The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction recognizes excellence in Canadian non-fiction writing, awarding $25,000 to the winning author on March 5.
Andrew Westoll spent a year studying capuchin monkeys in the upper Amazon basin, training as a primatologist, before he decided to become a writer. “When I was in Suriname,” Westoll said, “I decided that I wanted to have a more visceral connection with nature than science could offer.” It doesn’t get more visceral than the experience he had working with chimpanzees at the Fauna Sanctuary in rural Quebec. He spent several months as a volunteer there, caring for 13 apes that had been rescued from a medical research lab by the sanctuary’s founder, Gloria Grow. Some of the chimps had been deeply damaged by their earlier treatment, while others like to accessorize themselves with beads, throw spitballs and play endless games of tag. Slowly, Westoll bonded with the chimps. “I soon realized that this was going to be a book with 13 protagonists.”
“The biggest surprise to me was how emotional and sensitive chimps are,” Westoll says. “We tend to talk about their cognitive abilities, or their social behaviour; we rarely talk about their inner lives, which I would say are almost as complex as humans’.”
By the time he left the sanctuary, his time with the apes had changed the way he looked at human behaviour (“The alpha-male thing was so apparent, for instance”)—and other animals, too. “When I got home and my dog greeted me, suddenly I saw just how much I had been ignoring in her behaviour, that she was telling me.”
The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary transforms Westoll’s experience with our closest animal cousins into an eye-opening narrative full of vivid personalities. Some of the chimps, like Binky, were quick to warm to Westoll. A gentle, charismatic elder known as Tom came to haunt his dreams. In the following excerpt, we meet Chance, a chimpanzee taken from her mother at birth and still wary of life outside a lab cage.
Chance looks different from all the other chimps at Fauna. Her hair has a beautiful silver tinge, which makes her body seem to shimmer when she sits outside in the sun. Chance also sounds different from the others in a quite adorable way. She hasn’t quite mastered the Bronx cheer, which Binky uses to perfection: when Chance wants to get your attention, she makes a strange blowing sound, like a child learning to whistle, as if she’s unable to press her lips together firmly enough. It is a sound all her own, and now it is just as effective at getting our attention as Binky’s mighty pwbbt! or Tom’s clapping.
Now that I know what she’s been through, when Chance tries to scare me, I try to ignore it or laugh it off, and I stay right where I am. When I stick to my guns like this, Chance eventually stops acting out and starts to relax. Once she realizes I am not here to hurt her, Chancey-Pants begins to lower the wall between her and me, the wall she’s been building, as a matter of survival, ever since she was born.
I’ve recently discovered that Chance loves to play with tennis balls. When I approach with one, she’ll stick her arm through the porthole as if she wants to play catch. When I throw it to her, she’ll usually catch it and bring it inside her enclosure, claiming it as hers. But then she’ll reach the ball out through the porthole, and the real game will begin. She’ll throw the ball as far away from me as she possibly can, usually aiming for the storage room next to the kitchen or the hallway leading to the observation room. The further she can throw it—that is, the further she can make me go to retrieve it—the happier she is. We do not play catch, in other words. We play fetch. When she makes an especially good shot—as when she bounces a left-handed curveball into a bucket of wash water in the storage room—she will almost collapse in excitement, huffing her chimp laugh and shaking her head, taunting me the way only a chimpanzee can. But as quickly as her excitement arrives, it is over. Chance does not like to feel overwhelmed, even by happy emotions. She always seems to be holding herself in check, not letting her enthusiasm boil over lest she lose control again.
One day not long ago, I had prepared a trolley full of tea for the chimps, and Gloria decided to give Chancey first dibs in an effort to cheer her up. Chance had had a couple of tough days. She’d been living in a large group of chimps for almost a week, and the stress was beginning to wear on her. Gloria sometimes offers Chance the opportunity to live with a larger group to see if she can manage to get along and perhaps achieve a small measure of social standing. But this time it wasn’t going well. Even the calmest individuals, like Tom and Pepper, had displayed at her through the caging just the day before, sending Chance into a tizzy. Now she had closed herself into a privacy room. Jeannie [probably the most troubled ape ever to live at Fauna] used to do this regularly. It signalled that she needed some solitude, a break from the relentless social obligations of living in a large group.
Gloria rolled the trolley of carefully balanced cups of tea over to Chance’s porthole. And just as Gloria realized her mistake, Chance reached out, grabbed the trolley by the corner and gave it a violent shake. Hot tea went everywhere. Cardboard cups clattered to the floor, and Gloria jumped back, just missing a scalding. “Chancey!” Gloria roared, her emotions overcoming her usual control. “Why would you do that?” Unperturbed, Chance simply let go of the trolley and dropped to the floor to inspect the river of tea flowing into her room.
Gloria returned to my side of the counter, clearly infuriated. But as she flicked on the kettle to boil more water, I could hear her muttering, over and over under her breath, “She’s in control. She’s in control. She’s in control.” Among the many mantras Gloria relies on to get through difficult moments, this is one of the most important. Because it doesn’t matter how frustrating her day is or if any of her plans actually reach fruition. Her goal, above all, is to make the chimps feel, every single day, that they have some control and agency over their own lives. Chance had the opportunity to spill a trolley full of tea that day, and she did so, much to her amusement. The fact that Gloria and I then had to mop the floor and remake the tea is inconsequential. Gloria eventually returned to Chance’s porthole, this time with a single cup of tea on the trolley, and Chance happily took it and placed it on the resting bench to cool. Then she and Gloria spent the next 15 minutes playing tickle-chase together.
As I watched Chance that rainy afternoon, I realized that my affection for her had grown unexpectedly strong over the past few weeks. She is such a difficult chimp, but such a resilient survivor. After everything she’s been through, it is ultimately up to her to overcome her trauma. Gloria [and her team] can help, but no matter how hard they work, everyone knows it is the chimpanzees themselves who are doing the real heavy lifting here.
Excerpted from the book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, © 2011 by Andrew Westoll, published by Harper Collins. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.