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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Understanding the Denotation of Words

One of the steps in trying to have communication with another person who has a different bias is to go back to basics when we use words. By this, I mean using the words for their denotation and not their connotation.

Depending on who we are, and how we look at things, certain words can easily trigger negative or positive connotations based on our values, belief system and our personal situation. Take the word "cage". It has gotten a bad rap, so lots of people use the word "enclosure" and then everything is perfectly okay. I don't like this kind of game with words, and I think that it causes a lot of misunderstandings. A cage can be bad, if you are trying to get out, and it keeps you from things that you want. A cage can be good, if it protects you from danger: hence a diving cage, to keep divers safe from sharks. Even the whole question of who is on the inside or the outside of a cage or fence is largely determined by perspective. Do our borders keep aliens out or do they keep us in? It depends on the situation. It depends on where people want to go.

 If you are happy in your cage, then a cage is good. If you are sad, then it is bad. It's all in the mind of the beholder.

But when we start to call cages that we like "enclosures", and cages that we don't like "cages", then communicating with somebody else who has a different perspective becomes more difficult. Their values are built into the words, and they can't seem to step outside their bias.

Take the term "concentration camp".  It has a bad connotation for most of us, and rightfully so, but do you know what it really means? I'll tell you what it does not mean: "A bad place run by Nazis." Sometimes when I refer to a facility as a concentration camp, people accuse me of name-calling. But do you know what the literal meaning of a concentration camp is? It is a place where certain groups, to the exclusion of other groups, are concentrated in a given location. Usually, the groups that are singled out for being at that location are forbidden to be anyplace else.  They don't have the right to leave, and they also do not have the right to keep others out. The group affiliation in a concentration camp is usually determined by genetic criteria, ethnicity, place of origin or nationality.

Here are a few examples of concentration camps by this literal, denotative definition:

  • internment camps for enemy aliens run by the Japanese during WWII
  • internment camps for Americans of Japanese extraction run by the Americans during WWII
  • camps run by the Nazis in WWII in which many Jews and other "undesirables" were exterminated
  • detention centers for illegal aliens currently being opened in the United States
  • chimpanzee sanctuaries in the United States and elsewhere 

The idea behind a concentration camp, and hence its use of the word "concentration", is that individuals of a certain sort, as defined in a certain way, are problematic for those in charge, so they are concentrated in certain locations, and forbidden to be elsewhere. This does not necessarily imply that the individuals so concentrated are going to be treated "inhumanely" or that they are all going to be eventually executed. Many people came home from the Japanese internment camps. Most people made it out safely from the American internment camps of WWII. Right now, many people are assuming that the children in the detention centers are being given asylum, and not that they are going to be treated badly. Many sanctuaries for chimpanzees pride themselves on the humane treatment of the individuals that they house, and they believe they are being given an asylum from bad people who formerly kept them in "cages". The sanctuaries don't use "cages". They use "enclosures". Lots of people can't see past the labels.

Besides it being unfair and unjust to single out certain groups for this treatment, there are other concerns about all concentration camps, just based on the way they concentrate certain  groups in one place. One of the dangers of singling out specific groups for different treatment is that we don't always know what happens to them after they go in behind closed doors. In WWII, red cross representatives were able to make inspections of the various concentration camps. But we know from historical accounts that the things they were allowed to see were very different from what went on day by day. Another danger is that once a certain group is concentrated in a specific place -- even if it is for their "own protection" -- the regime may change, and when somebody else comes to power they may then be treated differently.

For this reason, I don't think it is wise to concentrate all chimpanzees in one of a few locations. It does not work that way in nature, where chimpanzees live in smaller groups of warring tribes, and where the decimation of one group leaves others to survive.

Even if all the people working at the current chimpanzee sanctuaries are nice people, this says nothing about what they are going to be like in the future with changed management. So while I am not immortal and someday Bow will need other people to look after him, I must try to find people younger than myself to take my place. What I do not want to do is to entrust Bow into a concentration camp with changing management and priorities that differ from mine. People my own age or older can guarantee nothing about what will happen to Bow after my death, anymore than I can. I need to train disciples, not give Bow up to my contemporaries, however well meaning.

If I did give him up, it would be back the the breeders, where he could live among his own family of origin. But the breeders are under attack, too, and they are no younger than I am. In fact, they are more senior. I would need to see who replaces them in their own organization and what the priorities of the younger generation are, before I could trust that our goals are sufficiently similar.

Bill Lemmon who ran the Lemmon Farm from which Washoe, Nim and Lucy emerged, was always willing to welcome back the chimpanzees that had been lent out for language experiments. He has a bad reputation and is described as a very scary guy, but in my opinion the worst thing that he ever did was that when he fell upon hard times, he sold out to medical experimenters. If people had been interested in sparing Nim his worst experiences, they should have helped Lemmon with his expenses on the farm. And this is why I react so strongly to the anti-breeder bias in current literature about ape language research. Without local breeders the researchers and the sanctuaries would both be out of luck. There simply would not be any chimpanzees in the United States at all. In fact, I suspect that this is the ultimate goal of the sanctuaries, no matter how humanely they are going about pursuing it. I don't share that goal.

Bow and I spend twelve hours a day in our cages -- or our enclosures -- together, As a result, I am aware of the conditions Bow lives under. If it is too hot or too cold, I know. We eat the same foods, so I know what he is eating, and I know if it's nutritious. We go in and out of the house often, and Bow gets to decide when. This means he has control over his environment. Most importantly of all, Bow gets to decide who is allowed into his space and who is kept out.

The dogs have the whole yard to roam in, but they usually stand right next to the pen, gazing at us longingly, as if the best possible place to be would be inside with us.

Bow has a sense of ownership and control, looking over my shoulder and inspecting everything I do. And I think that each of us prefers the cage we can control to a palatial institution where we are prisoners.

The real difference between a prison and a home is not how big of an enclosure it is, or even whether you can leave it safely, but whether you can decide for yourself who gets to come in.


  1. The problem about what to do with our animal companions after our death is shared by many, not just those with exotic animal companions. The solutions, with rare exceptions, have almost always been sad. The only local instance I know of an interesting solution occurred when the elderly owner of a young cat died. She had no children, and the cat was provided for in her will. The cat owned the house so long as it stayed alive, and provisions were made so the cat could be taken care of twice a day by a caretaker who provided two hours of companionship daily, too, plus take it to any veterinarian every six months for care. The cat lived for five years more like this. The will then stipulated that the house and all the antique contents would be sold at auction, with the proceeds going to the ASPCA. I've never forgotten that auction. I bought two Shaker wooden chairs there with woven seats, and one of them must have been the cat's favorite, as it had long white Persian fur still in the seat.

    1. Hi, Pam. It sounds as if that particular cat owner had a good plan to provide for her cat after her death. Do you still have the Shaker chairs?

      Many people don't plan ahead, and this includes dog owners. I was once chided by a woman who lived near Orchard House about having a chimpanzee, because she had seen on a documentary that chimps can live for over forty years. One day when I was driving Bow to his Floortime session with the interns, she knocked on the glass of my car and had me roll down the window. "What are you going to do when you die?" she demanded without preamble. I wasn't sure at first whether she was asking me about an afterlife, but it turned out she had seen the documentary about chimps the night before and was therefore very upset with me. She was a great lover of dogs, having at least half a dozen of them, most of whom outlived her when she passed away a few years later. Of course, new homes had to be found for all those dogs.

  2. Yes, I still have the Shaker chairs.
    My turtles probably will outlive me, too, but in their case it is no problem as almost all of them can be released into the wild. The dwarf will need adoption as she is too little to be safe outdoors on her own. Although a couple of turtle keepers have expressed interest in acquiring her, I don't want to do so as they will see her as just a genetic freak of nature (they also have albino turtles and two-headed turtles. My cat likely would get adopted out, she is an unusual breed (Siamese Snowshoe) so would have no problem finding a new home.

  3. Bow leads a good life, and anyone reading your blog should be aware of this. I keep hoping perhaps you can find some new interns or new renters who share your passion and vision for working with Bow. That might be a good solution. I see a lot of people on Craigslist post how they will provide free room and board and perhaps a small stipend to someone who wants to help educate and work with their children. I imagine there are people in this world who would be interested in doing it with Bow.

    1. Julia, I don't have to advertise on Craigslist. The place to offer internships for working with chimpanzees is on PrimateJobs. I have stopped posting there, because the risk of danger to us from interns who are not accepted by Bow has grown, and I think it is safer for all not to try.

      I did have some excellent interns who made good connections with Bow when he was younger, and I wish I had had stipends to offer them as grad students to keep working with Bow, and then post docs for after that. Bow needs to form lifetime attachments with those people, so they can be there for him when I am gone.

      But all young people are looking for a paying job after they volunteer, and career opportunities. They cannot stay unless I can offer them that. My isolation from the academic world is a big problem. We need permanent volunteers, not temporary ones. We need someone who will make a lifetime commitment to Bow.

      For this, someone needs to offer me a tenured position at an academic institution and grant money that has no Federal strings attached. But having temporary people come and go would just be upsetting to Bow. We've tried it, and it is too unstable a situation.

  4. Aya, I really enjoyed this post! I am so sick of the politically correct language that everyone is trying to impose on us today. It shouldn't even be called "politically correct" language anymore. It should be called, "language for crybabies"...or something. Communications used to seem so clear to me but with this current environment of avoiding the real issues and clarity, it is hard to identify the true meaning of what people are trying to communicate. For example, we aren't supposed to say "illegal aliens" now - we're supposed to say, "undocumented immigrants". What horse poo!!!
    I didn't realize that such a softening had taken root in my own language until I started working more closely with our German colleagues. Given the language barriers and their own culture, our communications work much better if I just speak very clearly and directly with them. It is very refreshing! I enjoyed your analogy of the bad cage vs. good cage with the diving / shark point.
    The use of the term concentration camp has such a bad connotation for everyone because of its obvious historical references, so I think your describing what it really means is useful. Other terms suffer the same negative association - such as slavery. Some kids even cry out in rebellion to chores, "this is slavery"! Ha!
    As to our long-term planning for our animals - my mother-in-law took her own dog to the vet and had it put down before her death from stage 4 cancer. I thought that was very humane of her, since the dog was essentially not adoptable to anyone else. I don't believe my dog would easily adapt to anyone else either, due to her past traumas, so I would have to probably plan for the same ending for her, in case of my earlier death.
    As to the rest of your post, I am always shocked to hear how many people try to impose their beliefs on you and try to tell you what to do and how to manage Bow. Given your own very libertarian views of allowing people their own freedoms in their own lives, it must be very disappointing and frustrating that so many try to control you in return. I do admire how you handle it with grace - I think my own head would explode. The issues with the sanctuaries and trying to suppress the breeders is similarly going on with the killer whale sanctuaries. While I'm against the taking of the wild orcas, I do believe the ones bred in captivity can provide some educational benefit to future younger generations. But I also believe as you do about these sanctuaries that they should have a sufficient habitat, closely mimicking their social and structural natural environment. Wow, you covered a lot of ground in this post!

  5. Replies
    1. Thanks, Kathy! Having an iphone really helps with the quality of photos.