In 1985, I was fascinated by what I’d read about Sarah, a chimpanzee who could use a symbolic language to communicate, so I contacted Dr. David Premack, the principal researcher working with Sarah and other chimps at the University of Pennsylvania primate research lab, to volunteer. I’ll never forget meeting Sarah. When I was brought to her cage, I was warned to stay away from the bars because Sarah was strong enough, and often aggressive enough, to grab me and cause severe injury.
Sarah lived alone in her cage. The four other chimps at the lab were only three years old, and I was told that Sarah might harm them, so this social animal was confined permanently in solitude. She had long since refused to continue with her language training, so her life consisted largely of watching soap operas on a TV on the other side of her cage or sitting in her small outdoor enclosure. It was the new young chimps, who were the subjects in the ongoing language acquisition studies who lived together and had a huge outdoor space in which to play.
Sarah threw what was described as a temper tantrum when introduced to new people, and I was no exception. She screamed and bounded from wall to wall, but I felt determined to have a positive relationship with her. Every time I volunteered I made a point of visiting Sarah. One day I said to her, “Sarah, turn around and I’ll scratch your back.” I rotated my right index finger in the air as I said “turn around” in case she didn’t understand my words. Sure enough, Sarah turned around, sank down to sit on the floor and pressed her back against the bars of the cage. I was unafraid as I went up to her and scratched her back.
I didn’t volunteer for very long. One of the young chimps bit my hand when I was paying too much attention to another who had climbed onto my shoulders. Even a three-year-old chimp can administer quite a bite, and it came just a week before my father died, and I needed to be gone for some time. I realized I didn’t really want to go back. Once I’d seen behind the scenes of something that had initially seemed so benign – teaching chimpanzees language – I realized just how much suffering was being inflicted on these cousins of ours.
For years I felt haunted by Sarah. Was she to live out her days in isolation and misery? All I could do was tell her story and, as a humane educator, teach, so that we might make different societal choices in relationship to others, whether people or nonhuman animals. Fifteen years later, I learned that Sarah had found a final home at Chimp Haven, a chimpanzee sanctuary that houses chimps formerly used in medical research, entertainment and as pets. My eyes filled with tears of relief at this good news.
Peter Singer, philosopher and author of Animal Liberation, recently wrote a review of the new documentary, Project Nim, in The New York Review of Books. It’s an excellent piece and reveals that what appears to be even the most benign and positive research (that had the power to transform our treatment of our closest living relatives), was itself abusive and cruel to Nim and to many other chimps.
Singer’s review and the film are a reminder to all of us to remain vigilant about looking behind the scenes and beyond the hype. It was so easy to read about Sarah and Nim and the other chimps used in seemingly positive research and assume all was well. It still is. Just as we read about “learned helplessness” in our psychology textbooks today and fail to recognize the terrible cruelty perpetrated by Martin Seligman – who coined the term after using electric shocks on dogs to prove his theory – we still read about these research chimps. Most of us assume the best. Sadly, it isn’t so.
Which is why humane education, which draws back the curtain so that we can learn about the realities behind our societal and personal choices and actions, is so important. Bringing a critical thinking lens to what we read, see and do is crucial for choicemaking and changemaking that is humane and just for all; and learning how to become solutionaries for a better world enables us to develop innovative answers to complex challenges without causing harm and suffering in the process.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and a dynamic resource center. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists and rescue dogs from an evil vivisector. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of Joao Maximo via Creative Commons.