The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recoveryby Andrew Westoll
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In 1997 Gloria Grow started a sanctuary for chimps retired from biomedical research on her farm outside Montreal. For the indomitable Gloria, caring for thirteen great apes is like presiding over a maximum security prison, a Zen sanctuary, an old folks’ home, and a New York deli during the lunchtime rush all rolled into one. But she is first and foremost creating a refuge for her troubled charges, a place where they can recover and begin to trust humans again.
Hoping to win some of this trust, the journalist Andrew Westoll spent months at Fauna Farm as a volunteer and vividly recounts his time in the chimp house and the histories of its residents. He arrives with dreams of striking up an immediate friendship with the legendary Tom, the wise face of the Great Ape Protection Act, but Tom seems all too content to ignore him. Gradually, though, old man Tommie and the rest of the “troop” begin to warm toward Westoll as he learns the routines of life at the farm and realizes just how far the chimps have come. Seemingly simple things like grooming, establishing friendships and alliances, and playing games with the garden hose are all poignant testament to the capacity of these animals to heal.
Brimming with empathy and winning stories of Gloria and her charges, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is an absorbing, bighearted book that grapples with questions of just what we owe to the animals who are our nearest genetic relations.
"The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary blew me away. It is a master work that deserves an audience stretching from the US Congress to medical-school students to the widest possible public." - Bookslut.com
"a powerful look at how we treat our closest relatives" - Cleveland Plain Dealer
"what I found from the first chapter was compassion, education and some of the best writing I have encountered in a very long time. This book is not an in-your-face telling-you-what-to-do animal rights book full of horror, but an account of tenderness, turmoil and traverse spanning over a period of time much longer than when Fauna Sanctuary opened its doors 14 years ago." - Times Union
"This incisive book describes the daily lives of 13 resident chimps, their resilience after so much suffering and the invasive research practices that 'render them as psychologically compromised as human victims of domestic violence or political and war prisoners.'...An affecting work about our genetic cousin." - Kirkus
"A distressing, deeply important exposé of the suffering we have inflicted on our closest animal relation, the ethics of animal testing, and finally (and happily) a heartening picture of Fauna Sanctuary's commitment and compassion." - Publishers Weekly
"The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is a true story of endurance and resilience, compassion, dedication and love. I knew the prison-like conditions of the medical research facility from which Gloria [Grow] rescued these chimpanzees; when I visited them at their new sanctuary I was moved to tears. Finally they had reached a secure haven where, gradually, they could recover from their years of torment. Andrew Westoll is a born story teller: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, written with empathy and skill, tenderness and humour, involves us in a world few understand. And leaves us marveling at the ways in which chimpanzees are so like us, and why they deserve our help and are entitled to our respect."
Jane Goodall Ph.D., DBE
"This book will make you think deeply about our relationship with great apes. It amazed me to discover the behaviors and feelings of the chimpanzees."—Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation
"This book is a wonder. Passionate, intelligent, moving and, above all, tremendously important, it illustrates the triumph of the wild spirit and offers surprising hope that the human animal might yet be redeemed. Think of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation and J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, and you’ll have some idea of what it is you hold in your hands. It has been a long time since any author has inspired me to such extremes of compassion and humility."—Barbara Gowdy, author of The White Bone
The story of primate research in the United States, told through the lens of a retirement home for traumatized chimpanzees.
Primatologist turned writer Westoll (The Riverbones: Stumbling After Eden in the Jungles of Suriname, 2008) spent several weeks as a volunteer at Fauna Sanctuary, in the French Canadian countryside, where since the late 1990s the devoted Gloria Grow has cared for chimps who suffer from psychological disturbances after having spent much of their lives in painful biomedical research. Living in a basement apartment, he helped out by washing dishes, scraping feces and preparing medicine-laced afternoon smoothies. This incisive book describes the daily lives of 13 resident chimps, their resilience after so much suffering and the invasive research practices that "render them as psychologically compromised as human victims of domestic violence or political and war prisoners." Chimps have been used in invasive research since the end of the 17th century, writes the author. In the United States, the intelligent, human-like creatures have been involved in lab experiments on diseases from polio to AIDS, and served as living crash-test dummies in high-speed and high-altitude travel studies. The U.S. is the only developed nation that continues using primates in such experiments, with about 1,000 chimps now locked up in research facilities. Westoll urges readers to support the Great Ape Protection Act (now in committee in Congress), which is designed to end the use of chimps in research and has bipartisan support. The author will donate a portion of his royalties to the Fauna Lifetime Care Fund.
An affecting work about our genetic cousin.
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Read an Excerpt
I am not interested in why man commits evil.
I want to know why he does good.
— Vàclav Havel
“Smell my phone,” says Gloria Grow as I climb into her Jeep at Montreal’s Trudeau Airport. She guns the engine and hands me her cell phone. “Go on. Smell it.”
These are Gloria’s first words to me in person. We’ve already had two long phone conversations, between my home in Toronto and her farm in Quebec. By the end of those talks she’d invited me to move in with her family and write a book about them. But at no point did Gloria seem like the sort of person who would ask a virtual stranger to smell her phone.
There is nothing peculiar about the cell, a standard-issue flip phone. But upon closer inspection I notice a constellation of little divots — are they bite marks? — punched into the bright pink casing.
I look at Gloria. She is frowning. A construction detour has sent us in circles.
“Go on,” she says again. I raise the phone to my nose.
I smell a swamp. Rotten fruit. Fecal matter. The reek of a tropical jungle.
“I love it,” I say.
“Me too. Richard got me pink. I hate pink. But now I can’t bear to throw it out. Open it.”
I flip the casing open, and the LCD comes to life. But instead of showing an orderly sequence of numbers and icons, the screen is a mess, a muddy squelch of black ink. The phone has been crushed,
or chewed, beyond repair.
“These roads!” says Gloria, making her third consecutive lefthand turn. Then she reaches over and presses her thumb into the phone’s screen. The inky cloud morphs into kaleidoscopic rainbows.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” she says without looking over. “It’s like chimp art.”
I fiddle with the cell phone, making a few of my own psychedelic impressions on the screen. As we descend an exit ramp to nowhere, Gloria sighs. She reaches over and tears the phone from my hand. Closing her eyes, she presses the phone to her nose and inhales deeply.
“They only gave it back to me yesterday.”
This is the story of a family of troubled animals who live on a farm in the French Canadian countryside. It is the story of how these animals came to be so troubled and how they are slowly becoming less so, in their own particular ways, through the actions of a small group of people led by Gloria Grow.
When I say these animals are a family, I don’t mean they share a mother or father or brothers or sisters (although some of them surely do). They are a family in the sense that any group of beings who have lived together, suffered together, and triumphed together becomes a family. They are related in the way we are all related to one another, and here lies the source of their great misfortune.
I first contacted Gloria in 1998, when I was a college biology student. I wrote to inquire about volunteer opportunities at the Fauna Foundation, the sanctuary for rescued animals that Gloria had recently founded with her partner, a veterinarian named Richard Allan, on their 240-acre hobby farm near Chambly. The foundation had recently been all over the local, national, and international news because it had just become the permanent retirement home for a very special group of chimpanzees.
At the time I was one of thousands of young biology students who, inspired by the usual suspects (Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, the breathless David Attenborough), would have done just about anything to get a job either working with or studying great apes — the orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees most of us have seen only in a zoo or in the pages of National Geographic. So when I first heard of Fauna, I couldn’t believe it. The place sounded like my own personal Shangri-la. Imagine: an opportunity to experience chimpanzee behavior in the flesh, just a short drive from Canada’s most sophisticated and seductive city, thereby removing the need to fund a kamikaze trek to the remote Central African rainforest (something I, at a much younger age, had briefly considered until I did a little reading and learned what the “civil” in “civil war” actually meant).
I didn’t know why the chimps had been shipped to Fauna from their home in New York State. I knew nothing of what they’d been subjected to there or of the struggles each one faced in adjusting to retirement in Canada. All I knew was I wanted to work with them. Looking back, I find it unsettling how selfish my curiosity really was.
Unfortunately, life got in the way, and the volunteering idea came to nothing. Soon after that I was offered a dream job of a different sort. After graduating, I spent a year in the jungles of Suriname, just north of the Amazon rainforest, studying wild troops of brown capuchin monkeys. Though they’re no great apes, capuchins are known as the chimpanzees of the New World for their intelligence and primitive forms of tool use. I was employed by the University of Florida, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Leakey Foundation. My dreams fulfilled, my interests served, the chimpanzees of Fauna became a distant memory.
Fast-forward more than a decade, then, throw in a career shift from scientist to writer, and here I am with Gloria, searching for a way out of Montreal, struggling to correlate the embarrassing mental image I’d had of her with the real-life version sitting next to me.
The stereotype of the woman who dedicates her life to rescuing animals is a surprisingly powerful cultural image. Often referred to as the Crazy Cat Lady, but by no means limited to felines, she shuffles around in moldy slippers, the backs of her hands are raked with claw marks, and at any moment a minimum of four living creatures are buried somewhere in the folds of her robe. This woman is a walking menagerie of frumpy disillusionment, in desperate need of the unconditional love only an animal can provide. And although that image is a cruel exaggeration, I was half-expecting some variation on it when I climbed into the Jeep and finally met Gloria, more than ten years after my first attempt.
Gloria is nothing like that imaginary Cat Lady. Small but full figured, with shoulder-length dark blond hair worn half up in a clip, she is disarmingly attractive, her face deeply tanned, her makeup tasteful, her smile full of intelligence. She is very fit, her shoulders and upper arms packed with the strength of a farmhand. She wears an elegant beige top, expensive-looking jeans, black sandals, and dark-framed glasses, a chic outfit that belies her age (mid-fifties), her roots (blue-collar Quebec), and her mode of transport (a dusty Jeep that smells vaguely of farm). As our quest for an escape route continues, Gloria speaks about the effects of captivity on animals, while my first impression of her changes to that of a woman caught between opposing worlds — something that could also be said of the Crazy Cat Lady.
“It’s like Shawshank Redemption, right?” she says of the difficulties facing rescued animals. “The librarian finally gets out of prison, and what does he do? He kills himself.” Gloria pulls a hard right, and we careen onto a packed highway. “Found it. The 20-East.” She punches the gas. “We’re free!”
Down on the Farm
In fifteen minutes we reach a major crossroad, a huge parcel of former pastureland now inhabited by a dizzying metropolis of big-box stores, movie cinemas, restaurants, and parking lots. Soon enough, we’re driving along a pleasant country road, surrounded mostly by fields of corn and alfalfa, with occasional houses backing onto acres of open land. Another turn onto an even quieter road, a few more meanderings past farms and old barns, and we’ve completed our departure from the hurly-burly. We arrive at a stretch of white picket fencing that looks plucked from the western frontier circa 1890. Gloria slows, and I take in my first glimpse of her home — now my home, too, if only for a few months.
The large farmhouse where Gloria and Richard live is partly hidden behind a copse of trees, but I get a glimpse of its rural heritage — the gabled roof, the pillared veranda. To the left of the drive, in a narrow pasture, two cream-colored llamas are resting in the shade. A few billy goats nibble lazily at the grasses behind them.
We creep down the drive, the gravel crackling under our tires. At a gate, Gloria lowers her window, and I hear the wild barking of dogs, perhaps a whole pack of them. Then, from a small stable, two
impressive horses emerge. One is black with a glint of gray, with white-booted back legs and a white stripe down his muzzle. The other, slightly taller, is a delicious chestnut brown with a gleaming black mane. As the horses get closer, I realize the black one must be fairly old, his gait hobbled in the rear.
“There’s Jethro and McLeod, coming to say hello,” says Gloria. “Eeyore’s around here somewhere.”
I spot an elderly gray donkey behind the stable. He stands perfectly still, his ears twitching, his gaze fixed intently on our passing Jeep, as if he’s on surveillance, compiling data on our whereabouts and reporting back to some donkey strike force. I’ve never felt entirely comfortable around donkeys. I consider mentioning this to Gloria but decide it’s probably best to keep it to myself for now.
“There he is,” says Gloria, waving to Eeyore over her shoulder. “What a grumpy old man.”
Continuing down the drive, we pass a small bungalow. This is the Fauna office, where I will be living for the next few months in the basement apartment. Gloria doesn’t stop, though, and a beautiful country pond opens up on our left. Families of ducks and Canada geese cruise the surface, and two white swans sit preening on a promontory of rocks. A majestic fountain of water rises up in the center, and in the distance a gray heron high-steps through the shallows, hunting minnows and frogs.
On the far side of the pond are two barns with a tractor parked between them. A raging bonfire coughs a plume of black smoke into the air. Every now and then, an ATV with a payload of lumber zips past the blaze. A cacophony of sounds drifts across the water — the buzz of lawn mowers, the growl of a chain saw, the echoing thuds of a hammer. Fauna is much more than a mere hobby farm, I realize; it is a place of perpetual labor. Since we arrived, the walkie-talkie on Gloria’s belt has been humming with the industrious voices of her French Canadian staff.
Between the pond and the driveway are immaculate gardens, with quaint pathways winding through them. A few rustic benches sit among the flowers, just a few weeks from full bloom. At a small clearing, Gloria slows.
A peculiar building comes into sight, three stories high, on maybe an acre of ground. The structure, surrounded by chainlink and electric fencing, resembles a medium-security prison. Above the entrance, a caged balcony looks tacked on, almost as an afterthought.
But this is not what makes the building peculiar. The strange part is the chutelike appendage that protrudes from the second floor and stretches toward the pond we’ve just passed. Made of steel caging, it is supported by thick pillars reaching fifteen feet to the ground. It looks like some postapocalyptic contraption from the set of Mad Max.
Before I can ask Gloria about this, she directs my attention to our right, where an imposing steel cage sits in a thicket of native sumacs. The cage is about the size of a clothes closet, seven feet high and five feet wide. A small metal box with a hole in the top is affixed to the side. An old truck tire hangs from rusted chains inside the cage. The whole thing looks like something out of a medieval dungeon.
Gloria says nothing about the cage. We just creep past in silence. Then we rumble over a wooden bridge, and she parks in front of the chimphouse.
“Now remember,” she says, climbing out of the Jeep, “today’s crazy.” She throws open a chainlink gate. “It’s full-moon week, so everyone’s a little off.”
I’m a bit astonished. I hadn’t expected Gloria to take me inside on my first day. By the time we reach the front door I’ve understood that by “everyone” she is not referring to her staff.
The first thing I notice upon walking into the Fauna chimphouse is not, as I’d expected, the smell, a brooding stench of compost, urine, flatulence, and feces that apparently makes some visitors vomit. And it is not the sweltering humidity, an absurdity considering our northern locale.
No, the first thing I notice is the fear, which runs up my spine like a silverfish as Gloria leads me down a dark corridor. It is a familiar feeling, reminding me how I felt the first few times I walked alone in the jungles of Suriname, with only a machete to protect myself from the menagerie of rainforest predators. But this is not Suriname, and despite the smell and the heat, it is not a place where a bushmaster or a jaguar might roam. So I begin to wonder: is this my fear, or is it perhaps someone else’s?
As we walk, an eerie sound rises, like something large and hollow being dragged across the floor.
Gloria turns to face me. “Rules,” she says. “First: take your jacket off. The bigger you look, the more threatening you are. Second: you’re tall, so I need you to crouch. Third: do not stand too close to me. They don’t interpret it properly. They can’t control it. It’s threatening. Four: respect the red lines on the floor. They’re there for a reason. Inside the red, believe me, they will try to get you.”
“What’s that sound?”
“The welcoming committee.” Gloria smiles. “They already know you’re here.”
We walk on. The dragging grows louder. Then a terrible boom detonates up ahead. It echoes throughout the building, a crash of something extremely dense slamming into a wall of steel. I stop dead. The crash is followed by eerie silence; I hear birds chirping. But a few seconds later an identical blast goes off, followed by another and another, and I decide no, this fear may have started out as someone else’s, but now it’s entirely mine. The building fills with the booms. The cement walls seem to shake with the noise.
“Full-moon week,” says Gloria between the blasts. “Everyone’s in such a good mood.”
I think of that machete and how good it would feel in my hand right now. I think of those nineteenth-century explorers who refused to enter the Congo without an arsenal of guns, for fear of attack by the murderous beasts known as kivili-chimpenze (Bantu for “mock-man”). One researcher actually built himself a cage in the jungle so that he could observe chimpanzees in safety. It wasn’t until 1960, when the young Jane Goodall entered the Tanzanian rainforest accompanied by her mother, that Western culture slowly began to lose its irrational fear of the chimpanzee.
Easier said than done, I think, as a different sound now emerges above the fray — the chimpanzee pant-hoot. It begins almost imperceptibly, a series of low-pitched hooing sounds, as if someone were panting in and out through their mouth. It builds slowly, the hooing getting faster, louder, the in-breaths growing shorter and the outs longer, uh-hoo, uh-hooo, uh-hoooo, until finally they climax in a sequence of hysterical, near-human shrieks. The silverfish scuttles up my neck. My ears ring. Then silence. The birds. Scraping. Pounding. More howls. I turn a corner and come across a woman.
Her back turned to us, she is folding linens from a towering pile of laundry. When the woman sees me out of the corner of her eye, her body quakes, and she lets loose a terrified scream. For an instant her voice extinguishes the crashes and shrieks, and a flurry of bed sheets parachutes to the floor. A moment later, realizing what species I am, the woman grasps her chest with her hands, rolls her head back, and in a spasm of hysterical French thanks God for sparing her life.
“I thought a chimp was out,” she says breathlessly. “I thought you were a chimpanzee.”
And that’s when I see him. Over the laundry lady’s shoulder, past Gloria. A massive black body behind a wall of steel caging, thundering back and forth.
“Come and meet Binky,” says Gloria, waving me over. “It’s OK. Really. Come and meet the Bub.”
Of all the dramatic arrivals and new beginnings that have occurred in the Fauna chimphouse over the years, few can compare with one that happened on a cool September day back in 1997, when the first
members of Gloria’s new family arrived at sanctuary.
Late that morning, a black pickup truck towing an ordinary horse trailer pulled into the Fauna Foundation’s driveway after a long journey. It had begun before dawn in the Ramapo Mountains,
about an hour’s drive north of New York City. But for the animals inside that horse trailer, arrival at Fauna marked the end of a much longer and more difficult journey, one that had lasted their entire lives.
Inside that trailer were seven young chimpanzees. Until that morning they had been the property of New York University and had lived at a biomedical research facility called the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, or LEMSIP. As research subjects, these animals had endured years of pain and deprivation as living test tubes for the study of human diseases. They’d been torn from their mothers just days after birth. They’d been imprisoned in cages, sometimes in solitary confinement. They’d undergone blood draws, invasive surgeries, and viral experiments. Some had been knocked unconscious with dart guns almost every week.
And when the trailer turned in to the Fauna driveway that morning, these animals were met by a distinctly human welcoming committee and became the sole responsibility of Gloria Grow.
Over the next few months, those seven were joined by eight more chimps from LEMSIP, many of them much older and more troubled, some having been singled out for infection with multiple strains of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, in studies aimed at developing a vaccine for AIDS. Upon arriving at Fauna, these animals became the first HIV-positive research chimps on the planet to be retired to a sanctuary.
As the years passed, these apes were joined by four more from nearby zoos. Six members of this assorted family have since died. The day I arrive, the Fauna Foundation is home to thirteen chimpanzees, all of whom bear the psychological and, in some cases, physical wounds of having spent much of their lives either in biomedical research or simply behind the bars of a cage. This is their retirement. This is their Shangri-la. And with Gloria’s help, they’ve slowly begun to heal.
Meet the Author
Andrew Westoll is an award-winning narrative journalist and the author of The Riverbones, a travel memoir set in the jungles of Suriname. Before becoming a writer, Andrew trained as a primatologist in the South American rainforest, where he studied wild troops of capuchin monkeys. He now lives in Toronto.
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Years ago I lived a long time in a populous third-world country. I remember saying to a friend living in the U.S. that a focus on animal rights seemed a distraction in view of human living conditions around the globe. She gave me a look I can still see to this day and have thought about many times since. "Why are we more important than every other living species?" and "What would our lives be like without other species?" she could have asked. There is no doubt in my mind that we must be more mindful of species living on the planet around us and treat each with great care and respect. That is also the theme of this fine documentary about research chimps living out their final days on a farm in Canada. Westoll was a scientist first, but changed his focus to writing later in his career. He urges us to look at the evidence and acknowledge that we have a duty to restrict testing of animals in the name of science. And he urges us to insist Congress pass the Great Ape Protection Act (GAPA) which has been on the roster for discussion and passage for years now. Once again we lag behind other Western nations who long ago restricted the use of primates for research. Apparently studies using primates have determined that primates are sufficiently different from humans as not to be of great use in providing useful information for medical use. But the studies continue, Westoll suggests, perhaps because they are so lucrative to the grantees receiving federal monies. In the meantime, social animals of great intelligence and emotional range are subjected to lives of captivity, and the cruelties of isolation, are introduced to disease and treated with disregard. This story tells us mostly of what it is like to lives with the animals now, their research days behind them (several were smuggled out of research facilities by sympathetic caregiver scientists). One is struck anew how little we know, and how barbaric we seem. Surely the rights demanded by groups of the disenfranchized over the years should have taught us how cruel and thoughtless we seemed before finally recognizing the rights of different groups (the poor, women, blacks). This is not a screed, nor a diatribe. It is a man reflecting on meeting some unusual characters who have a history, and with our help, a future.
A must read for everyone
The best nonfiction I have read. You laugh and cry and feel like you know the chimps by the end. A must-read.
It will take your heart apart piece by piece but is a must read for everyone who loves animals. I simply just couldn't put it down.
I have read a lot of different non-fiction animal books and this is absolutely one of the best! Andrew Westoll is an excellent writer and really keeps your interest! This book is not at all dry like some non-fiction books can be. This story is truly amazing! This should be required reading. It would be impossible to not be changed after reading this book.
Andrew Westoll takes us inside a chimpanzee sanctuary, where he spends months getting to know those who live there. Many of these chimps were rescued from biomedical research labs. The abuse they suffered is heartbreaking. Their resilience and willingness to forgive humans is astounding. No matter which side of the fence you're on with animal research, this is a must read. ** I received this ebook as an advanced readers copy from the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through NetGalley. **