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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

To Be Alone

How much alone time is optimal? What is worse: being isolated or being forced to share space with conspecifics all the time? I think to a certain extent, it depends on the individual. To some people, solitary confinement may seem like the worst punishment imaginable, and for others, the scariest nightmare of prison life is the idea of being forced to share a very small space with a cellmate.

Speaking about these issues with other primatologists, I can't help but feel that they are projecting their own preferences onto the chimpanzees whose rights they believe they are championing. Social people are suggesting that solitary life is cruel and unusual. Those of us who would rather be alone than trapped without a way to escape unwanted companionship feel the opposite. Some of the comments that I get from viewers of my Youtube videos give me the impression that they are in the social camp. They talk about Bow being "all alone."

First of all, Bow is not all alone. I am there with him most of the day.

Perhaps people get the idea that he's all alone because the videos focus on Bow and not on me. But that hand caressing him or helping to operate the computer is not disembodied.

And the other point that may not be clear to our viewers is that like all people, Bow sometimes asks to be alone. Often he wants me to leave and sends me away, so that he can do his own thing. That's when I go for my walk in the pasture, where I sometimes encounter deer.

Most of the deer I see travel in groups.

But the one with the antlers is always alone.

This reminds me of the character of Bambi's father in the book Bambi: A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten.

This book was read to me by my own father in a Hebrew translation. In the book, Bambi's father was an aloof figure who was usually absent, or watching from afar, but he showed up in person to chide Bambi for not wanting to be alone after the death of his mother. This is described well in an  article by Ralph H. Lutts, who contrasts the Disney movie Bambi with the book on which it was based when it comes to the father son relationship.
Disney, however, changed the nature of this relationship. The ability of Bambi's father to live a solitary life, to appear without warning, and then to vanish into the forest, are keys to his survival. To be visible is to be vulnerable. Bambi's maturation in Salten's story is a process of learning the lessons of survival. "If you live, my son," his mother explains, "if you are cunning and don't run into danger, you'll be as strong and handsome as your father is sometime, and you'll have antlers like his, too." Bambi's father, the Great Prince, achieved his stature by surviving to become the oldest and wisest of the deer. In Salten's book, the Great Prince is a teacher who passes his survival wisdom on to Bambi. He teaches mostly by example, but also with words. His first words to Bambi come at a time when the fawn is alone, crying for his mother. The stag suddenly appears and scolds, "Can't you stay by yourself? Shame on you!" Bambi learns his lessons well and eventually becomes as skillful and solitary as his father; he learns "the most vital lesson of the woods: 'Be alone'." These lessons in survival come full cycle years later when, at the very end of the book, old Prince Bambi comes across a pair of fawns crying for their mother. "Can't you stay by yourselves?" he scolds.
 The original novel may have anthropomorphized the animals, but it did not play down the presence of death in nature even without man, nor did it make it seem that if only we got rid of guns, then all would be peaceful in the forest.

In addition to that, the novel by Salten celebrated the importance of being alone. Everybody needs to learn how to be alone, and even autistic individuals are allowed to ask for the alone time they crave.

Any humane arrangement on behalf of chimpanzees in captivity needs to give each individual a way to opt out of socializing at will, and to join the group only when he wants to. The luxury of alone time can mean the difference between a fight to the death among competing individuals and the ability to walk away from a fight. But even under much less extreme conditions, when there is no immediate danger to life,  there can be no freedom if we are not free to be alone. The right to turn down companionship is key.

Because so many people in academia are communitarian, if not downright socialist, it seems they do not know this yet. When I talk to them about concentration camps, they agree that those are bad. But they have no idea what makes a place a concentration camp. They seem to think it is about the intentions of the gatekeepers rather than facts of daily life.


  1. How is Bow all alone? He has you, and Lawrence visits. This is silly for people to say, especially since they do not even know Bow.

    1. Hi, Julia, of course he has me, and Lawrence and other people also come by. He will see his grandmother soon for Thanksgiving.

      I don't know why people think that, but some of them do. I think it's because I don't often film myself in with him, as I am the one holding the camera. And a lot of people on Youtube only watch videos, rather than reading the blog.

  2. I enjoy my alone time. Sometimes, I feel anxious if I haven't had enough of alone time to decompress from being exposed to too much socialization. While I was in Germany I was constantly with a group of 6 other individuals. I felt so suffocated by the 3rd day that I finally started getting up earlier in the morning and walking the mile to the office by myself, just to get some alone time. They were all nice people, but even nice people are not perfect and have little things that annoy us. Most of the time I can deal with little things like that, but not when I'm stuck with them 12-14 hours a day.
    I know dogs are social animals, so Nikki doesn't like to be alone too much. Even when I go to my hobby room, she will follow me down and lie down just outside the door.
    It seems to me that you work very hard to make sure Bow is not alone too much and respect his wishes when he does want to be alone.

    1. Hi, Kathy. I'm like you. I would suffocate if I had to spend days on end with the same people without any alone time, no matter how nice they were.

      Dogs do seem to crave close companionship most of the time, though some do go off by themselves if they can.

      I am with Bow most of the day, and he has a say in when or if I leave. It's having control that makes it feel like freedom. A lot of people play down the need for control, but Bow, like all of us, needs control over his own life, and I make sure he has that.