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Monday, May 20, 2013

My Hopes for Bow

Day by day, Bow is a pretty happy fellow. He's safe in his family relationships. He has people who are consistently there for him, and he enjoys good food. Here is Bow eating an avocado at lunch yesterday.

However, I am not unaware that some things still have to be taken care of in order for Bow's life to be fully, completely whole: he needs a place in a social group and he needs a mate or mates. He no longer asks specifically for a girlfriend, and he seems pretty happy with his lot, but I am not oblivious to the issue.

Every once in a while, someone from a sanctuary contacts me, ostensibly because they are concerned about Bow's well-being. At first, when this used to happen, I was hopeful that maybe they would be willing to send  someone of his own kind to keep company with Bow, whether temporarily or permanently. But with time I learned to understand the social reality: they are not calling to give me a chimp. They want to take one away from me.

American sanctuaries for chimpanzees do not allow them to breed. Their purpose is to warehouse what they consider to be a "surplus' chimpanzee population until such time as the last of them dies out, of old age. That they do this in the name of humane treatment is disturbing. That they think of themselves as conservationists is absurd.

My attitude to this question is very different from that of my predecessors in ape language research. Typically, the researchers were people who looked at their research subjects as disposable after the experiment was over. Herbert Terrace had little compunction about returning Nim to the Lemmon Farm, and neither did the Gardners with Washoe. These were ape language researchers who relied heavily on others to raise the chimpanzee in their experiment and did not take on a parental role to their charge.

Typically, the people who really cared about the chimpanzee in question, Roger Fouts with Washoe or Robert Ingersoll with Nim, were not as into the language research. They simply enjoyed the company of chimpanzees, had good rapport with them, and were chosen to work with the chimpanzee for that reason. Later, when they saw how much damage was done to Nim and Washoe by their abandonment, these people were converted from researchers to conservationists. They began to argue that nobody should work with chimpanzees on language again, because it is inhumane.

What was done to Washoe and Nim was inhumane, but not because of the language part. It was wrong to take a child -- any child -- and to adopt and then discard, as if they were only so much equipment once the experiment was over.

My relationship to Bow and to the research is different. Of course, I want my research published. It is a very big breakthrough. But I also care personally about Bow. I am not abandoning him just because he is not a source of funding for me. At the same time, I do see that he needs more than what he currently has. And what I want for him is not only right for him as an individual -- but also is what is the best possible hope for all chimpanzee kind.

When we read about Nim and Washoe, in the books written from the perspective of the Jane Goodall Foundation -- and let's face it, all the recent books have that bias -- we are taught to look down on the researcher, to root for his conservationist lowly assistant, and to despise and loathe as if he were a demon the breeder who made the experiment possible in the first place. We read about the horrors of the Lemmon Farm, and we conveniently forget that if not for the Lemmon Farm,  Nim would never have even existed and Washoe would not have had a place to go. Nim was not stolen from Africa. He was made in America. Washoe, though African born, was given an opportunity to become a mother on the Lemmon Farm. That the Lemmon Farm was a less than ideal place is unfortunate. But this should not cause us to vilify all breeders.

By all means, let us support true conservationist efforts in Africa, to the extent that they allow chimpanzees to live free. But this does not require us to forget American chimpanzees and their right to full lives and to a future in this country, living among humans. 

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