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Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Underground Railroad and Support for Chimpanzees

I had a lot of web traffic yesterday, so I suppose that it should not be surprising that I received one lone piece of hate mail. The higher the traffic, the more likely it is that there will be some unhinged person among them. It goes with the territory.

What made it hate mail, rather than a legitimate inquiry, was that it was full of character assassination, and it asked questions only in terms similar to the old lawyer's trick: "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" To which there could not possibly be an answer that did not damn the witness.

But I'm happy to share with you the gist of the complaint, because it is probably something that concerns many readers who might want to know. Isn't it wrong that Bow is isolated from other chimpanzees? And to the extent that this is not my personal choice, but results from lack of cooperation by other primatologists, does not this show that Project Bow is illegitimate? And to allow some voice to the lone hater, I will add: doesn't this show definitively that I am not a "real" primatologist and that my research is "bogus"?

Okay, so first of all, let's separate the issues. One is about whether Bow is receiving humane treatment. The other is whether I am doing real science. These are very different questions. It is entirely possible that I am being a good mother to Bow, but a bad scientist. It is equally possible that I am a good scientist, but a bad mother. Or I could be bad at both.

Even so, there is another hidden assumption in the inquiry. The ultimate proof that everything I am doing is bad, from the email's perspective, was that I had no legitimation from other primatologists. I'm not part of the "scientific community." That I'm not a "real" primatologist.

What does that mean? It means I don't have a job, a salary and a title. I do have a Ph.D. in linguistics. And I am working with a chimpanzee and publishing my findings. There's many a "legitimate" primatologist that has that job, and that title, and that salary, but the one thing they don't have is any primates to work with. See my piece on what happened to Sally Boysen and to the chimpanzees she used to work with.

Over the years I've been accused of not being "real" on many levels. When I practiced law, I heard people referring to me as "not a real lawyer". I had gone to Baylor Law School and passed the bar in Texas (with a high score and on the first try), and I was practicing law in the courts, and I had clients who were happy with my services. But I didn't have a job. My office was in my home. I charged low fees, and my income was below minimum wage.

I am a writer, but I've never been published by the regular press or by a mainstream publisher, so for many, I am not a "real" writer.

Some people have said every real woman wants a man to commit to her, so when I express my very different views on this topic, I have been accused of not being a "real" woman. Some people have even told me that because I don't have the same feelings they do about any number of issues, I am not "really" human.

What all of these views have in common is that the only reality is "social reality". Everything else is unreal. I disagree. And I have a mission in life to change the prevailing view of what is legitimate.

I have always wanted both Bow and me to have other companions. I had every expectation that he and Sword and I might move into a community where we would have other chimp or bonobo friends and other human or primatologist friends. I recognize Bow's social needs, as well as my own. What's more, some primatologists feel the same way and would have been happy to welcome me and Bow into their domain. But these people are not independent. They are institutional employees, and they do not call the shots.

There is a schism among primatologists. In fact, there is more than one schism. There are the ethologists, who believe chimpanzees and orangutans and bonobos and gorillas should only be studied in the wild, and they should be uncontaminated by our culture. There are the zoo people, who like to display primates, but who are afraid to go in with them, because of the danger involved. There are among the primatologists those who know just how smart the other great apes are, but who seek to hide this from the general public, because of ideological reasons. And there are those who simply believe in apartheid. Separate but equal is their motto, but we know what that motto really means.

Chimpanzees in the United States are regularly shipped off to "sanctuaries" where they are expected to live out their remaining lives in cages, not reproducing. Not having families. Simply dying out. The sanctuaries openly speak of the "excess" or "surplus" chimpanzee population in this country. Chimpanzees are an endangered species, but these humanists and animal rights activists want them to quietly die out. Have you ever asked yourself why? Read the account of what happened to Sally Boysen's chimps when they were shipped off to one sanctuary after another. How many died en route? How many died on arrival? How many males are left? Do you think I want that to happen to Bow?

Please understand. There are good primatologists working within the system to change this. Just as it would have been wrong to suppose that every person in Nazi Germany was a Nazi, so it would be wrong to assume that every institutional primatologist is supportive of these measures. Some primatologists are friends of Project Bow. But they cannot speak up, or they will lose their jobs.

This is the social reality!

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