Book Review: 'The Wauchula Woods Accord' by Charles Siebert

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By Kathryn Shevelow
Sunday, June 7, 2009


Toward a New Understanding of Animals

By Charles Siebert

Scribner. 208 pp. $25

In February, a 14-year-old pet chimpanzee named Travis -- a former actor in Coca-Cola and Old Navy commercials who used a computer, drank wine from a long-stemmed glass and had no previous history of violence -- was shot dead by police after he escaped from his owner's Stamford, Conn., house and nearly killed a woman he had known for years. In a New York Times op-ed article about the incident, journalist Charles Siebert observed that, like humans, chimps have "minds enough to lose and memories that can hasten the process."

Now, in "The Wauchula Woods Accord," Siebert provides a book-length exploration of the role humans play in inflicting mental disorders on intelligent animal species, particularly great apes. Siebert relates numerous accounts like that of Travis -- including the sad story of Travis's mother, who had also been shot dead after an escape. According to Siebert, the 3,000 or so chimps who live in this country -- a group that includes diaper-wearing infants who perform at children's birthday parties, suit-and-tie clad TV actors and research laboratory subjects -- are likely to be severely traumatized creatures. Such chimps might have witnessed the slaughter of their mothers, often the only way female chimpanzees in the wild will relinquish their babies. Or, if bred in captivity, they would have been separated from their mothers prematurely and raised in isolation from chimpanzee society. These damaged creatures can grow to weigh 200 pounds, become much stronger than humans and live until they are in their 70s.

Many of these animals end up in dusty roadside zoos or commercial breeding facilities. The more fortunate ones find refuge in state-of-the-art sanctuaries such as the Center for Great Apes near Wauchula, Fla. It is there that Siebert encountered Roger, a former cellist in the Ringling Brothers' all-chimp orchestra who shuns other chimps. Upon meeting Roger, Siebert experienced an extraordinary sense of recognition that he believed was mutual. "The moment Roger saw me last week," Siebert recalls, "he seemed utterly convinced that we knew each other. Actually stood and applauded . . . As though to say, 'oh you. Finally. Where have you been?' "

Siebert structures the book around his one-night vigil outside Roger's cage. It's a somewhat awkward contrivance, but it does provide an organizing framework for the account, which combines investigative journalism, science writing and memoir. As the hours pass, Siebert muses about the apparent bond between himself and the animal, considers Roger's individual history, tells the often tragic stories of other captive chimps, summarizes what is known about chimp intelligence and ponders the relationship between humans and our fellow primates.

In cataloging the many ways we abuse apes, Siebert rightly includes domesticating them as family members and surrogate humans, practices that deny them their otherness. We have, he suggests, created beings that are neither human nor fully ape: "humanzees," he calls them. Yet his emphasis on the interconnectedness of human and non-human animals and his memoiristic rendering of his encounters with Roger -- "Who or what is Roger? That, as absurd as it may sound, is the question I often feel he is asking me." -- at times make Siebert seem guilty of the very sentimentalizing he criticizes.

Still, while Siebert does not aspire to the philosophical depth of Peter Singer or the scientifically rigorous work of Jane Goodall, "The Wauchula Woods Accord" is a welcome, highly readable contribution to the rapidly growing body of writing that challenges our long-entrenched exploitation of animals. To this end, Siebert formulates his Wauchula Woods Accord: "The degree to which we humans will finally stop abusing other creatures and, for that matter, one another, will ultimately be measured by the degree to which we come to understand how integral a part of us all other creatures actually are."

Shevelow, whose most recent book is "For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement," teaches at the University of California, San Diego.

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