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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Accepting the Things We Can't Change-- and Fighting Tooth and Nail to Change the Things We Can

I have a friend who is in her late eighties. She and I speak on the phone about once a week, because we  live in different states and cannot meet in person. She is about thirty-seven years older than I am, and we met when I was in my late twenties. My friend is vibrant and alive and healthy for her age, and she is a happy person with an active social life. In fact, her social life is a lot more active than mine. As we were about to hang up the other day, she said: "You shouldn't let your animals run your life."

She meant Bow, but she could not remember his name. She can't seem to remember that he is a chimpanzee, anymore, either. But she knows that I have to stay home all day with him, and she doesn't really understand how I could let that happen.

"If I were you," she tells me, "I would not let my animals run my life. I would go out whenever I wanted to, and if I found they had misbehaved when I was gone, I would punish them with such dire consequences that they would not dare repeat it! I would beat them within an inch of their life."

Bow is sitting there right next to me, and he hears every word she says. It used to make him very angry when she said such things, and he would act up, and spell "she is bad" on the glass, and I used to have to caution her to stop, but now Bow sits placidly by and tolerates this. He's long since stopped trying to correct her when  she refers to him as a dog. "She is not okay," he will tell me later. "She doesn't remember anything."

My friend suffers from short term memory loss. She is still the same person she was before. Her personality hasn't changed, and her wit can be quite sharp. She remembers the great depression very clearly and can tell you how to grind wheat into flour by hand. But she's not good at remembering what I told her last week, or the week before, or a month ago, and she doesn't remember things that she knew about me nine years ago.

Now, normally, I am very critical of people for not remembering things. If I have an acquaintance who doesn't remember anything I tell him, I figure this acquaintance has not been paying attention, and I ease up on the contact. But this friend can't help it. This is something that has happened to her recently, and I know that it can't be helped. So Bow and I forgive her for saying what she says.

There are other friends, more distant ones, who voice similar concerns, or who fail to voice them, but give off that kind of vibe. There are friends who do not understand why I can't go visit them but insist that they come see me. Or who, when they do come to see me, don't understand why I have to stay  in the pens all day, unless Lawrence relieves me. They have animals: dogs, cats, horses, and they love their animals, but their animals do not run their lives.

For people, especially rural people, who have never dealt with a chimpanzee, but who have plenty of experience with other animals, it may seem as if I have failed to discipline Bow, and I have ceded my life over to him. But among the chimpanzee activists, I have critics who voice the opposite complaint. I once had a volunteer who chided me for hosing Bow down for a potty violation. As far as that volunteer was concerned, Bow could do no wrong, and I should let him get away with anything he wished to do, because after all, he is just a chimpanzee.

I don't punish Bow for things he can't help, but I do hold him to the highest standards in matters that are within his ability to control. I do not force him to talk. He talks because he wants to. But I do require him to abide by certain minimal rules of hygiene and respect for others. The fact that he does abide by those rules is proof that he can. To the extent that I am not able to enforce other rules, it is because he can't seem to control himself. But I am forever testing to see if perhaps he has acquired more self control.

Bow and I are in the pens, because he can't be trusted outside the pens to abide by the rules of the society we live in. I've received angry messages from some readers, along these lines: "Shame on you for putting Bow in a cage. You're the one who should be in a cage!"

Well, I am in a cage. I'm in the same cage with Bow, and I will continue to  be in the cage with him, until he is able to have more freedom. This may happen in one of two ways: either Bow will develop the self control that will allow him to live in our world outside the cage, or I can get him a much bigger cage -- like that island we dream of-- that can be like a world of its own, a self-sustaining ecosystem that will support him, even as he lives apart from human beings.

I believe in discipline. I believe that whatever freedom we have is due to our own self-discipline. I'm doing my best to foster that in Bow. But it makes no sense to punish someone for what he cannot help. I apply exactly the same standards to human beings.

And this is why Bow and I no longer try to correct my  friend when she urges me to beat him within an inch of his life. We understand that she can't help it, and that we can't change her. We accept her the way she is, and we don't walk out on her. We don't cut her out of our lives. Just the way I don't walk out on Bow.

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