The Wauchula Woods Accord

Toward a New Understanding of Animals

By Charles Siebert
Scribner. 336 pp. $25
June 7, 2009


Chapter One

Sunday. April 13, 3:24 a.m. Tonight again, wild screams woke me. Somebody's bad dream, perhaps. Or a snake that got into one of the enclosures. Or a fox. Or a bat. Sometimes all it takes to set things off around this place is a cockroach - the huge flying ones they have down here in Florida with the shiny, mahogany wings. And then it starts: those first, hollow, bellyborne chimpanzee whoops that build, faster and higher, until finally morphing into animate, ear-drum-ripping banshees on the air, the cries reverberating long afterward against the topmost metal rafters of this odd little forest's caged canopy.

This is a place built to house and heal bad dreams. A week now since I moved in here at the Center for Great Apes on the outskirts of Wauchula, in south-central Florida, and nearly every night the same hair-trigger, primal alarms have sounded, a quick lift of my bedroom's window curtains revealing yet another writhing jigsaw of furry silhouettes in the barred, upper tree boughs.

Unable to get back to sleep, I went out to sit for a while on my cottage's screened-in back porch, its old wooden ceiling fan creakily whirring overhead, stirring up at once the already torpid air of these mid-April nights and - with the residual hoots and grunts of my still restive neighbors - the deeply pleasant illusion that I was someplace else. That I was off in a jungle wilderness somewhere far away and long ago. Or at least at some time other than this present one of fully found wildernesses and horizons book-ended by retirement homes for former ape entertainers.

There are a number of these sorts of places now. The fast dwindling days of our dominion have somehow come to this - the last vestiges of our own primal ancestry living where we humans have, in a sense, been trying to get the wilderness and its inhabitants all along: right next door to us. Into more familiar, more established quarters.

Still, not all ape retirement homes are alike. Just last year, in fact, I managed to gain an audience with none other than Cheeta, star of the early Tarzan movies from the 1930s and '40s, out at his retirement facility in Palm Springs, California. Said by some to be age seventy-six now, the oldest known living nonhuman primate on earth, he spends his days there riding around in a golf cart, watching tapes of his old movies on TV, banging out tunes on an upright piano, and, whenever the mood strikes him, painting: brightly swirling canvases that have been dubbed "apestract art" and that are now coveted cocktail party conversation pieces among the rich and the famous. Here at the Center for Great Apes, on the other hand, great pains are taken to try to restore the residents to some semblance of their former selves, an often difficult transition for creatures more accustomed to eating at movie caterers' tables than having to forage for their own food.

I sat out on my back porch for a good while tonight before deciding to come out here to be with Roger, waiting for the commotion to die down, wondering all the while which one of the retirees got spooked this time. Chipper, perhaps, a very popular Ringling Bros. clown in his day, still strung out from years of pedaling around the circus ring on a multiseated bicycle with his longtime performing partner and now equally wired bunkmate Butch: a tireless ham, who, at the merest hello, will immediately go into one of his favorite old schticks, standing up with a broad-toothed grin and thrusting his arm into the air in the classic "ta-da!" pose.

Or it might have been Sammy who set the place off, orangutan star of the film Dunston Checks In. Or Jonah and Jacob, the famous chimp twin-brother tandem you may remember from the popular "trunk monkey" commercials, chimps who wrapped up their careers with a last star turn in the recent Planet of the Apes remake.

And then again it could have been Bam Bam, the former sweet-faced orangutan nurse Precious in the soap opera Passions, an ape I first happened to see just a few weeks ago, sitting up late one night in my midwestern motel room, watching an evangelical documentary about evolution in which Bam Bam was recruited to play himself failing miserably at trying to eat a proper dinner in a crowded restaurant in order to definitively disprove the "theory" that we evolved from apes.

They're all living here now, and many others - former stars of the big screen and television; of Big Top circuses and small roadside zoo attractions - and all of them with memories as long as their careers were brief. It's a little-known fact about the ape entertainers we see. Too big and strong to use much after the age of five or six, they'll live another fifty to sixty years like this, swinging among used tires and their own brains' echolalia of brash lights and human cackling; of screaming boardwalk hawkers and air-curdling carnival calliopes - the very associations I fear I must be stirring up as I pass by them each morning on my way out here to Roger's place.

They are keenly aware of my presence: of my oddly familiar otherness and its rigidly upright movements; and of the fact that it isn't any of them I'm on the way to spend my days with. Each will rush forward as I approach, staring out and spitting at me from various perches along the fringes of their airy, high domed enclosures: the best possible halfway houses we can build for them between their ongoing captivity and rightful sky; the outer "uncaged" branches limning the farthest reaches of our attempts at restitution before deflecting our gaze back down to these attached living quarters of skylights and swinging cots and corner-mounted platform beds.

And then they'll just settle back, one by one, and watch as I turn down the narrow gravel path that leads past the infirmary, cross the small wooden footbridge at the very heart of these grounds, and set my shoulder satchel and folding chair down once more in the small clearing before Roger's outdoor enclosure.

He's always there waiting, sounding the same three hand claps that he did the first time he saw me. And then the two of us will just settle in for another day of the very thing we're doing in here now, sitting face-to-face, staring. An alignment that I think must look so ridiculous, it's little surprise that the sight of Roger and me sitting opposite one another all day long often sends the other retirees into swirling fits of screams around us.

That's why I decided to come out and be with Roger at this late hour. Long after the screaming had stopped and all the other apes in residence - the retirees and whichever keepers are on duty - had returned to their respective sleeping quarters.

So that it could be just Roger and me alone like this. Without the others peering in, wondering what we're up to. Turning their mad circles around us. Making their constant comments behind our backs.

So that it could be just Roger and me, and we might finally get to the bottom of this strange business between us.

You can learn a lot, I've found, from just daring to remain within a chimpanzee's stare. Far more than you can from a fellow human's. There lies only refractory shards, deft deflections, sought answers, facile conquests. Into a chimp's gaze you can proceed unfettered. Toward matters truly fraught. And then take up residence there for a while. In a time well before this one. Beneath the slow-whirling ceiling fan of your suddenly becalmed, simpler brain.

Time creeps but there never seems to be time enough. Nothing much appears to happen, and yet I'll be a while now trying to catch up with the events and emotions of these past days with Roger, and with the fevered conjurings of this still unfolding night.

(Continues...)



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