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Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Desert Island Scenario and Bow

Yesterday was a Wednesday, and I ran errands, while Bow played with Lawrence. They had a good day, meaning that Bow did not misbehave once, and everything went smoothly. They played outside. They came indoors to talk with guests, and they generally had a good time.

Besides running the usual errands, I had a chance to shoot this video of my pasture:

I have been dreaming for some time of converting this pasture into a spacious island for Bow and a companion or two of his own kind. But lately, this thought was not uppermost in my mind. Two things happened recently that reminded me of the plan. 

The first thing that made me think of the island was this news item:

Why would people intentionally separate themselves from the rest of society and place themselves in a desolate little man-made island out at sea, subject to the forces of both nature and man and without any of the benefits of police protection, in case they are attacked by... oh, I don't know -- pirates? Isn't being with your own kind and part of the mainstream what everybody wants?

The problem is that sometimes your own kind attacks and exploits you. Sometimes getting away from it all is the best possible alternative. Haven't we all dreamed, at some point in our lives of the desert island scenario, where we would rise or fall on our own merit and nobody would molest us?

The second thing that made me think of the desert island scenario was that I finally watched the movie Project Nim. I didn't splurge and buy the movie. An anonymous fan of Project Bow had it sent to me through Amazon a while ago, saying that hopefully it was not redundant. No, it was not redundant and thank you, whoever you are!

I took my time finding an opportunity to watch the movie, because I understood that parts of it were disturbing, so I did not want to watch it with either of my kids. Having seen it, I agree that it was worth watching, and though it was by no means a happy story and parts of it were disturbing, there were many parts that were not, and there were things about Nim's story that reminded me of experiences with Bow and not in a bad way.

It was awful that Nim was abandoned by those who had made a commitment to him, but I do not join in the general disapproval of the original aims of the project. Though Nim's separation from his mother was sad and poignant, I do not agree with the person at the end of the movie who comments that it is always wrong to take baby chimpanzees from their mothers. And though I was glad that in the end Nim was given chimpanzee companionship before he died, I don't think that it was chimpanzee companionship that he was longing for when he was returned to the Lemmon Farm. As one of the commentors pointed out, it was awful for him to be lumped in with those other chimpanzees and what he was hoping for was a reunion with his human family and a return to his normal life in New York. Even years later, after the horrific experience at Lemsip, the medical research facility, and after he was placed in a cage in a sanctuary where everybody meant well, he kept breaking out of the cage and into the caretaker's house. He wanted to live in a house! He wanted to be accepted among humans. He did not dream of life in the jungle, and he did not ask to be treated "like a chimp", whatever that means. 

Even at the Black Beauty Ranch, where everybody wanted to be kind to Nim, they could not let him roam free. The equines on the ranch could be free. Nim could not. This is true of every chimp sanctuary that I know of, even the ones in Africa. Because chimpanzees do not respect borders and agreements and compacts, it is not possible to come to terms with them about territorial boundaries. And yet the younger chimpanzees can be taken for long walks outside the confines of the sanctuary -- to the extent that they still feel dependent on adult caretakers.

It was the same with Bow. When he was little, he clung to me and would not leave me alone. He rode on my back, and when we stopped for a while in the woods and he went to explore, he kept within a small radius of me, not because of any obedience to my authority, but because he felt the need to keep me close.

Was it a terrible thing to take Nim away from his mother Carolyn? For Carolyn, definitely. But for Nim, not so much. Remember that Nim was born in a cage. If he had stayed with his mother, he would have stayed in that cage all his life. Being adopted into a human home allowed him to run free and play and learn and live as the Lord of Delafield Mansion. While this freedom could not possibly last, I think it was pretty nice for him to have had it at all.

At the Lemmon Farm, there was an island where chimpanzees could roam free. The water kept them from escaping the confines of the farm, but within the island, had they felt so inclined, they could have created a chimpanzee utopia. Instead, stronger individuals often threw weaker ones into the water, where they would drown. 

Sometimes the appeal of a desert island is not escaping foreign oppressors. Sometimes it is our own kind that we have to fear the most. The same is true for the people who are trying to build an offshore startup outside the territorial waters of any nation. They are Americans trying to get away from other Americans. 

The future of chimpanzees here on earth is looking very grim. Expansion by humans is likely to cut off all possibility of peaceful coexistence in their place of origin. The best possible future for chimpanzees has got to be the creation of environments where they can co-exist with humans, and where they will not be prevented from reproducing.

What do I hope for Bow? I hope that he will know more freedom someday soon in the future. I hope that he can have companions of his own kind who will not dictate terms to him. I hope he doesn't have to give up his current family in order start a new one. And someday I hope that his descendants will find a way to respect other people's boundaries, so that other people will be more inclined to respect theirs.

Humans are not always nice to other humans. Chimps are not always nice to other chimps. But in time, that can change. It might even be possible that with the application of natural selection over generations of chimpanzees living among humans, there might actually one day be chimpanzees whose word is as good as their bond. Chimpanzees who don't lie and cheat. Chimpanzees you can trust with your life. When that happens, they will be able to walk freely among us.

For the time being, though, Bow and I will have to stay in our cage.