, enhanced by these chimpanzees’  individual personalities in action.

So much for expectations.

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary blew me away. It is a master work that deserves an audience stretching from the US Congress to medical-school students to the widest possible public.

Westoll lived for months at Gloria Grow’s Fauna Sanctuary on rural pastureland in the Quebec region of Canada. Grow and her rescue team created there a “labyrinth of private and communal living spaces” for the apes, “one part Alcatraz and one part Rube Goldberg.” Once confined in tiny cages, many at a bioresearch outfit called LEMSIP (Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates) at New York University, the chimpanzees now go outdoors, and may even visit islands with outdoor playgrounds, trees, green grass, and places to hide. Control over their own lives, Westoll writes, is the singular gift that Grow strives to give the chimpanzees.

Day one, Westoll meets his first chimpanzee, Binky, and realizes a primate isn’t a primate isn’t a primate: “The monkeys in Suriname never looked at me this way,” he reflects. In part this is Westoll’s own story -- how he gained the trust of Grow and eventually the apes. It’s in equal part Grow’s story, and a thrilling one at that, because she’s a woman of uncommon tenacity and heart.

But by Westoll’s design, the 13 chimpanzees overshadow everyone else in the book. We meet Rachel, who carries everywhere with her two stuffed miniature gorillas for comfort, but who succumbs to such overwhelming anxiety that she attacks her own limbs. We meet Tom, fresh from 15 years at LEMSIP and 16 more at the Alamagordo Primate Facility in New Mexico. Westoll sums up Tom’s life before he met Gloria:

For more than thirty years, he was repeatedly infected with increasingly virulent strains of HIV, went through numerous hepatitis-B studies, and survived at least sixty-three liver, bone marrow, and lymph-node biopsies. Tom has gone through more surgeries than anyone else at Fauna -- by Gloria’s estimate, he was knocked unconscious at least 369 times, but this number is based on incomplete medical records and is certainly an underestimate.

It was Tom who arrested me the most. He’d arrived at the sanctuary with a foot injury sustained in a fight with another male. Given oral antibiotics, Tom developed diarrhea. So Grow and her team asked Tom to comply in his own care. The first step was to put his foot in a bowl of water. Westoll recounts Grow’s memory: “It sounds crazy to say it now. And we were completely shocked when Tom just did it, no questions asked.” And he pushed his foot through to caretakers, too, so they could pat it dry and apply antibiotic cream.

Soon, Tom indicated he wanted to continue the care all on his own.  And so, in Grow’s words: “We made him a tray with everything he’d need -- paper towels, tissues, the spatula, the ointment in a Dixie cup.” Tom treated himself capably. Later, the chimpanzee Regis sustained a bad bite wound. At first, Grow treated him, but when Regis’s strength returned, that option was no longer safe. She then left for Tom all the medical materials on a trolley; Tom cleaned and treated Regis’s wound for a week.  

Does Tom’s nursing behavior seem incredible? Here’s where Goodall’s, Boesch’s, and de Waal’s research comes in. Decades of research in the wild and captivity shows that chimpanzees are remarkably resourceful and intuitive problem-solvers, just as Tom was in this instance.  

Yet it was a pair of novels that pushed themselves most powerfully into my consciousness as I read The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. In both Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go and Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit, the state selects certain people to undergo surgical donation of vital organs, indeed, to “complete” (die) in service to others whose lives are deemed more significant. Are the parallels not inescapable, with what had once been done to Tom and what is today done to the 1,000 chimpanzees still housed as test subjects in U.S. biomedical facilities?    

In a most welcome way, Westoll balances the inevitable grimness in the chimpanzees’ story with humor at day-to-day sanctuary life. Now and again, he errs in matters of fact. Chimpanzee females don’t “usually” bond in the wild in a network of solidarity and support. Chimpanzee female swellings at their most turgid don’t signal menstruation, in fact, just the opposite part of the cycle, ovulation. To write “monkeys and baboons” is a taxonomic taboo (baboons are monkeys). Normally I’d be all over mistakes like these, but guess what? I just couldn’t care.

Or to put it another way, I cared too much about Tom, and the lessons on offer from all the chimpanzees, to fuss about anything extraneous. “The Fauna staff,” Westoll writes in a key passage, “acted on the simple but revolutionary idea that resilience in the face of suffering is not limited to humans but is a trait shared across species lines and perhaps throughout the animal kingdom -- that the same persistence in the face of tragedy that keeps Gloria going every day may also be present in the chimpanzee heart and soul.”

Closing this book, I did two things. I listened, on repeat play, to the Decemberists’ stirring song "This is Why We Fight." Its lyrics, to me, echo themes of the book:   

When we die
We will die with our arms unbound
And this is why
This is why we fight

So come to me
Come to me now
Lay your arms around me

And I mailed a note and donation to the Fauna sanctuary, thanking Gloria Grow for letting these chimpanzees live, as they will eventually die: with their arms

To help, please consult http://faunafoundation.org/ (The Chimps of Fauna concludes with an excellent “how you can help” list, too.)

--Barbara J. King’s work with animals is described at www.barbarajking.com