Saturday, February 24, 2007

Man's Closest Relative, Depressed

Chimps are our closest living relative, and depending on how you compare the DNA, their DNA and ours is 96 to 99 percent identical. This is not a good deal for the chimp, as it makes chimps the subject of numerous experiments, including being shot into space to orbit the earth, and being subject to numerous hideous medical tests and a lifetime of confinement and testing. In 1998 NASA got rid of it's remaining 141 chimps, sending 111 to become medical test subjects, see article here. Nice that after giving years of service on mans behalf they were sent away to a facility that had been cited for numerous violations, doomed to spend the rest of their lives getting experimented on.

I won't rant about animal testing here, I'll just point out that we as a society value informed consent and freedom immensely. For every medical procedure there are requirements that the patient be informed of the risks, and for every drug, and we have developed all sorts of warning labels. If you go on a raft trip, you sign a release that you know it's dangerous, and you want to do it anyway. Animals don't consent to experiments - and most we can't communicate with well enough to ask them. Yet with chimps and gorillas, we can - if we bother to teach them sign language. We actually have the ability to ask them questions, and who knows, maybe they would volunteer to be stuck with a needle if it might help. I have no doubt that Koko, the compassionate and articulate gorilla, might be ok with getting stuck with a needle if she saw someone with Alzheimer's and was told the testing might help that person. She's prove time and again her compassion for mankind, so you never know. But if we aren't going to obtain consent, or even try, let's leave the animals alone, let's be ethically consistent, not assume they are not worthy of respect.

At Sweetwaters Nature Preserve in Kenya, there is a Jane Goodall Chimp Preserve, which I was looking forward to visiting. It turned out to be one of the most depressing stops of the trip. Each chimp has been rescued from the "pet trade" or a bush meat market, or some other horrific and traumatic past. Like abused children, the chimps obviously carry this trauma with them, and you can see it in their eyes. It's so horrible what people do to animals (and one another for that matter), it's hard to think about. In the preserve, the chimps are divided into two family groups separated by a river (they don't like to cross water).

A new fence had been recently completed, and it was extensive - very high, sloping inward at the top, with electric was prison-like. The guards explained that they had to construct it because the chimps kept breaking out. Like us, they value freedom, and they kept trying for prison breaks, climbing trees, trying to use sticks to construct bridges to go over the fence, climbing the fence, and basically doing everything they could to get out. But they had become resigned to their prison, and depressed - it showed.

Despite the past trauma and the current confinement, there was another problem: all the chimps were on birth control. The females had an implant that was changed every few years, preventing pregnancy. The chimps of course don't know why they are not reproducing, and in chimp culture babies are a huge group bonding resource and a source of joy. Chimps compete to hold or be near the baby (I saw baboons do this too with a newborn, and their complete joy and desire to be the one touching or holding the baby was extremely blatant). These chimps keep trying and never have a baby. For all they know it's like the recent movie Children of Men where the world has gone infertile and there are no more children. (Everyone gets depressed, society degenerates, and a childless world is a bleak and hopeless one). The movie could just as well have been inspired by looking at these childless chimps, living in a world with no babies, wondering what the heck is going on.

I was startled to the core when I first heard a chimp scream. It was this chimp in the photo, screaming as he climbed a tree to look around - and it was a warning cry of some kind that meant "Danger!" I know that, though I don't know how - but it was like a language you have heard before and don't remember all the words to, but you do know one here and there. It strikes something deep inside you and you know instantly, the same way that when you look into the eyes of a lion in the wild you know you are not really on top of the food chain without your weapons - the lion is. Your brain is well aware of this. It remembers somehow that lions are to be feared and that the chimp's danger call is to be heeded (it could mean warning: lion!, after all).

There is no doubt in my mind that Jane Goodall is a wonderful scientist and a compassionate woman and that she is doing a great thing in saving chimps and giving them sanctuaries and in educating the world about their plight and their humanity, as best she can. But I also don't doubt that if she saw how depressed the Sweetwaters chimps are, maybe she would re-think the birth control, or otherwise try to come up with something to make their eyes sparkle again - some toys, or teaching them and their captors ASL so they could talk to each other, or something.

I am hoping to see chimps in the wild, in their natural habitat, in the next few months. I hope it will be a stark contrast to the captives. Chimps are fascinating, but also share mankind's bad traits: anger, jealousy, envy, violence, greed. Chimps have been known to lead war parties to take rival territory and to kill and even eat rival chimps from other groups. They can also be terrible to one another, picking on each other and bullying like on the worst school playground. You don't have to learn much about them to see just how much like us they really are. We are supposed to be more evolved than they are...but sadly, we don't always act that way.

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