kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural science, scientists
Last evening I watched a short item on ABC's Primetime about pet chimpanzees, and the great dangers that result. It was stated that a mature male chimp weighs 200 pounds (95 kg) and has seven times the strength of a human male. I believe it is more accurate to say that a male chimp who is not obese might weigh 150 pounds (70 kg), and while the animal may be seven times as strong as I am (or any other sedentary office worker), it is more likely that the figure is three times, compared to a fit man in his prime. Considering the poor impulse control of primates in general, keeping such an animal at home rates right up there with hanging hand grenades from your belt by their pins. Chimps really don't belong in our bedrooms.
It is quite another thing to put oneself into their bedrooms. Yet this is indeed what Jane Goodall did in 1960, and has continued to do for 39 years since. She is the first of Louis Leakey's "Ape Girls", and as Sy Montgomery tells us, still the best known. Second in order, and in recognition, is Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas from 1967 until her murder in 1985; and the third, least known in the West, but a power in her own right in Indonesia, is Biruté Galdikas, who has been studying orangutans since 1971. These womens' lives and work are limned (there is too much material for any one book to comprehensively cover) in Ms Montgomery's 1991 book Walking With the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Biruté Galdikas, which has recently been reissued in paperback.
The book reveals three aspects of each woman's life: as the Nurturer who gained the apes' confidence and, perhaps, respect; as the Scientist who revealed the animals' lives to the rest of us; and as the Warrior who championed the preservation of the apes and their homes. While the opening section shows the similarity of these three women's approach to their subjects, the third shows their differences most starkly.
We could consider the work of each of them as a two-step drama. Each spent a number of years gaining information (one could hardly call it data) and becoming as habituated to the apes as the apes did to them. At the same time, each strove to earn the credit they expected to need in the world around, though each saw that world in very different terms. Subsequently, each became an advocate for the animals, and here they differ starkly.
Jane Goodall has become a globe-trotting diplomat, deftly working the politics of the powerful Western countries to build support for the preservation of chimp habitat and for severe restriction of their "taking" for purposes such as being laboratory animals, circus/zoo entertainers, or pets.
Dian Fossey took a more direct, vigilante approach. She recruited a private army and attacked poachers and the cattle of encroaching ranchers. She paid little regard to national or international politics, taking the slogan "politics is local" about as far as it can be taken. Her murder was inevitable.
Biruté Galdikas became totally conversant in Indonesian cultures and political habits, and has gained recognition, at least in Asia, as a highly respected authority, one who, as she quotes Prince Charles, has "no power, but plenty of influence." She is gaining, and has largely gained already, the favor and regard of the people who matter most to the orangutans' survival, the people and the governmental leaders of Indonesia.
The book closes with an epilogue subtitled "Shamans", an author's musing about the women's becoming one with their subjects. It is not surprising at all, considering how similar many people become to their favorite pets! And in spite of the fact that "the apes don't need us [socially]," which all three of them say, the apes have gained something also. One incident is related of a chimp who has learned to understand and respond to spoken English, though no effort was made to teach her. That isn't surprising at all. Nearly any dog is a better linguist than his owner; the dog learns to respond well to many spoken words, while few humans ever learn a single word of Dog!
The cover of the book shows two orangutans, mother and infant. The infant, chewing on a leaf, bears an open look of not-quite-curiosity. The mother's look is far from friendly, not quite a glower. Will the foreboding her face seems to bear come to pass with her species' extinction? The history of human greed does not allow me much confidence that the apes will survive into my grandchildren's generation.