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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Working Mothers and Commitment

In a way, I am now a working mother of two, and my work isn't taking care of Bow and Sword, although I am there for them all day long. My work is editing and publishing books. This summer's extended project is to correct all errors in   A Thousand and One Stories of Pericón de Cádiz and to prepare it for publication. 


What this means is that I have to stop my work on the book every time one of my kids needs me, but they also have to understand that they cannot be the focus of my attention at all times, and that unless they really need something, I should be allowed to get some work done. It also means that I show the work to my children and allow them to participate in the process, to the extent that it interests them. I do not, however, push them to be involved beyond their level of natural interest.
This way of care-taking and working at the same time is not the norm today, but it had to have been the norm in the past. Gathering food or making a living had to be something that mothers did while they were mothers. Having a baby did not exempt females from working, and working did not exempt them from taking care of their babies


The recent tragedy at the Jane Goodall sponsored "Chimp Eden" has gotten me to thinking about this issue again: why it is so important to have a committed relationship with a chimpanzee, if you hope to be allowed to care for one. The exact reason for this particular attack is unclear, but what is clear is that the Jane Goodall Institute and its affiliated sanctuaries discourage the formation of relationships between caretakers and chimpanzees. "Human-animal contact is kept to a minimum at the sanctuary" says the article. Never mind that humans are animals and that if human animal contact were kept at a minimum it would require all humans to be kept in isolation cells, what they are really trying to say is  that chimpanzee human contact is kept at a minimum.


What this means, in effect, is that all the humans agree to remain strangers to the chimpanzees and not to form lasting relationships. This places everyone in the "sanctuary" in danger, because chimpanzees kill strangers. To a chimpanzee, a stranger is an enemy.

At Project Bow, if someone can't form a relationship with Bow, then that person cannot go in with Bow. The pens are so constructed that no one can come in without Bow's permission, but also nobody can be forced in by Bow.

Apartheid is not good. It creates resentment when it is practiced among humans or elsewhere. But the reason it has to be practiced at a large institution like a sanctuary or a zoo has something to do with the employment arrangments in today's corporate world. Most employees feel free to change jobs when it suits them. Most employers feel free to hire new people when it suits them. Most jobs are set up so that individual employees are interchangeable, and anyone can substitute for anyone else, at the drop of a hat. Childcare centers are set up so that infants and toddlers can be cared for by whoever happens to be there that day. Teachers at schools get maternity leave, sick leave and professional training during the school day, and anybody who is "qualified" can substitute while this happens.

The problem for little children as well as chimpanzees is this: people are not interchangeable. If the child or chimp doesn't have a relationship with that person, then the caretaker is not qualified! It's not anybody's fault. It's not about bad caretakers or bad people: a stranger is a stranger, and it takes time and effort to turn him into a family member.

Bow has Lawrence, as well as me. But Lawrence only comes once a week now. Every time Lawrence arrives, Bow makes a terrible display of his strength, and every time, Lawrence concedes that this is Bow's turf, and he, Lawrence will not go in with Bow until Bow decides it's okay. The display can last between two to five minutes, and Lawrence waits patiently until it is over. Then he asks: "Is it okay for me to come in now, Bow?" And Bow always agrees that it is. They then proceed to have a fine time together. But if Bow ever decided it was not okay for Lawrence to go in that day, Lawrence would not go in.

The secret to good chimpanzee human relationships is: it's a relationship. It goes both ways. It has to involve a long term commitment, and it can change over time. You can't take anything for granted. And you should not assume that just because you got the job, you're qualified. Bow decides if you're qualified.

Institutional care is a terrible thing, not because the people who work there are "bad", but because it denies the very ordinary psychological needs that we -- both chimpanzees and humans -- evolved to have filled. Someone who is not a friend is very likely an enemy. Someone who is not part of your tribe is a stranger. Someone who has not been accepted by you is not acceptable.

We may pretend all we like that we love everyone, but it's not true for us, and it's not true for any living creature on earth.

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