Photo: © N. Megna
A personal account from a former laboratory caregiver who asks to remain anonymous.
When I was asked to do this story by a friend and former lab caregiver, I wasn’t sure if I could for a couple of reasons. First, because while I am certain that it is simply wrong to conduct invasive medical research on chimpanzees, the nature of the debate itself is something that has always troubled me. I am worried that many people turn a deaf ear since the debate is so polarized. Obviously at the heart of the debate are issues that human beings may find offensive and threatening. These issues are fundamental in many ways to how we view ourselves as humans, so that I hardly feel qualified to discuss or debate them.
But because I have had the privilege and honor in my life to know some chimpanzee beings as well as many human beings, I do not hesitate in my own judgment that invasive research on chimpanzees is not justifiable, especially in today’s high-tech world.
It seems to me that the best thing I can do is to help others who have not known chimpanzees get to know them, to understand them. Chimpanzees feel and react to their world in much the same way that humans do; chimpanzees can and do laugh, grieve, tease, manipulate and deceive. Their emotions and basic understandings range as widely as ours.
The other reason that I hesitated is because of shame. I no longer work with the two chimpanzees that I am going to describe, and I doubt that I will ever see either of them again. I left because I couldn’t bear seeing apes (or monkeys) in biomedical research.
Many of the people that I worked with at the lab were quite nice and the organization I worked for treated me fairly as an employee. My benefits and pay were good, especially for being an animal caregiver. It’s not a profession you expect to make you wealthy! And to be honest, I learned a lot, mostly from my colleagues. Some of the things I learned enabled me [to] clarify some of my own values for myself, and I was also able to learn a great deal about chimpanzee behavior. So there is also an element of concern that I be fair to people who still work inside of laboratories; it is not my wish to demonize anyone.
But back to my shame. I’m not there anymore. I still work with great apes and truthfully, the needs of the apes I work with now press upon me constantly, which I think is natural and good. Yet I will always feel that I abandoned those others because of my own weakness and selfishness. There are even times that I actively try not to think of those “lab chimps.” Like a lot of people in these times, I feel pretty disenfranchised. How can someone like me change the world? I doubt that I can.
Yet I know that I owe it to our closest living relatives to add my one voice to the collective voice of others who share my concerns. Hopefully one day we can convince the world to extend its scope of compassion for the entire human race to the entire animal kingdom.
I remember Amos, perhaps most clearly of them all, because he possessed a terrific charisma. Amos, to this day is the most handsome male chimpanzee I have ever met, and also perhaps the most confidently macho.
He was mostly indifferent to humans; in fact, if he looked at you it was unusual. We considered it a gift if he acknowledged you by requesting to be recipient (naturally) of a very rare, very short grooming session or if he accepted a piece of food directly from you. Amos ran his group rather cleverly and he did have his hands full with several powerful females and a small group of up and coming males with which to contend.
Years later, when I saw free-living chimpanzees in Africa, I thought of proud Amos. It only affirmed his uniqueness for me. Captive chimpanzees often develop an over-dependence on their caregivers, it seems to me. Not illogically so, since we dictate every aspect of their lives. Some chimpanzees develop this neediness, and still others, horribly mistreated, come to hate and distrust all humans. Sadly enough, many of the worst treated chimpanzees develop the most dependence, much like abused humans. Amos was his own man.
One of my least favorite impressions that humans have about chimpanzees is that caring for them in captivity is like working with children. This is obviously reinforced by the entertainment industry. Unless the chimps in question are actually children, this is so unfair and untrue. Whenever someone asks me this kind of question or makes such a comment, I always think of Amos. No one that ever knew him could deny his wholeness and power as an adult male chimpanzee. To refer to him as a child is the greatest of insults.
So as I remember Amos, he retained an intact sense of male self and an incredible level of self-confidence. I wish he had been born and lived in Africa three hundred years ago.
Then there was Wenka. She was an old lady then….
In some ways, she fell into the category of a chimpanzee desperately seeking love from the one source she remembered as a child, but I think if I met her now, some of my impressions would be different, having known more chimpanzees since then.
My most prominent memory of her other than her age is her hands. She had beautiful hands. Her fingers were long and delicate, her palms fragile, and they seemed to perfectly represent her sweet and passive nature. Yet there was a part of her that had lived long enough, she knew the system and tried her best to make it work to her advantage.
When Wenka came to my area, she was housed with two pre-adolescents, Brooks and Frannie. Little motherless Frannie broke my heart with her obvious longing for maternal care. Brooks was a typical young boy chimp, full of mischief, and boisterous, especially since he had no real social group to deal with him and his energy.
There was some hope that Wenka would be sort of a mother to Frannie, which didn’t materialize. Maybe Wenka didn’t know how to be a mother, since she certainly wasn’t raised by her own, or perhaps she’d had one too many babies taken from her by humans, but she seemed like she just wanted to be left in peace. She was old and grateful for the small kindnesses, like good fruit and sunshine.
Brooks tried to torment both girls, but Wenka was better at deflecting it. She wouldn’t allow Brooks to take her food, like Frannie would and was good at distracting Brooks so that she had a better chance of gathering any coveted foods. Frannie would scream and want to fight, usually to no avail. Wenka knew that a female couldn’t win with the likes of a growing male like Brooks. Perhaps she did teach Frannie a few things about coping with life in a cage. I hope so.
Wenka’s hands were also remarkably expressive. She had a curious habit of rubbing them together, as if she were washing them. This activity could have been an abnormal behavior or just an old habit, but it was uniquely hers. She was a sweet old lady, and I wonder how she is doing these days. It would be nice if she could be retired and live out her days quietly with other older chimps, enjoying good food, soft bedding and warm sunshine.
These chimpanzees are just a few of many who live out their lives in bleak laboratories, sometimes enduring painful and frightening experimentation. They haunt my memories, but memory is all that I have to endure.
As TS Eliot wrote in his famous poem “The Hollow Men” - “Life is very long.” A chimpanzee can live for well over 50 years. Why do we condemn them when they have committed no crime?