If I hear one more story from Ira Glass on This American Life, or from anyone, about a monkey rescued from somewhere, brought into someone’s home and trained to do human things, I’m going to hurl a banana at the wall. They don’t read like bedtime stories, these reports about monkey-human relationships. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve done all the research we need to do with monkeys taken in infancy and made to live as a family member.
What’s my issue with this? First of all, I admit to a fairly strong dislike of monkeys, particularly ones that people are trying to pass off as human. I don’t at all consider chimpanzees to be cute. They are less cute, a whole lot less, dressed up in human toddler clothing. Frankly, if I looked into a crib holding an infant chimp with a face resembling Ernest Borgnine’s, I’d have nightmares for an eternity. Neither do I want to see movies or commercials using monkeys doing funny or amazing things. I don’t care if the chimp can play Beethoven’s Fifth on a xylophone—I’ll have none of it. And a monkey grinning, full gums exposed? Well, if you ever wondered what Satan looks like after bringing another soul to his home in the tropics, wonder no more.
I was on my sofa relaxing this past Sunday, listening to This American Life, and there it was again – the story about Lucy the chimpanzee who was raised as a human in the 1970s and 80s by Dr. Maurice and Jane Temerlin. (Yes, her name is “Jane.”) Chimp owners always name their new children “Lucy” thinking the rest of us will look upon them as being human and perhaps share our ice cream cone with them. Dr. Maurice Temerlin was a psychotherapist and professor at the University of Oklahoma at the time. Obviously he was in a dry period as far as having human patients, as well as being childless at the time.
Soon after Lucy moved in with the Temerlins, a Dr. Roger Fouts taught the chimp to sign. To sign, as in sign language. For what reason? So she could get a job in a school for the hearing impaired? So she could stand in front of the members of the UN and interpret? As far as I’m concerned, you DON’T teach wild animals to fit into the human world. You don’t take them out of their natural habitat and give them a bedroom in your house, a princess phone and their own TV. It’s not natural – in every sense of the word. Go ahead and teach your dogs and cats how to dial for pizza delivery or to write their own blog, but leave the wild animals to BE.
In the case of the Temerlins, when the beast got so large it could tear their faces off, they began to have second thoughts about their daughter. It stunned me to hear that the couple put up with Lucy for quite a few years even though she had begun, in their words, to destroy their home. Lucy wasn’t throwing her dolls and tinker toys around. No, she was pulling drywall off the walls and excavating the electrical wiring. So, finally, they decided the 12-year old chimp had to go back to the wild. Unfortunately, kicking out a chimp that has spent its life with you is not like sending your 18-year old out into the world. At least the human relative can return on the weekends to do his laundry and will once in a while take out the trash.
The rest of Lucy’s story is not pretty at all.
Lucy was accompanied by University of Oklahoma psychology graduate student, Janis Carter, who traveled with her to a chimpanzee rehabilitation center in Gambia. To make a long, painful story short, Janis spent years trying to get Lucy to become a chimp in the wilds. Eventually, Lucy semi-adapted and joined another group of chimps, ex-lab animals themselves, and wandered off into the forest. I found a heart-wrenching photo of Janis hugging Lucy goodbye – an image that stays in one’s head, given the tragic end to this story.
But Janis couldn’t leave the story there, so she’d periodically return to the chimp’s new home to check up on her. The description of Janis’s trials and efforts to help Lucy were torturous to hear. For years, Janis lived there with Lucy, doing everything she could to help the chimp adjust. On her final trip back to the island in 1987 where Lucy was living, Janis couldn’t find the chimp at first. But then she did. She discovered Lucy lying in the area where Janis had lived for awhile – minus her hands, feet and skin. Many people believe that Lucy, having been comfortable around humans for so long, wandered up to some poachers who were surprised to find such an accommodating prey at their disposal.
Out of this sad experience, some good came. Janis remained in Africa and is there still improving the lives of chimpanzees and humans:
Carter began surveying the attitudes of villagers toward chimpanzees and monitoring chimpanzee populations in neighboring Senegal and Guinea. In the Nialama Classified Forest in Guinea, she tapped local hunters’ knowledge about where chimps find water and food, marked the corridors that link their feeding areas and mapped their migration patterns. This knowledge helps government officials and community leaders direct farming and logging where they won’t interfere with chimp survival.
The comments I read that accompanied the article were profound and enlightening but mixed as to the nature of the Temerlin’s work.
There are doubtless many lessons to be drawn from it, but the one that is brought home most forcefully to me is the responsibility that we assume when we become another being’s primary caretaker–be it child, animal, or animal/child. If you teach that being to love you and to expect love in return, you have created a sacred and unending obligation.
Carter, who came as Lucy’s caretaker, had no qualms about subjecting Lucy to the rehabilitation process, and was able to document the years of Lucy’s difficult adjustment. I say “adjustment,” as she never became truly rehabilitated. She remained underweight, and although chimpanzees normally first give birth at about 13 years old, she had not reproduced by the time of her death at 21.
Perhaps sorriest of all is Carter, for so personally insisting that Lucy should endure the rehabilitation process–which Lucy so obviously found difficult and confusing–for so long. In truth, Lucy’s whole life was manipulated solely for the benefit of human beings. Her death was probably the only event she suffered that was not manipulated.
Very sad story. And emblematic, I think, of the arrogance that started the whole ordeal… a psychologist and his wife whimsically experimenting with the life of another sentient being, and then washing their hands of it once they were in over their heads. Not that the profession of psychology is inherently arrogant, but mankind in western society is, and professionals often are. I guess, in a sense, washing their hands of the matter was best in the end, since it turned out to involve their friend’s extraordinary valor and eventually allowed Lucy at least a year of living a somewhat normal life. I think the story is a beautiful tale of devotion on Janis Carter’s part, and a deep morality lesson for all of us.
My final thoughts: Are we done yet with examining how monkeys are so much like humans? Haven’t we learned everything we need to learn from these experiments? I have a better suggestion for research. Let’s spend some money examining why humans behave in the atrocious ways they do. Let’s spend some money helping humans learn to stop destroying their home – this planet. Let’s devote our efforts to helping humans learn to preserve wild animals and their habitats. Let’s teach humans to live among wild animals, but more so, to live peaceably among other humans.
Here you’ll find other photos of Lucy.