Exposing the Impact of Our Choices on Nonhuman Animals


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.


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Image courtesy of Joao Maximo via Creative Commons.


Anna Borsey
Anna Borsey6 years ago

Psychological and linguistic experiments on animals are in many ways just as, or very nearly so, cruel and immoral as the more blatantly sadistic types of animal experiments. They may be cruel in a different way, and they may not always appear to be cruel to the casual onlooker, but it is vile animal abuse nevertheless.

Elize Labuschagne

Why must the innocent always suffer. The beings with no voice ?

Beverly G.
bev g6 years ago

What a shame Zoe that u couldent of gone back to see that chimp Sarah, i reckon you just got her attention and unfortunately you turned away from her becos of your own probs. I really feel thats when she needed you most. She had put her trust in you and i think u could of progressed a little more with her given time. Such a shame. Poor animals im feel so upset and sad for them everythime i read on here it breaks my heart and brings a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. Im an avid animal lover, and a rescuer of stray cats, ferral, homing and re -home. So i guess i do know something about animals. Since i was a child have loved cats and had cats in the family and im 56 now. GOD BLESS all the animals i hope that one day they will be safe. The way this World is now , i hate to say it but i dont think they wil be and its sickening and so, so, so sad for them cos they havent done anything. Its MAN who is doing.

SeattleAnn S.
Ann S6 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Carrie Anne Brown

thanks for sharing this article

Berny P.
berny p6 years ago

Unfortunately humans are only concerned about themselves and fail to consider the basic needs of other living things.

Muriel Servaege
Muriel Servaege6 years ago

How sad. It's high time we humans realised animals are living beings too, and that they have rights, too. Aren't apes our closest cousins? We humans are really disrespectful of life on this planet.

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Kerry Baker
.6 years ago

Humans have to realise that animals have rights not to be subjected to the things we do to them. The more we learn about non-human animals, the less differences we find and the justification that researchers might feel they have based on difference is rapidly being destroyed. It is about a form of discrimination called speciesism. What is important is that when humans start to treat animals according to what is the perceived vale, then discrimination against different sections of the human race is not far away and so we get racism and so on. We quite simply have no moral or ethical right to impose our will on others, human or non-human, just because we are in a position where we are able to force it. When we start to respect the rights of other animals to live as they want to then we will have a better earth as a result. Stories such as this that raise awareness is one of the ways this will be achieved.

Monica D.
Monica D6 years ago

Very sad. I hope we will find better ways.