Living among the chimpanzees
Primatology has taken UTSC's Westoll in unexpected directions
UTSC staff writer Andrew Westoll’s latest book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, explores the fraught relationship between two great apes: humans and chimpanzees. This exploration occurs in the context of Westoll’s personal account of the time he spent at Fauna Sanctuary in Quebec—a refuge for chimpanzees who had previously been used in research or in the entertainment industry, or had otherwise been raised and then rejected by humans. Westoll, a primatologist by training, examines the range of human perspective of chimpanzees, from those who view chimps as useful laboratory animals to those who view them as a sentient sibling species deserving of the same consideration we afford our own species.
What follows is a discussion between Westoll and Malcolm Campbell, UTSC vice-principal (research).
Malcolm Campbell: There is an affecting passage in your book about the stages one goes through when living and interacting with chimpanzees. Can you tell me more about these stages?
Andrew Westoll: The first thing that happens is, the chimps begin to work their way into your dreams. The longer you spend with them, the more intricate those dreams become. The second thing that happens is, you begin to reflect back on your own life. You come to some sort of understanding or realization about your own path, your failings or your strengths.
MC: Like some sort of epiphany.
AW: Yes, something comes to you. For me, after spending so long with animals who have lost so much, who have lost so many important individuals in their lives — either chimps or humans — I suddenly realized that I’d never lost anyone important to me. This sent me on a very emotional journey. I reached a level of compassion I didn’t think was possible.
MC: And the third step?
AW: The third is the most optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. You begin to search for some kind of message from them — some kind of volley from the other side of the chasm. You begin searching it out in all of your interactions.
MC: In that passage, you also discuss what may be a defining feature of us as a species: we ask why. We want to know why things are the way they are. Do you think chimpanzees ask why?
AW: I ask myself that question all the time, because if any beings on this planet have a reason to ask why, it’s these chimpanzees. They’ve all gone through so much in biomedical laboratories in the name of science, in the name of asking “Why?” about a whole ream of really important questions. It’s impossible to sit there and look at a chimp in the face and its spirit and have playtime with them or just hang out with them and not get a sense of a deeper level of consciousness coming from them.
MC: You write a lot about the exploitation of chimpanzees as a consequence of their relatedness to us. But I’d like to play a bit of a devil’s advocate here and ask: Might some people view your book as merely a continuation of this exploitation?
AW: Gloria Grow, the founder of the Fauna Foundation, has a real opinion about this. Gloria feels awful whenever she has to tell a chimpanzee story to a reporter or an audience. She feels like she’s exploiting them. But the thing is, she’s using their stories for the betterment of their situation—and the 1,000 chimps still living in American laboratories.
MC: I think you captured the situation with Gloria and her internal conflict over this very nicely, especially when she makes the trip to Washington, D.C., to speak on behalf of the Great Ape Protection Act.
AW: It’s the same when she brings visitors to Fauna. She’s secretly hoping Sue-Ellen will go over to Pepper and give her a big hug, or that Binky will play a practical joke, or that Sue Ellen will put her lips through the bars. Her main mission is to make people care, and I think it’s necessary to use their stories in order to make people care.
MC: Is a book like The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary going to be enough for some people to care, or do they actually need to see this stuff for themselves—chimpanzees being experimented on in captivity—to have that touchstone experience that will force them to act?
AW: It’s both an amazing part of being human and a really depressing part of being human that the things that best motivate us are our direct experiences. I just hope I’ve done a good enough job with the narrative that readers feel they’ve had as close to a first-hand experience as possible.
MC: You’ve had a rather unorthodox career, first as a biologist and now as a writer. All too often, when people immerse themselves in the research enterprise as an undergraduate or graduate student, they feel the only career path available to them is the academic career path. You have clearly enjoyed great success by not following that path. But did research open doors for you?
AW: Absolutely. I didn’t leave science; science came along with me. Research fieldwork is such an enlightening experience because you’re in it, you’re surrounded by it, you’re living it. You grow as a scientist being out the field, but you also grow as a person. There’s a strong connection between biological fieldwork, writing and journalism — in terms of connecting the dots, listening and watching and experiencing the world and drawing your own conclusions.
MC: It’s a lens through which you’re able to view and interpret the world.
AW: Exactly. The fieldwork I did in my 20s will always be the most important experience I’ve ever had.
MC: So what advice would you give young researchers as they embark upon that research right now?
AW: The obvious: Don’t worry so much about where you’re going. Don’t worry so much about the next 10 years. Just think about the next one or two. Because when you keep yourself open, that’s when amazing things can happen.
This story first appeared in UTSC Commons.