I recently read a moving book by Andrew Westoll called The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. He’s a writer and primatologist who spent a summer at the sanctuary working with and meeting the chimps and human staff members. The book tells the story of thirteen chimpanzees who had spent years either in zoos or a medical research lab where they were deeply traumatized. In the lab, they underwent multiple surgeries and other invasive, painful experiments and treatment. The belief was that this might help human health although that has turned out not to be the case.
Nineteen chimps originally were rescued and sent to the Fauna Sanctuary in Canada, in the countryside near Montreal. Fifteen were from a lab and four from zoos. Some have since died, leaving the thirteen we encounter in this book.
At Fauna, Andrew Westoll saw the apes’ amazing ability to begin to trust humans despite what they had been through at our hands. He wrote about the deep effects of their trauma. Having worked as a therapist and counsellor myself in the past, I was repeatedly impressed by the similar ways in which chimps and humans react to trauma. We share many symptoms, such as self harm and dissociation.
This book also tells of the determination by the sanctuary’s founder, Gloria Grow, and the staff and volunteers, to give these apes a chance for some healing after extremely difficult lives.
The book is also the story of what we can learn about ourselves from knowing these sentient beings who, along with bonobos, are our closest relatives. Each chimp is shown as an individual not only in Andrew’s words, but also in the wonderful photographic portraits Frank Noelker took of each of them. Looking at these photos makes it less easy to dismiss or distance ourselves from them.
At the end of the book, Andrew Westoll gives information on how to help chimps. In the U.S., you can support the passage of GAPA—the Great Ape Protection Act. You can get information about the act at releasechimps.org and other sites. You can also go to the author’s site: andrewwestoll.com and you can donate the Fauna Sanctuary at faunafoundation.org or faunasanctuary.org in the U.S.
I’ve been thinking again about my time in the Canadian Rockies this past September. One of our favourite trails was the Wilcox Pass Trail off the Icefields Parkway, just south of the Columbia Icefield. We only had time to walk the start of it—an hour and a half in total— because we had a long drive ahead of us. Someday we’d love to return and hike the entire trail.
The path climbs pretty quickly, through forest, to a ridge where you can look down over the Parkway on one side and up across meadows to mountains on the other. These are wonderful sweeping views of the land.
We saw several other people out enjoying the day. One we spoke to was a man from Homer, Alaska who told us that this past winter had brought extremely heavy snow to his home. What a contrast with Toronto which, last year, had only a dusting of snow and which, up to now, has had only a few melted inches.
I heard a radio interview on the CBC on Friday with David Suzuki, a well-known Canadian scientist and advocate for nature. David and another guest spoke about Ecuador, which, first of all, placed the rights of nature in its constitution in 2007. This was ratified by Ecuadorians in a referendum in 2008. I believe I had heard about the rights of nature before but not paid adequate attention to the concept. The idea that the natural world has rights that are worthy of protecting as opposed to being property is a belief alien to most North Americans. So this move by Ecuador, the first country to protect nature’s rights, is an excellent challenge to widespread, habitual ways of approaching the natural world.
In addition, Ecuador came up with the idea in 2007 to leave a huge amount of oil in the ground that lies beneath the Yasuni National Park. This park is apparently a fantastically diverse and rich area of rainforest. Ecuador, which is not a wealthy country, proposed that it be compensated half the price the oil would bring in for not extracting it. Here is another idea that likely seems impractical and outrageous to most North Americans. Yet I’ve read in The Guardian newspaper that $300 million has so far been given or pledged to Ecuador from countries, foundations, corporations and individuals–money that will be used for renewable energy projects to help finance reforestation, conservation and social projects. The money is not given directly to the Ecuadorian government but is held in trust and administered through the UN.
Though these bold ideas and actions coming out of Ecuador will not save the world in themselves, they seem entirely fitting given the serious problems we all face through global warming and the ongoing destruction of the natural world, on which we depend for life. They are inspirational paths that have the possibility of jolting us out of the usual boxes we find ourselves in and toward much needed constructive change.