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.   Continue reading