Thinking About Chimpanzees

Bruce Wagman

Lately I have been thinking about chimpanzees.  I have been fascinated by them since one spit on me as a child, and then overwhelmed by my first visit to Gombe National Park in the months before I began practicing law, when I saw their natural lives, as perfect as anything I could have imagined.  At about the same time I began to become painfully aware of their treatment by humans.  I’ve never fully returned from those first views of the Gombe chimpanzees and (on the same trip) the Rwanda gorillas, in the sense that I have always felt since that point that something had gone seriously wrong on the planet, and that my species was responsible.  What I mean is things like gorilla-hand ashtrays and chimpanzees in biomedical research where they are tortured daily, by virtue of their confinement in tiny cages with no enrichment, no stimulation for their minds, lying on metal floors alone in frightening situations.  The contrast between Gombe and that reality make heaven and hell seem like adjoining bedroom communities of the same large city.

The accepted facts are that chimpanzees have the intellectual capacity of a three- to five-year old human and their emotional lives are at least as rich and vibrant as ours.  So imagine taking any intelligent three-, four- or five-year old human that you know and locking her up, alone, in a metal cage without a toy or book or parent or sibling or friend.  Imagine then some horrible monster comes in every once in awhile and sprays her down or drags her out of her cage to be anesthetized and then dumped back in her cage.  That horror of horrors – which is legally repeated thousands of times a day for thousands of chimpanzees – is a reality that leaves me gasping for breath, fighting back tears, and feeling like I would give my life to change theirs.  

Where do we begin to make the change?  It’s not just to enforce the laws.  It’s probably something impossible – to change humans’ belief in the “otherness” of all other species, and our majority opinion that because “they” are different species, they do not feel or deserve the same as we do.  All that I know is what I have seen – the loving bond between chimpanzee family members, and even when it is not loving, the clear necessity of their society and connection.  Like ours.

And all I know is that under no version of “right” or “justice” or “justification,” does the mistreatment of chimpanzees make sense.  So I decided for me I would fight and use the law as my weapon, for the most part.  I love the chimpanzee cases, like when we argue they deserve special protection through guardians ad litem, which sometimes even their abusers agree they should have.  Or when we try to force the federal agencies to give them some meaningful coverage under the Animal Welfare Act – which they do not currently have.  Or try to get them out of the inevitable, undisputed torture and abuse that they experience so that we can “enjoy” them entertaining for us.  For I have learned it to be an immutable fact that if you have seen a chimpanzee or other great ape on television, or in a film, or in a print ad, that chimpanzee has been beaten, abused, psychologically tortured, and subjected to a life only marginally better than biomedical research, just for our viewing pleasure.  Please do not ever look at another chimpanzee in “entertainment” without understanding this fact, and asking yourself if it is alright with you.  It’s unacceptable, and no matter what humans think about research, I bet most of them think that is just not okay.

And then I have had the ultimate honor on multiple occasions of being a part of the large teams it takes to rescue them.  And that has happened through litigation, and also through negotiation.  My love of chimpanzees and my desire to make things better for them got me to the point a few years ago where I was part of the group that freed the last seven chimpanzees from decades of dungeon torture at a biomedical research venue and delivered them to the best possible world currently available – a sanctuary near the Columbia River Gorge (and the Gorge Amphitheatre) in Cle Elum, Washington. The Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest website (no thanks to me) is an incredible journey into the lives and history of our residents, with lots of great video and daily blogs about how amazing their recovery has been, from shutdown, shut-in suffering souls, to their own selves as chimpanzees.

 My work has given me the amazing gift of all these cases, and this latest honor – to be a small part of the group supporting the Cle Elum Seven – is beyond anything I could have imagined coming my way.  Not when I stood on those mountains and watched the Gombe chimpanzees, not when I got my J.D., and not when I took my first animal law case trying to keep a pet cemetery owner from exhuming the bodies of a dozen long-deceased companion animals.  I’ve gotten the firm involved with the sanctuary, with some of the Schiff Hardin lawyers providing pro bono time on the nonprofit issues that arise.  And I’ve been able to visit the Seven on just a few occasions, but get practically near-daily reports on their progress. 

It’s a sacred jewel I keep in my heart, knowing that they were taken from abject misery and suffering, and delivered to a loving, permanent home.  The daily caregivers there and CSNW’s permanent staff are devoting their lives to make the rest of the time on earth for Jody, Jamie, Missy, Burrito, Negra, Foxie and Annie so much better than the time before.  They are making the chimpanzees feel comfortable that they will no longer be abused, no longer be disrespected and disregarded, no longer be subjected to painful and terrifying procedures.  It is not Gombe, but given where they were and what has been done to them, it’s the best that humans can do to make up for what humans have done.  Their faces and minds and eyes are part of the thing that makes me carry on.

I guess I think about chimpanzees all the time.

3 Responses

  1. As a former keeper of chimps and then a veterinarian (tormentor in their eyes) I am witness to the facts presented here. I have a reoccurring nightmare. The dream involves me inside of a chimp squeeze-cage (a cage which allows one wall to be cranked inward to squeeze or immobilize the chimp inside) and the door is open. The cage is in a long hallway. At the end of the hallway I see a large male chimpanzee, Congo one of my patients, charging toward me. I am kicking wildly to get the door closed before he attacks me. Having witnessed the horrors of research, zoos and performance training for chimpanzees, I grow tired of the justifications used to continue these barbaric practices. Disease researchers claim to relieve human suffering, zoos claim to educate and conserve the species, and animal trainers claim to entertain to sell beer or whatever. The truth is less lofty and magnanimous. They do it for the money, zoos, circuses, and especially medical research centers in concert with the FDA, AMA, and the pharmaceutical-industrial complex. And due to our system of government where lobbyists pad the coffers of politicians, our government is a willing partner. Even the International Animal Exchange, an animal dealer where I was employed caring for Congo, paid a lobbyist in Washington, DC, to try to influence the failure of laws to protect wildlife.
    This blog is beautifully written and truthful. Thanks Bruce.

  2. I really connected with your thinking about chimpanzees. Coincidentally, at the same time you wrote this, I started a blog about my experience as a daughter of a Detroit Zoo chimptrainer back in the 1950s. Tracking down the histories of those cute little chimps, stolen from murdered mothers in Africa, and ending up in bioinvasive research, has opened my eyes to the utter desolation we foist on these magnificent cousins. Keep writing! We can’t stop writing until the U.S. has laws to protect them from us.

  3. Im sorry but chimps are nasty mean individuals that do not deserve anything more then what we give them. We need to keep them in the labs working. The things people talk about are the same things human men and woman go through every day in prison. Kept in 6×9 cells 23 hours a day. No privileges at all and I do not hear anyone crying about that. Humans are treated worse daily then chimps. All these people crying about chimps have a hidden agenda Money. After they get the chimps then the crying starts about the money they deserve. Its all B.S
    I say put them all down and then there will be no problem. The other thing we can do is release them into the wild and what happens happens. They are not helpless and they know how to survive. They dont need five years of training to be sent back.

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