The author, who has trained as a primatologist in the South American rainforest, spent several months as a volunteer caregiver for 13 chimpanzees living in a Quebec sanctuary. Director Gloria Grow had rescued the animals from biomedical research labs in the U.S.—the last country to still use primates this way. Although the chimps were still behind bars, the ingeniously designed sanctuary offered privacy, social contact with each other, human kindness, and access to the outdoors. For some, it was the first time they had ever walked on grass.
Westoll’s book tells a strong, simple story well. His job involved a great deal of poop-scraping, an occasional spitball in the face, and the constant low hum of danger; despite the fact that we like to put cowboy outfits on baby chimps and treat them as pets, adult chimpanzees have five to seven times the strength of a human male, and, like some badass humans, they can be mean. “Smoothie Boy,” as Westoll was known to his co-workers, delivered trolleys of hot tea and vegetable smoothies to 13 very distinctive characters, from the Bronx-cheering Binky to Sue Ellen, a fashionista with a thing for bearded men.
Slowly, the author develops a bond with several of them, especially Tom, a placid elder with old-soul eyes and a long history of war wounds. It’s the affecting individuality of his charges that makes the strongest argument that “the moral boundary we draw between us and them is indefensible.” For over a century, Westoll points out, we’ve shot chimpanzees into space, implanted electrodes into their brains, and injected them with the HIV virus, all the while maintaining that a “chimpanzee in a biomedical lab is somehow less ‘endangered’ than its wild compatriots.” But that attitude is changing. In this experiment in empathy, the author’s goal was to learn from the chimps, do no harm, and to pass that revolutionary connection on to us.