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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Example of Liberia

It has been very hot out for the past few days. The sun casts heavy shadows, and everything seems slow.

Even the little butterflies on my long internal road look lazy.

They congregate there in small groups, and then they line up, as if getting ready for a race.

"On your mark, get set, go!" they seem to be saying. And then they all fly off at once.

But even though they all take off at the same time, there are always some that are faster and some that are slower. No two are the same.

No matter how similar they look, and how perfectly lined up they seem to have been, and how well synchronized their start is, they still each have their different pace and speed and destination.

No matter how superficially similar, no two chimpanzees are alike, either. And no single "solution" of the chimpanzee "problem" is going to perfectly cover every case.

Some are literate, and others are not.

Some are domesticated and some are wild. Some are imprisoned, and some are free. Some are gainfully employed, and others are asking for a handout.

Photo Credit: The Daily Mail, UK
Chimpanzeessin Liberia, abandoned by their captors, beg for a handout

I've been thinking a lot about Liberia lately. Not just the chimpanzees in Liberia, but also the entire history of that country.

If you would like to read a news item about chimpanzees in Liberia abandoned by the New York Blood Center, here is the news source I have seen:

The short version of the story is this: In 1974 the New York Blood Center captured wild chimpanzees and infected them with diseases deadly to humans while keeping them on six little islands in Liberia. The chimpanzees, who had been self-supporting up to that point, became entirely dependent on their captors for food and all of life's necessities. In 2005 the New York Blood Center abandoned their research project, but they promised to care for the captive chimpanzees for life. Ten years later, the funds for the "lifetime care" have run out. Sixty-six adult chimpanzees and one baby are now begging for food. They have not learned how to become self-supporting again. They wait for humans to come to their island and feed them, greeting them with outstretched hands and hugging those who help them.

This is a very moving, very distressing story, and here are the lessons we can learn from this;

  1. It is easy to become dependent and hard to learn to be self supporting again. You cannot just set slaves free and expect them to know what to do, 
  2. Bad things can and do happen to chimpanzees in Africa all the time. Sending chimps to Africa does not guarantee them a happy or "natural" life.
  3. Banning medical research on chimpanzees in America will not prevent American organizations from conducting such research abroad.
  4. When the funding for research on chimpanzees is cut, chimpanzees find it hard to make a living. 
  5. Sixty-six adult chimpanzees, who could easily attack and kill the few men who come to their island, instead hug them and are grateful for the food they bring. If chimpanzees were stupid wild animals who cannot control their violent impulses no matter the circumstances, how could this be happening? 
I am not saying this in support of medical research on chimpanzees, but you have to realize that anytime any activity involving chimpanzees is banned, that is going to be hard on chimpanzees from an economic standpoint. If you ban medical research, medical research companies are going to dump their chimps. If you ban circuses, circuses are going to lay off their chimps. If you ban films in which chimpanzees are allowed to play chimpanzees, giving those choice roles to human actors and CGI constructs, then chimpanzee actors are going to be out of work. And if you ban the private ownership of chimpanzees, then nobody will feed the chimps that they don't own anymore.

People who want to cut off funding to chimpanzees in every possible endeavor in the United States are not "friends of chimpanzees", no matter how humanely they couch their propaganda. They are not trying to "liberate" chimpanzees. They want to get rid of them. 

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about Liberia. Because those particular chimpanzees from the New York Blood Center are in Liberia, I have been reviewing the history of Liberia, and the motives of the Americans who sponsored the Liberia project seem to me to be parallel to the motives of those people who are currently campaigning for chimpanzees to be allowed to exist only in Africa.

From the Wikipedia:

The Founding of Liberia in the early 1800s was motivated by the domestic politics of slavery and race in the United States as well as by U.S. foreign policy interests. In 1816, a group of white Americans founded the American Colonization Society to deal with the problem of the growing number of free Blacks in the United States by resettling them in Africa. The resulting state of Liberia would become the second (after Haiti) Black republic in the world at that time.[21]
Why was the growing number of free blacks in the United States in the early 1800s seen as a problem by the white men who founded the American Colonization Society? Wasn't it a good thing that more and more blacks in America were becoming free? There can be only one answer: the people interested in resettling free blacks in Africa were racist. Free blacks in America were those successful men and women who despite all the disadvantages they were under managed to assimilate into American society and become self-supporting -- some of them even wealthy. This normal process of upward mobility had been ongoing in the colonies even before the American Revolution. 

Some of the men who joined the American Colonization Society were Northerners who resented free blacks, because they did as well as or better than free whites. Some of them were Southerners who resented the example free blacks set for their slaves. This was before the Civil War, and many of those people would end up on opposite sides of a very bitter struggle that could have been entirely prevented if the natural process of manumission had been allowed to take its course. Today, in the schools, we are being taught that if you are black, the only reason you are free is because of the Emancipation Proclamation. But many black Americans had free ancestors in the US long before the Civil War. They did not need anybody to set them free, because they had gained their freedom on their own.

So what does this have to do with chimpanzees? Today, in America, the people who work to prevent chimpanzees from earning a living come from two camps:

  • Those who hate chimpanzees and fear them as wild animals who kill humans indiscriminately and without regard to circumstance. They just want them far, far away.
  • Those who adore chimpanzees as wild savages, but think they should not be domesticated, educated or allowed to work. 
The two camps may seem as different as the two groups that formed the American Colonization Society. But their motives are at base the same: they are for apartheid, and they want to destroy chimpanzees in America.

I am not writing this to complain about Liberia. Like Israel, Liberia was one of those 19th century experiments in founding new countries that have both positive and negative results. Nobody is suggesting that Liberia should be disbanded, any more than I am suggesting that all chimpanzees should live in the US. But I think by now everybody agrees that just because Liberia exists, that does not mean there should not be black Americans in America. Or that just because Israel exists, there should not be Jews in America. 

I once knew a man from Liberia. I met him in college. We both liked poetry. But he liked the poetry of Marcus Aurelius, while I favored Kipling. So we each went our separate ways.

No two butterflies are the same. Remember that. It will stand you in good stead. 

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