Chimpanzee Non-Fiction

All read – some reviewed – a work in progress …


Chimpanzee Memoirs: stories of studying and saving our closest living relatives edited by Stephen Ross and Lydia Hopper – 2022

The Chimpanzee Whisperer by Stany Nyandwi with David Blisset – 2022

Chasing after Chimpanzees by William C McGrew – 2021

Chimpanzee: lessons from our sister species by Kevin D. Hunt – 2020

Becoming Wild by Carl Safina – 2020

The Chimpanzee Chronicles by Debra Rosenman – 2020

Great Apes and their Basic Rights by Pedro Pozas Terrados et al. – 2019

The Chimpanzee & Me by Ben Garrod – 2019

Almost Human: the story of Julius, the chimpanzee caught between two worlds by Alfred Fidjestøl – 2019

Mama’s Last Hug: animal emotions and what they tell us about ourselves by Frans de Waal – 2019

Chimpanzee Rights by Kristen Andrews et al. – 2019

The New Chimpanzee: a twenty-first-century portrait of our closest kin by Craig Stanford – 2018

Following Fifi: my adventures among wild chimpanzees: lessons from our closest relatives by John Crocker – 2017

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal – 2016

Among Chimpanzees: field notes from the race to save our endangered relatives by Nancy J.  Merrick –  2014

The Bonobo and the Atheist: in search of humanism among the primates by Frans de Waal – 2013

The Song of the Ape: understanding the languages of chimpanzees by Andrew Halloran – 2012

Chimpanzees of the lakeshore: natural history and culture at Mahale by Toshisada Nishida – 2012

Bonobo Handshake: a memoir of love and adventure in the Congo by Vanessa Woods – 2010

Almost Chimpanzee: redrawing the lines that separate us from them by Jon Cohen 2010

Among the Great apes: adventures on the trail of our closest relatives by Paul Raffaele – 2010

Primates and philosophers: how morality evolved by Frans de Waal – 2006


Chimpanzee Memoirs: stories of studying and saving our closest living relatives edited by Stephen Ross and Lydia Hopper – 2022

Chimpanzee memoirstrim

Who are the people who do chimpanzee research, rescue chimpanzees from appalling situations and secure them places in sanctuaries, care for the rescued chimpanzees in captivity? Stephen Ross and Lydia Hopper saw the generational turn-over among “chimpologists” and decided to document the stories of some of these heroes. The contributors are from many different disciplines, from different geographic areas, and are at different stages of their chimpanzee journey. The result is an inspiring collection, describing the people who work with chimps, how they embarked on their careers, the chimps they have worked with, what they have learnt, and advice they have for future workers. 

The collection starts with Jane Goodall: “I began my research with only my instincts and common sense to guide me”. This approach, uncluttered by paradigms and prejudice, allowed Jane Goodall to see the richness of Kasakela chimpanzee community life at Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. This richness has enchanted generations of readers and viewers. As well as her path to, and work at, Gombe, she talks about her “Damascus moment” – becoming aware of the appalling conditions many captive chimpanzees were enduring in many countries. This was the catalyst for her starting to campaign for the rights of chimpanzees to live lives as close as possible to those they have been denied in the wild. Many of the contributors to the book cite Jane Goodall as the person who set them on their chimpanzee career paths.

Chimpanzee Memoirs is cram-packed with delightful anecdotes, interesting histories, tips for those hoping to find a career with chimpanzees, and discussion of the difficulties faced by those working for the conservation of chimps in the wild. It comes at its subject from so many different angles it forms a complex picture. Frans De Waal argues the importance of both field and captive research. Melissa Emery Thompson explains why long-term research is crucial when studying long-lived chimpanzees. Anne Pusey and Elizabeth Lonsdorf talk of the bias against women in the field. It is an engrossing read and Dawn Schuerman’s illustrations of the featured chimps are wonderful.

Some of the incidents described will stay with me for a long time. It is hard to choose which to share, but there are three I found illustrative of themes of the book – chimps in sanctuaries, chimps in the wild, and issues around chimpanzee conservation. A young chimpanzee, having experienced great trauma, is helped along her way to finding her place in a chimpanzee community in the seminatural environment of a sanctuary. An eight-year-old chimp plays games in the forest, games that indicate wild chimpanzees have a rich and complex inner world. And a veterinary expert focussed on her mission to help chimpanzees, realises that to do so she must widen her view of the range of people required for chimpanzee conservation. 

When Ikuru arrived at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Uganda, she was an “extremely sick and very distressed” infant chimpanzee. Lilly Ajarova, undertaking various tasks at the sanctuary at the time, took on the role of Ikuru’s surrogate mother. She cared for the young chimp while she was recovering, and she helped her become familiar with the forest and to integrate into the Ngamba chimp community. Ikuru joined the community as a low-ranking female, and she was badly bullied. One day Ikuru, having secured a piece of juicy jackfruit, sees Eddie heading towards her to steal it, and “Little Ikuru slapped Eddie across the face!”. Lilly Ajarova’s pride shines through in her telling of this moment – her girl has started to climb the community rankings. Lilly eventually became executive director of the sanctuary and is now the chief executive officer of the Uganda Tourism Board. She still visits Ngamba to check up on Ikuru and the rest of the chimps.

Richard Wrangham is known for his writings on male aggression in chimpanzees. However, what struck me in his contribution to Chimpanzee Memoirs were his descriptions of chimp Kakama, in the Kibale National Park, Uganda, finding a small log and carrying it around the forest like a doll. Kakama carries the log up a tree and plays with it while lying in a nest, supporting it by his feet, playing “the airplane game”. Then “Kakama made a smaller tree nest than I have ever seen a chimpanzee make, certainly too small to accommodate himself. It was the right size for his log, however. He lay the log in the nest. He then left the log and rested in his own nest an arm’s length away.” Was the fact that Kakama’s mother was pregnant, about to give him a sibling after eight years of being alone, connected to his choice of toy and play?

Caroline Asiimwe, head of veterinary services at the Budongo Conservation Field Station, Uganda, was confronted by villagers when she and her colleagues raced to a village after hearing of a fight between a cocoa farmer and a chimpanzee who had been raiding his crops. She and her colleagues “frantically asked where the chimpanzee that was injured was”. The villagers were disgusted that the arrivals showed no interest in the farmer who had also been injured. Caroline Asiimwe suddenly realised that “if we did not involve local communities and demonstrate that their lives are as important as the chimpanzees’, we would not achieve our conservation goals.”

Chimpanzee Memoirs is full of such first-hand experiences from people who have dedicated their lives to chimpanzees and their conservation. It is a wonderful and inspiring anthology.

The Chimpanzee Whisperer by Stany Nyandwi with David Blisset – 2022

The chimpanzee whisperer is the memoir of Stany Nyandwi. Looking back over 50 years, we read of his home country, Burundi, a paradise with a bleak colonial history, being turned into “… a land of broken hearts” through a tribal civil war. We read of Stany’s love for his family, wrenched apart through war, poverty, and deprivation. And we read of those who befriended him and saved him; the chimpanzees he met and cared for in sanctuaries, in zoos, and in the wild.

Stany is Hutu, and prejudice against his people has affected him throughout his life and career – often putting him in extremely dangerous situations. As a very young man, Stany worked as a houseboy for Tutsi families, virtually a slave. When he got a job at “halfway house”, a Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) sanctuary in Bujumbura, he was intrigued by the chimps he saw as he worked as a groundskeeper. “I will never forget that moment when Max reached out and touched me” – Max the chimpanzee triggered something in Stany that changed his life.

One thing that strikes you when reading The chimpanzee whisperer, is the phenomenal understanding Stany has of chimps and their behaviour. And the reader can’t help but notice the parallels between the stories of the chimps, and that of Stany himself. The chimps and Stany all enjoyed playing in the forest as children and “killing for fun”. All came from communities with set gender roles and expectations, the females being the dispersers. Forgiveness is central to chimpanzee community cohesion, and was what allowed Stany to overcome hardship and flourish.

Stany and the chimps all underwent hardship as children. For them all, family was the most important thing, but they all lost their families through violence. All are haunted by the atrocities they have seen. The awful experiences of the chimps as infants and juveniles, are often acted out through inappropriate and dangerous behaviour, and the book is full of incidents of Stany calmly walking towards chaos that all around him are fleeing. Stany doesn’t see the chimps as the ‘other’, but sees himself as part of their community.

Apart from Max the chimp, Stany met another influential person at “halfway house” – the Australian zookeeper Debby Cox, who has also dedicated her life to chimpanzees. “Without a word, Debby ran and dived into the lake to save Kidogo” – a chimpanzee who had been tranquilized but climbed into a tree hanging over the lake before the drug had kicked in. Although having little schooling, Stany was a quick learner, and couldn’t have had a kinder or wiser human role model than Debby.

As the situation worsened in Burundi, Stany and Debby’s fortitude was tested. They faced difficulties caring for the chimps as the country descended into chaos. There are terrifying episodes where the sanctuary staff are confronted by soldiers. Finally Debby and Aly, from JGI Burundi, had to face the logistical challenge and bureaucratic red tape of moving the sanctuary’s 20 chimps to Sweetwaters Sanctuary in Kenya.

The final administrative hurdle was jumped thanks to Poco, a chimpanzee who charmed the government minister who had the final say. By now Stany had married Nowera, and he made the difficult decision to go to Kenya with the chimps, leaving his growing family behind. “I loved the chimps, they were my family.” This is where Stany started travelling to different countries to work with chimpanzees.

The chimpanzee whisperer is informative and brutally honest. It tells of the varying habitats of chimpanzees and how there has been an 80% decrease in their numbers during Stany’s lifetime. It tells of the importance of paying attention to the chimpanzees: “If you want to work successfully with chimps, then you need to know them – as a species, as a community, and as individuals.” Stany explains how caregivers must fit into the chimp community hierarchy.

The complexities of human / wildlife conflict are explained, as are the difficulties of integrating orphaned chimps into communities, and the barriers to releasing sanctuary chimps into the wild. And the book talks of loneliness and despair, and the ease of falling into alcohol abuse. There is a description of a very difficult time when Stany made an mistake that led to his losing a job he loved, and ending up in a cage like his chimpanzees. It is hard reading. But The chimpanzee whisperer also talks of the important of faith and forgiveness: “… sometimes, when science and logic fall short, love and faith and hope do rise.”

Stany worked in Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa. He travelled to Australia, the U.K, Germany, and the U.S. He visited and worked at zoos and sanctuaries. He visited Gombe and saw behaviours in wild chimps that he recognised from the habits of sanctuary chimps. He worked with communities to reduce human / chimp conflicts arising from habitat reduction. In many places he felt lonely and depressed, and found love and acceptance with the chimpanzees.

There are funny yet awful scenes, such as Stany not being able to exit a lift in a hotel, as there was an armed soldier in the hallway – and he didn’t trust soldiers. And Stany writes of the wonders of other countries: kangaroos, drink dispensers, gay weddings, super-fast trains, “magic” refrigerators, and vast stores the size of towns.

When Stany worked with Debby at Entebbe Zoo in Uganda, Debby had the idea of establishing a chimpanzee island. This was to become Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. And as I have been there a couple of times, it was fascinating to read of its beginnings, and the anecdotes of some of the chimps I know:

Kidogo walking “like a boss chimp” before the arrival of the adult males. The reign of Mika, the legendary alpha. The description of the chimps “touching each other for reassurance” when getting to the end of the raceway and facing the forest for the first time. Katie picking up a dropped key and walking over and unlocking a padlock in the holding facility. Okech using wet leaves to clean food that had got muddy. Mawa ending up in possession of a loaded AK-47!, Becky and Sally getting into the staff beer supply and being found passed out in one of the caregiver’s beds …

And there are really moving sections in the book, Stany’s reuniting with his family after they had been “trapped in the middle of a place like hell”. The problems for Nowera in a strange land, wearing the same clothes every day, with Stany often not able to provide enough food. And despite all this, Stany and Nowera taking in other children without a thought. The sadness of so many divisions in society, tribal, ethnic, religious. And the reminder of the colonial past, with colonial conservation patterns causing issues with current programmes: “Saving chimps or elephants or gorillas … that’s the white man’s business.”

The book is an engaging read and is illustrated with colour photographs, there is even one of ‘Sunday the Boatman’, a Ngamba chimp who didn’t just raid fishermen’s boats off the coast of Ngamba, he frightened the fishermen off a boat and took it for a sail on the lake. The enduring presence in the book is Stany’s calm confidence, with which he protects himself, others, and the chimpanzees. Stany has won many international awards for his work, he is the subject of the movie Pant Hoot, and he is still working at Chimp Eden Sanctuary in South Africa.

Stany believes that, although not ideal, sanctuaries are a good solution for orphaned chimpanzees. The chimpanzee whisperer has practical suggestions for measures to help chimps, and a list of organisations and sanctuaries to support. In Aotearoa we have a saying he waka eke noa – we are all in this together. And Stany has a similar saying “riding the same truck”, and for chimpanzees he says “I am riding in their truck”. The chimpanzee whisperer is a great read. Reminding us we should all be riding the same truck!

Chasing after Chimpanzees by William C McGrew – 2021


Chasing after chimpanzees is a series of vignettes of McGrew’s life to date – as a student, academic, and field researcher. McGrew, now retired, is a renowned primatologist, but if you read this collection expecting it to be mainly about the behaviours and cultures of chimpanzees you will be a bit disappointed – it is about the behaviour and culture of a primatologist. But McGrew spent 40 years chasing chimpanzees, so the book does include essays on chimpanzees, and they are illuminating.

McGrew’s father was a chartered accountant as well as an academic, and young William would accompany him to visit one of his clients – Professor James Lemmon, clinical psychologist, who raised chimps for psychological studies on his farm in Oklahoma. Lemmon also supervised many of the students who participated in chimpanzee sign-language studies. So, McGrew was briefly in the vicinity of chimps such as Lucy, Nim Chimpsky, and Washoe. McGrew is not sure whether this had any impact on his eventual choice of career.

The reader follows McGrew’s life from pre-University, through his tertiary years and seamless transition into professional academia and associated field work. He had an extremely successful career, there is even a termite species discovered at Gombe named after him, Proboscitermes mcgrewi – although McGrew has never seen the termite in question. He sat on boards with Frans de Waal and worked with many other renowned primatologists.

There are zany anecdotes in the book, such as his facing a group of escaping chimpanzees with Jane Goodall at the Delta Primate Research Center in Louisiana, having breakfast with Dian Fossey at an International Primatological Society congress where they noisily gorilla pig-grunted at each other, going ice-climbing in the Scottish Highlands with Cat Hobaiter and Tetsuro Matsuzawa, and singing You are my sunshine to wild chimps with Susanna Johnson in Fongoli, Senegal – in a desperate bid to speed up an habituation process. And the lists of chimpanzee research sites include his notes on the difficulties or luxuries of each site.

What I liked most about the collection were the glimpses of chimp field research, and these sections are also where I found the writing the most compelling. He explains the two approaches to chimp research, depth, or breadth. A researcher can stay in one site for years watching community development and culture through the generations, or they may visit many sites and do cross-cultural comparisons. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages and McGrew worked both ways – he worked at the Mt Assirik site in Senegal for four years, and he also worked at many other chimpanzee research sites in various African countries.

The benefits of in-depth research are obvious. An example of the benefit of breadth research was McGrew and a colleague recognising the variations in grooming styles from community to community – some even not that far apart. He and a colleague noticed a novel grooming technique in the Japanese field site in the Mahale Mountains, Tanzania. But when they pointed it out to Prof. Junichiro Itani, he was surprised, saying he just thought that was how all chimps groomed.

McGrew refers in passing to the ethical impacts of various chimp field research techniques, leading to a fascinating description of studying non-habituated chimps. This non-invasive research is based on artifacts and traces left behind by chimp communities: “More archaeology than ethology.” With scientific methods such as DNA analysis “a primatologist can know the size, sex, ratio, kinship, composition etc., that is, demography, of a chimpanzee community without ever setting eyes on them”. McGrew likens it to the Sherlock Holmes approach: “inferring evidence of behaviour in the absence of the perpetrator.”

And sometimes evidence is found that doesn’t make sense until future or distant research finds the missing piece of the puzzle, e.g., at Belinga in the Gabon McGrew and his colleagues found slender flexible fishing probes abandoned at termite mounds, but also found stouter rigid sticks. A photograph of the tools was recognised by researchers in the Republic of Congo – they were part of the tool set utilised in their research site. The stout sticks are used to drill holes to access underground termite chambers, holes which can then be fished with the slender probes.

Another example of a research puzzle was finding evidence of well-digging behaviour in the dry watercourses in the Mt. Assirik site. McGrew knew well-digging was practices by a few species, but suspected it was also chimpanzee behaviour, but couldn’t prove it. His suspicions were later confirmed by Kevin Hunt at Semliki in Uganda. Hunt also found water sponges that had been used by chimps to drink the well water, which allowed the chimps to drink the water without getting mouthfuls of sand.

My favourite incident in the book is where McGrew follows chimp Figan into a chimp-made passage in Gombe. It is a narrow passage and both man and chimp go through on all fours – until Figan hears calls from the direction they have come, and he wants to return. “We looked at one another, face to face, just inches away. Then, spontaneously, without a sound or gesture, he scrunched over to one side of the tunnel, and I did the same to the other side. We carefully squeezed past one another. We then set off again …” – a brief description packed with meaningful communication between chimp and human.

Chasing after chimpanzees is illustrated with photographs and has a great index. It also has lists of references to McGrew’s academic publications.

Chimpanzee: lessons from our sister species by Kevin D. Hunt – 2020

Chimpanzee is a wonderfully comprehensive book. Kevin D. Hunt is Professor of Animal Behaviour and Anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a functional morphologist, using reverse engineering to consider how the anatomical structures of animals, in this case chimpanzees, function in their everyday lives. He then theorises about which environmental pressures have determined their physical and mental attributes and moulded chimpanzee behaviours. This approach explains how rooted chimpanzees are in their homelands: “I imagined a sort of chimpanzee-mist rising out of the soil and coalescing into the individual in front of me.”

As would be expected, the book is full of scientific detail covering mechanics, physiology, psychology, and individual and social behaviours – and not just of chimpanzees, but of monkeys and other apes – including humans. Hunt is not only a theoretical scientist; he has done fieldwork at chimpanzee research sites like Gombe, and he is founder and director of the Semliki Chimpanzee Project, whose fieldwork is done at the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve, Uganda. He finds in the wild, chimpanzee “excellent memories, superbly tuned sense of geographical space, social subtlety and intense mother-infant bonds closely match human intelligence.”

Chimpanzee is full of colourful anecdotes, both from field observations and from experiences with chimpanzees in captivity. It is written in a style that is not too daunting for the non-scientist, yet I am sure would keep the scientist engaged. His descriptions of chimpanzee social dynamics are vivid – explaining that, due to their community dispersal over large areas when searching for food, many, if not most, significant community events happen outside any one individual’s sight or hearing – therefore, chimpanzees live in ‘virtual’ societies: “The chimpanzee community is a mental construct.”

Hunt’s explanation of the wide range of tool use across the various chimpanzee cultures, and the chimpanzees’ extraordinary “distance-minimizing abilities that require the possession of sophisticated mental mapping skills, indistinguishable, in fact, from those of humans” are fascinating. As is their ability to calculate quantities (e.g., fruits in trees) in a fraction of the time it would take a human, and to pick up on social dynamics (e.g., entering a group they haven’t been with for a while and noticing what has changed) in a fraction of a second.

“They are like us not because they mimic us, but because they are a close relative, a sister species”, their senses are so like ours that Hunt suggests that if we were to see, touch, taste, smell, or hear the world through their senses we would “hardly notice” the difference. We would certainly recognise their ability to deceive one another, and to support one another. Hunt goes through the historical misconceptions about chimpanzees, usually concerning what separates them from humans, and relates how one by one they were disproved. Including the use of language: “I find the arguments of those who contend that apes lack language to be strained and unconvincing.”

“Chimpanzees in the wild … move with efficiency and purpose. They are the essence of competence.” Hunt is an enthusiastic chimpanzee advocate, terming them “literally superhuman”. Beyond their physical attributes, “they are astonishingly intelligent. Chimpanzees are a natural wonder.” And he doesn’t over-glamorise the task of a chimp researcher: “12 hours and 50 minutes of a 13-hour day is taken up with your research target moving slowly and quietly through the forest, chewing, grunting now and then, passing gas, and staring into space.”

Chimpanzee is a large book, and I could go on and on about the things I learnt as I read it. “Chimpanzees are not wanna-be humans. Instead, they are just as evolved as humans – though in a different direction”. I really liked the even-handed attention given to both female and male community dynamics. The female use of land and their social relations are described, and the effects of these on how males deal with territory, and with each other. I was also intrigued by Hunt’s description of hierarchy as another ‘virtual’ aspect of their society, and liked his observation that “there is a rudimentary ethical component to their culture”.

Chimpanzee is informative, funny, well-illustrated, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to those who are interested in our “sister species”. As Hunt finishes his book: Pan in sempiternum! Long live chimpanzees!

Cambridge University Press: 2020. ISBN: 9781107544413

Becoming Wild by Carl Safina – 2020

Carl Safina, ecologist, has written many books on the relationship between humans and the environment, and between humans and non-human animals. In Becoming Wild, he looks those behaviours which must be learnt, those that become local ‘cultures’, arguing that no creature can operate solely by instinct, and that community learning creates variations between groups. This means that a lot more than individuals are lost when a species disappears from an area, and a lot more than a type of animal disappears when a species goes extinct.

Safina describes the languages and complex social arrangements of Sperm Whales. He details the numerous behaviours that Scarlet Macaws must learn to be successful in their environments, and he considers the evolutionary advantages of beauty. And finally, he writes of Chimpanzees, finding “Different dialects, different accents, different voices. Because: different individuals, different learned customs. Chimpanzees vary, and chimpanzee culture is variable at every level”. I will look at the third section of Becoming Wild – Realm Three: Achieving Peace – Chimpanzees.

Achieving Peace – Chimpanzees is structured around a record of Safina’s time in the Budongo Forest, Uganda. He accompanies primatologist Cat Hobaiter and research assistant Kizza Vincent, observing the Waibira and Sonso chimpanzee communities. Around this narrative, Safina winds a brief history of human-chimpanzee relations, and the adds occasional personal anecdote. And what emerges is a journey of enlightenment and deeper understanding.

Safina’s initial experiences with the chimps is dominated by aggressive toxic masculinity. Even with Hobaiter and Vincent’s translation, he struggles to come to terms with the constant disruption to community life created by the competitive displays of the adult males of the Waibira. He wonders how intra-community violence, and even murder, can exist in complex communities where cohesion and cooperation are so important. There is talk of cycles of abuse, but that doesn’t explain why, it just pushes the question back through time.

Safina draws the obvious parallels with the male dominance of human communities: “Chimpanzees and humans are the only two ape species stuck dealing with familiar males as dangerous”. His reaction is one tinged with the uneasy feeling of responsibility: “So much of what is uncomfortable for us in watching chimps is their excruciating similarity to us. We dread what is sinister in them because we resonate with it; it makes us feel just a little culpable. It is too close to allow us the distance that would let us feel cleanly unindicted”. He becomes disillusioned: “To be honest, it’s all getting on my nerves.”

But, like a well-structured novel, Safina is setting himself up for a transformation. He finds that “Chimps can give the impression that raw emotions drive them. Closer analysis, however, reveals near-continual filtering and self-control”. As time passes, the more he listens to Hobaiter and Vincent, the more he sits with the chimps, the more he experiences them as chimpanzees and stops judging them by human standards (which humans rarely achieve), the more Safina sees chimpanzee life beyond the noisy power displays of aggressive ambition.

“Scientific data shows that chimpanzees spend the vast majority of their time—roughly 99 percent of their natural lives—in peace”, Safina learns that being an alpha is a burdensome job, but a necessary one, as a chimp community without an alpha male is not cohesive. He learns that the most successful alphas are the community peacemakers, who safeguard community harmony. And he learns that there are adult males who opt out of the fight for power: “Even in chimps, a peaceful path is possible. And even some male chimps travel it. And when they do, sometimes they come into a fight and use their authority to get everyone’s attention and make peace happen.”

One of the most affective passages in the section are when the researchers accompany the Waibira community as they respond to an incursion into their territory from a neighbouring group. It is tense and scary, and it has a shocking moment when the researchers realise their presence is putting some chimps at great risk. There are also moving descriptions of illness in the group and of displays of grief. And there are great moments of mother/baby interactions, of clever deception, and just of chimps having fun.

Becoming wild is a passionate work, the language often veering into the poetic, it is a plea for action that is becoming more and more urgent: “The animals just need room to live and to be left in peace to make their own choices.” What Safina succeeds in doing in Achieving Peace – Chimpanzees, is to show that there is no meaningful category ‘chimpanzee’. The four remaining subspecies have been separated for hundreds of thousands of years. Each chimp community has a culture which has emerged through generations – generations of conservative protection of ‘our way of doing things’, and the odd innovative development which further distinguishes local cultures.

Not only do the cultures of chimp communities in different countries differ, but those in the same country, even in the same forest, do. And each group has a strong sense of identity: “Group identity—such a fundamental aspect of culture—both enables and results from empathy, altruism, cooperation, and the need to keep things okay. The driving force is the need to make the group continue to cohere as a whole, because the benefits of the group are greater than the summed collection of its individuals.”

Achieving Peace – Chimpanzees makes it clear that when we lose chimps, we lose rich and complex communities, we lose cultures and ways of living. It reminds us that “We see chimpanzees by our own light. But by our own darkness we miss much.” It is a realistic account of chimpanzees, asking us to stop idealising or demonising them, but to marvel at who they are “… chimpanzees are who they are. And we are what we are. We all have our limitations and our superlatives. Temporarily and imperfectly, but for the vast majority of their lives and times, the chimpanzees connect amicably and quell their worst impulses.” It is a moving and compelling read.

The Chimpanzee Chronicles by Debra Rosenman – 2020

“Chimps do not belong to us and they certainly do not belong to science” – the simple message behind The Chimpanzee chronicles, a statement written by Adriana Martin in her contribution to this wonderful, if harrowing, collection. The contributions detail the lives of chimpanzees in captivity; in laboratories, in zoos, being used for entertainment, and even the sadness of those lucky enough to live in caring sanctuaries. As Martin describes the human/chimp conundrum, each form of captivity is “a lose-lose proposition.”

The Chimpanzee chronicles is full of heroes: Enos, the five-year-old chimp shot into space, who perfectly performed his tasks despite being constantly tortured by an electrical malfunction. Some of the staff at The Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), who formed an ‘underground railroad’ to ensure some of their chimps didn’t end up in the worse circle of hell that was The Coulston Foundation. All the chimps who managed to retain their sanity and personhood despite years of unending stress. The humans who work in dangerous conditions to protect chimps who have been orphaned through conflict, greed, and ignorance.

There is a common arc through most of the stories: the first moment of falling in love with a particular chimpanzee, the decision to dedicate yourself to working on behalf of chimps, the brief period of feeling you are doing good, and then the realisation that you are part of the problem. As explained by Diana Goodrich: “As a caregiver, I am in an awkward position. While I am friends with the chimpanzees, I am also the one who makes sure the locks and the fences are secure so that the chimps remain captive.” All the narrators are aware that, as Rosa Garriga puts it, “Chimpanzees belong to the forest, where they have their own set of laws, their own culture.”

As you read through the book, you get to know individual chimps through the eyes of various narrators. You learn about the different sanctuaries, and the different research facilities. You read of the abuse, intentional and unintentional, inflicted on the chimps. You read about chimps raised as human children, and their confusion when they are then placed in facilities and treated like animals. How using chimps in even benign research, infantilises and demeans them. It seems so obvious as you read this collection, that if to do science you must ignore the personhood of your subjects, you should not do that science. Put perfectly by Nancy Megna: “… torturing other beings should not be an option.”

The narrators are caregivers, a film maker, primatologists, researchers, an eight-years old boy, and a man who plays music to raise funds for chimp sanctuaries. Most of the pieces are in essay form, one is written as entries in a diary, and they vary in length and style. All are incredibly honest, saying how conflicted the narrators are, how some prefer it when the chimps are unforgiving and violent, as the forgivingness and gentleness of most survivors is so confronting. One narrator, Hilda Tresz, had an extremely negative first encounter with chimps, yet still felt compelled to help them. All the pieces are moving and lavishly illustrated with black and white photographs.

“Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned from my chimpanzee family is that saving another’s life can help save your own,” Jenny Desmond expresses another theme of the collection; all the narrators find something about themselves by helping the chimps. Many have mementos they keep with them; Allison Argo has a piece of concrete from the Coulston cell blocks, Debby Cox a key signifying Amisero, the young chimpanzee Cox helped release from chains in Burundi. The situation the chimps are in becomes a metaphor for all that has gone wrong with our society. As Cox says, “If we, as humans, cannot make the effort to respect and protect chimpanzees, what chance do we have of protecting the rest of our planet?” The chimps belong to the wild, but the wild is a diminishing place.

Parts of the collection are indescribably sad. There is tragedy in the humans caregivers  being free to move on, sometimes leaving the chimps’ situations to revert to what they were before they arrived. Constant throughout the collection are stories of the removal of babies from their mothers, either in the wild by poachers, or in the labs by scientists. And there is a poignancy to the simple measures that help alleviate the boredom and suffering of captive chimps; allowing them to make choices, giving them interesting things to manipulate, trying to re-create some of the conditions they might have encountered in the wild. And, although we all know using chimpanzees as entertainers in film, TV, in ads and on social media, is wrong as it encourages the pet trade, The Chimpanzee chronicles makes it very clear that such use is based on cruelty and abuse.

Decisions made on behalf of the chimps can also be cruel, for example deciding that for their own good some chimps should be kept isolated, as they might not integrate with others – when isolation for a social chimp must be a nightmare. And for biomedical research, some chimps were held in isolated cages for decades. The most chilling moment of reading for me, was the description of the encounter between the hepatitis-positive chimp Bruno and Mark Bodamer in the LEMSIP facility. It was an exchange echoed later between Adriana Martin and chimp Moja in the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. The clear and unequivocal expression of a conscious desire which could not be met.

The Chimpanzee chronicles is a wonderful collection of observations, stories, and experiences, that makes the reader aware of the unconscionable toll human conceit has demanded from thousands upon thousands of chimpanzees. Like the narrators, it is hard to see a way forward, but we must keep working on behalf of chimps. We must try and address the plight of those captive chimps who have yet to get to sanctuaries, address the conditions that put wild chimps at risk from poaching, and address the obstacles to ensuring wild chimps have the opportunity to live, as Mary Jane Jensvold puts it, “Free in the forests and savannas of Africa.”

Great Apes and their Basic Rights by Pedro Pozas Terrados et al. – 2019

Great apes and their basic rights

Great apes and their basic rights is a collection of articles about hominid evolution, great ape research, great apes in captivity, legal matters relating to great apes, and the perilous situation of great apes in the wild. It is a heartfelt plea for special regard to be given to these highly endangered creatures (Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Orangutans, and Gorillas). The articles lead to a draft of a Bill for Great Apes from the Great Apes Project and a Manifesto for the recognition of great apes as non-human persons. Consideration, and impassioned pleading, is given to the acceptable re-locating of great apes in captivity as well as our obligations to those still living in the wild. One of my favourite articles is Emiliano Bruner’s Zira’s kiss, in which Bruner points out the conceptual mistakes often made when discussing great apes, confusing Taxonomy for Phylogeny. Bruner also advocates the centreing of ‘differences’ in arguments for the ethical treatment of great apes: “Primates are often safeguarded in the name of their similarities with our species, and I believe that this is a serious mistake: they should be protected in the name of their differences.” The volume is illustrated with lots of photographs and is a great reference book for those working in a wide range of disciplines dealing with great apes.

The Chimpanzee & Me by Ben Garrod – 2019

The chimpanzee and me

In The chimpanzee & me, academic primatologist and broadcaster Ben Garrod relates his experiences with chimpanzees.  The stories are bracketed by tales of the first chimp he fell in love with – Pasa from the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda – and cover the biology and plight of chimpanzees, mainly focussing on those from Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection (LCRP), a sanctuary established by Jenny and Jimmy Desmond.

“I saw something so profound in those eyes” – a typical response from those whose first encounters with chimps commit them to working for their survival.  What is so wonderful about The chimpanzee & me is the respectful way Garrod talks about the chimps – they are all individuals with their own identities, personalities, temperaments and demeanours.  He doesn’t downplay their power as wild animals – even describing and instance where he was potential chimp prey in a Ugandan forest.  And he pulls no punches when talking about the problems facing the chimps as a species, all created by us: “a funny and sometimes selfish species” – chimps are being “extirpated, not lost.  They’re being systematically killed for a whole host of reasons.”

Garrod describes the genetic and evolutionary closeness of humans and chimps, playfully suggesting we should be Pan sapiens or Pan troglodytes sapiens, or they should be Homo troglodytes.  He addresses the arguments against such familial closeness and advises: “you may not be a monkey’s uncle (or aunt), you are a chimpanzee’s cousin.”  He then turns to the threats to chimps, first covering habitat destruction. Merely a century ago their forests were abundant, but these places “that should have been safe” are dwindling and under constant threat.

Even if the destruction halts, there are challenges facing sanctuaries who aspire to one day return their charges to the wild.  For many forest skills we might think are innate, are in fact learnt as part of a wild chimp community, where baby and juvenile chimps learn through experience, participation, imitation, communication and innovation.  Enter ‘Chimp School’.  Garrod advises the maximum class size six at a stretch – “Any more than that and you’re running around after the ones who would rather go and catch a butterfly, or who really need to climb a tree right now.”

Apart from habitat destruction, chimps are taken for the pet trade and bushmeat.  Garrod is careful to explain the complexities of these horrendous practices – with the local perpetrators often just the lowest rung in large-scale international businesses – from local hunters to domestic consumers. And the statistics he recites for both the international trade in wild animals, and in their meat are horrific, as is the potential in such commerce for allowing the emergence of new zoonotic diseases.  He talks of being part of a confiscation raid in Liberia, and his finding a chimp that had been chained to a tree for thirteen years – the length of time he had been working with chimps.

The results of both the decimation of populations, and the increasing isolation of remaining populations due to habitat destruction, is leading to problems of genetic diversity.  He talks of a long history of abuse in Africa, where we destroyed communities and ways of life we never knew existed – he was talking about human communities, but this is also applicable to chimps. Perhaps the most difficult chapter to read is that about the use of chimps in medical research, he talks of the “out of sight, out mind” strategy of the West – locating its laboratories in countries where regulations aren’t as stringent, and the awful results.  He chillingly describes going into a research facility in the Caribbean.  And he sadly tells the story of Samantha in Liberia – and I dare you not to cry as you read.  Garrod once again however points out the complexity – he is against animal testing but wouldn’t refuse using the resulting medical interventions when a loved one is concerned.

The chimpanzee & me includes an interview with Jane Goodall, and includes a great section on conservation strategies, and how these have changed over the years.  He talks of ‘flagship’ and ‘umbrella’ species and posits that the chimpanzee is the benchmark of what humans are willing to save.  He talks of how each conservation project must be locally focussed and how that makes each different – even two chimp conservation projects will differ according to the local situations.  Not only must projects include local human communities, they must also be mindful of the needs and wants of the chimps: “… we should never look at something like intelligence from our perspective alone.”

The chimpanzee & me is a thorough overview of chimps, their uniqueness, their threats, and those working to save them.  It is beautifully illustrated, mainly with colour photographs of the babies at LCRP.  It is brutally honest about the dire situation that chimps are in, but also includes hopeful stories, such as the young climate activists winning their bid to reforest a sacred hill in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the “AK-47-wielding soldiers” who ended up helping them.  A wonderful contribution to popular chimp literature.

Almost Human: the story of Julius, the chimpanzee caught between two worlds by Alfred Fidjestøl – 2019

Cover of Almost human Julius

Almost human is the biography of Julius, a chimpanzee who was born on Boxing Day 1979 in the Kristiansand Zoo, Norway, and who is now the alpha male of the zoo’s chimpanzee community.  He was born to Sanne, similarly born in captivity and with no idea how to be a mother, so Julius was taken from the other chimps to save his life and was raised by the families of the zoo’s director (Edvard Moseid) and the zoo’s doctor (Billy Glad), with keeper Ǻse Gunn Mosvold being a major figure for Julius when he visited the zoo.

The foster families knew of the dangers of raising chimps among humans, but regardless of the families swapping Julius around and taking precautions such as frequently taking Julius back to the zoo, he was bound to bond to his ‘families’ and adopt behaviours that made him a misfit amongst his own kind. He is a perfect example of how, when chimps enter human society, their relationships with humans alter their chimp natures. Things sort of turned out OK for Julius, but only at the cost of considerable tragedy and loss of chimp lives.  It is true he ended up better off than his half-brother Ola, who was sent to Sweden where he also became a star, but Ola ended up in a cement cage in a zoo in Thailand.

After taking him from the Kristiansand community, the plan was always to reintegrate him, but one thing the book makes clear is the difficulties of reintegrating chimps into captive communities, especially maturing males.  The various attempts at reintegration included medicating other chimps to curb their behaviour, and even euthanising healthy adult males to maintain peace in the community.  There is no question that Mosvold and Glad and their families cared deeply for Julius, but his story highlights the unnatural and cruel aspects of keeping chimps in captivity.

The juxtaposition of Julius’ difficulties with his public persona is skilfully done: “It was as if two versions of Julius now existed and had parted ways, each living out their own separate lives”: Julius the chimp who became the darling of Norwegian media, and of every Norwegian child growing up in the 1980s / Julius the chimp often left sobbing in isolation, who became ‘dysfunctional and dangerous’, and who epitomises the tragedy of captive chimpanzees.

While the challenges of Julius’ reintegration are described, there are the parallel press stories of birthday parties, painting successes, romance and marriages – anything that “made for good television”, plus the production of a range of Julius merchandise.  Julius brought thousands to the zoo, including celebrities and royalty, and made lots of money for the commercial enterprise. And with this high exposure there are some genuinely scary moments, such as when Julius escapes into the public part of the zoo, putting people at risk – the zoo always maintains that all is well, but you read how closely they came to catastrophe.

There is a third story in Almost human, the terrible situation chimps now face in the wild, with poaching, habitat loss and exposure to human disease.  Fidjestøl presents Jane Goodall’s view that many wild chimpanzees live in ruined natural conditions and in such constant fear of humans that they might be “better off in modern zoos”.  Public zoos have come a long way, with some believing now they are the only hope for the preservation of some species, but what sort of enclosure can be designed that gets anywhere near an ideal wild environment?

The book seamlessly moves from Julius’ story to presenting research on chimp behaviour and ecology, both in captivity and in the wild, highlighting the complex experiences that chimps in captivity lose. It talks of research showing that some wild chimpanzee behaviours date back over 2000 years, and how such rich cultural traditions are in real danger of vanishing forever – cultural traditions to which chimps like Julius will never be exposed.

Almost human does not idealise either chimp life in the wild or in captivity, it doesn’t offer any answers to the conundrums of human/chimpanzee relations, but it does skilfully present the chimpanzee problem through the story of one chimp. And Julius’ story continues; earlier this year, after the book was published, Julius became seriously ill after a visitor purposely poisoned him by throwing him a water-bottle laced with narcotics, once again he survived.  Almost human is a valuable addition to the growing body of popular works about chimpanzees.

Mama’s Last Hug: animal emotions and what they tell us about ourselves by Frans de Waal – 2019

mam's last hug

In Mama’s last hug, primatologist Frans de Waal follows up his superb Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are, which dealt with animal intelligence, with an exploration of animal (including human) emotions. The title refers to an incident (the video of which went viral) where a chimpanzee in her final days, who has been refusing food, sees that the biologist who used to work with her has come to say goodbye: Mama breaks out into a wonderful smile, calls out to him and hugs him affectionately. Mama’s behaviour is immediately recognizable as an expression of emotions and feelings – yet for many years, zoology and human psychology has denied the presence of emotions and feelings in animals.

It is extraordinary (and de Waal makes the point often) that the study of animals to understand people has denied for animals two things that many people would think are integral to their own human identity. And even more amazing that emotions and feeling have often been deemed irrelevant in the study of human psychology! Arguing carefully for the separation of emotions and feeling, and for the deeply embedded and universal presence of emotions in all animals, de Waal makes a totally compelling argument.

What is so delightful about this book are the wonderful examples he has observed over the years, especially in apes and monkeys, of various emotional reactions. Many are altruistic, kind and peace-making, some are aggressive, angry and war-mongering, but all are immediately familiar to us. The book is nicely illustrated, both with photographic plates and with de Waal’s own illustrations. And there is a great analysis of the 2016 U.S. Election campaign that is pure chimpanzee! I really loved the complexity de Waal brings to the subject, the many faceted behaviours that both we and other animals enjoy, and the delaying and controlling that can be observed in other animals, which makes a mockery of the view of them as automatons that only exist in the moment. And de Waal also discusses the ethical responsibility we therefore have to our fellow beings.

I loved this book and I am sure many others will too!

Chimpanzee Rights by Kristen Andrews et al. – 2019

Chimpanzee rights

One day, while volunteering at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, I stood next to Boris, a sanctuary caregiver, and mentioned to Boris that Medina, the chimpanzee who was browsing on the other side of the fence, had something stuck on her back.

“Medina, what’s on your back?” asked Boris.

Medina stood up and spun around so we could see her back while craning over her own shoulder so she could also have a look.

This was one of many experiences I had while I was on Ngamba, witnessing chimpanzees demonstrating sophisticated cognitive awareness of, and engagement with, their surroundings.  Prior to my stay there, I had been aware of ongoing efforts to gain legal rights for specific animals such as chimpanzees, to help with their protection.  My experiences at Ngamba led to an increased interest in these efforts.

For those like me, with an interest in this topic but no legal training, an excellent book that lays out the arguments regarding giving chimpanzees legal personhood is Chimpanzee rights.  This book is based on the amicus brief submitted to the New York Court of Appeals to support arguments towards granting two captive chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, the status of legal persons.

The book takes the reader through the various philosophical bases of concepts such a personhood, and legal standing. It shows the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments and explains the crucial difference between biological personhood and legal personhood – explaining that at various times in history categories of human beings have not been given legal standing as persons – e.g. children, women and people of colour. This is not to equate any of these groups to non-human animals but to point out the non-biological basis of legal personhood.

It is a great book for those interested in the work to get legal standing for our non-human kin.  Also of interest is the news posted on the NonHumanRights blog on June 25 this year, discussing the error that had been made in a court opinion regarding what was required for legal personhood. This error was based on a typo in the legal definition used in the opinion, taken from the 7th edition of Black’s Law Dictionary. The blog reported that this definition has now been corrected and reads “So far as legal theory is concerned, a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights or duties.”

The New Chimpanzee: a twenty-first-century portrait of our closest kin by Craig Stanford – 2018

new chimpanzee

An excellent overview of chimpanzee research.

From the publisher: “Recent discoveries about wild chimpanzees have dramatically reshaped our understanding of these great apes and their kinship with humans. We now know that chimpanzees not only have genomes similar to our own but also plot political coups, wage wars over territory, pass on cultural traditions to younger generations, and ruthlessly strategize for resources, including sexual partners. In The New Chimpanzee, Craig Stanford challenges us to let apes guide our inquiry into what it means to be human.

With wit and lucidity, Stanford explains what the past two decades of chimpanzee field research has taught us about the origins of human social behavior, the nature of aggression and communication, and the divergence of humans and apes from a common ancestor. Drawing on his extensive observations of chimpanzee behavior and social dynamics, Stanford adds to our knowledge of chimpanzees’ political intelligence, sexual power plays, violent ambition, cultural diversity, and adaptability.

The New Chimpanzee portrays a complex and even more humanlike ape than the one Jane Goodall popularized more than a half century ago. It also sounds an urgent call for the protection of our nearest relatives at a moment when their survival is at risk.”

Following Fifi: my adventures among wild chimpanzees: lessons from our closest relatives by John Crocker – 2017

following fifi

From the publisher: “An exhilarating quest into a remote African forest to examine chimpanzees and understand the roots of human behavior.

As a young student, John Crocker embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, spending eight months in the Gombe forest working with Jane Goodall. He would follow families of wild chimpanzees from sunrise to sunset and learn the fundamental behavioral traits of these chimps as they raised their offspring.

One chimpanzee would captivate him. Her name was Fifi, and she displayed extraordinary patience and reassurance towards her infant, Freud. Upon returning home and becoming a doctor, Crocker found himself incorporating the lessons he learned from Fifi into his work as a father and physician. When he would witness his young patients rocketing around the exam room, he would picture Fifi’s patience and tacit approval of Freud’s uninhibited and joyful exploration.

Crocker shares how his time with our closet animal cousins help him better understand his patients with ADD, anxiety, and depression. These traits and others, so maligned today, are hardwired into our natural behavior and help chimpanzees protect their community, and raise their young, and survive. Upon his return to Gombe thirty-six years later with his own son, Crocker’s experience with the chimps comes full circle.

An illuminating book that will raise thought-provoking questions about the evolution of human behavior, the importance of patience, strong family bonds, and provide a greater understanding of what it means to be human.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal – 2016

Are we smart enough

One of my favourite books!

From the publisher: “What separates your mind from an animal’s? Maybe you think it’s your ability to design tools, your sense of self, or your grasp of past and future–all traits that have helped us define ourselves as the planet’s preeminent species. But in recent decades, these claims have eroded, or even been disproven outright, by a revolution in the study of animal cognition. Take the way octopuses use coconut shells as tools; elephants that classify humans by age, gender, and language; or Ayumu, the young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University whose flash memory puts that of humans to shame.

Based on research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, whales, and of course chimpanzees and bonobos, Frans de Waal explores both the scope and the depth of animal intelligence. He offers a firsthand account of how science has stood traditional behaviorism on its head by revealing how smart animals really are, and how we’ve underestimated their abilities for too long. People often assume a cognitive ladder, from lower to higher forms, with our own intelligence at the top. But what if it is more like a bush, with cognition taking different forms that are often incomparable to ours? Would you presume yourself dumber than a squirrel because you’re less adept at recalling the locations of hundreds of buried acorns? Or would you judge your perception of your surroundings as more sophisticated than that of a echolocating bat?

De Waal reviews the rise and fall of the mechanistic view of animals and opens our minds to the idea that animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed. De Waal’s landmark work will convince you to rethink everything you thought you knew about animal–and human–intelligence.

Among Chimpanzees: field notes from the race to save our endangered relatives by Nancy J.  Merrick –  2014

among chimpanzees

From the publisher: “A former student and colleague of Jane Goodall shares stories of chimps and their heroes, and takes readers on a journey to save man’s closest relative.

Unbeknownst to much of the public, chimps are in trouble- censuses show them to be extinct in four African countries and nearly so in ten others. A large percentage of the remaining populations live in unprotected, increasingly fragmented forests.

When Nancy Merrick learned these startling facts in 2009, she decided it was past time to discover the extent to which chimpanzees are at risk across Africa and what can be done. Merrick had begun working with primates in 1972 as a young field assistant in Jane Goodall’s famous Gombe camp. Like the rest of the world at the time, she was swept up in the excitement of discovering the remarkable world of chimpanzees-their ability to fashion tools, their dazzling intelligence, and their complex relationships and societies. From that moment on, her human-centered worldview shifted, and she became a devoted advocate for our closest genetic relatives.

When Merrick returns to Africa decades later, she’s alarmed by how much has changed. Human activity, such as agriculture and logging, has encroached on natural habitats throughout equatorial Africa, endangering chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos. In an effort to understand what we can do to save great apes, Merrick connects with primatologists and conservationists who are trying to protect the last great forests. Visits to some of Africa’s parks, sanctuaries, and expanding agricultural areas reveal the urgency of the problems and the inspiration of the people leading the search for solutions. Along the way, Merrick demonstrates that the best hope for chimps and other great apes lies in connecting conservation to humanitarian efforts, ensuring a healthy future for animals and humans alike.

Among Chimpanzees is at once an inspiring chronicle of Merrick’s personal search to learn how chimps are faring across Africa and in captivity, a crucial eyewitness account of a very critical period in their existence, and a rousing call for us to join the efforts to be a voice for the chimpanzees, before it’s too late.

The Bonobo and the Atheist: in search of humanism among the primates by Frans de Waal – 2013

the bonobo and the athiest

Where do our best impulses come from?  Empathy, cooperation, compassion?  Do they arise from the rational application of divine instructions or moral codes, or are they part of our animal heritage?  In The bonobo and the atheist, de Waal continues his defence of the latter view: “Rather than having developed morality from scratch through rational reflection, we received a huge push in the rear from our background as social animals.”

In various publications and lectures, de Waal has brought forward evidence against what he calls the veneer theory of morality; that morality is a thin veneer over our brutish natures.  This view would have it that although this veneer is thin, it is what saves us from being ‘brutes’ and is also what separates us from ‘the brutes.’  Part of the arguments around morality, whether those from a religious or secular point of view, is that humans are exceptional, somehow removed from the rest of nature.

The discomfort felt by humans at the idea of a continuity with animals is heightened when talking about the great apes.  When Queen Victoria first saw an orangutan in the London Zoo, she declared it “frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human.”  De Waal however describes chimp and bonobo behaviours (based on thousands of observations in captivity and the wild) that are recognisable and attractive to us.  Chimps and bonobos appear to display gratitude, they have impulse control, they comfort one another, they behave as though regretful, and they have ‘eureka moments’ that not only help them solve puzzles to help themselves, but also to help others, and to work out ways to alleviate the pain and discomfort of others.

De Waal goes through all the arguments for morality and codes of ethics either descending from on high, or being a very late and very human phenomenon, and gently demolishes them.  He points out how morality came before religion, how scientific arguments are often “less fact-driven than is widely assumed”, and how misunderstood and underestimated animals are when motives and behaviours are being discussed: “If people ask how chimpanzees can possibly be called empathic, knowing that they sometimes kill one another, my return question is always whether by the same token we shouldn’t abandon the whole notion of human empathy as well.”

De Waal has no time for evangelical atheism and, although an atheist himself, understands the community role that religion plays in our society: “The enemy of science is not religion” … “I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se”, and he means scientific as well as religious dogmatism.  He sees the origins of ethical behaviour in humans deeply rooted in the one-on-one relationships between animals, and second order behaviours arising from ‘community concern.’

De Waal’s writing is accessible and his arguments clear.  He is amazed by fellow scientists tying themselves in knots trying to explain away altruism in ourselves and other animals, and wonders if it is a male problem: “It is telling that not a single woman scientist that I know of has got carried away by the question of where altruism has come from.”  He isn’t heavy handed in stating the obvious; when talking about bonobos, who only live in the Democratic Republic of Congo and among whom there have been “no confirmed reports of lethal aggression”, he just mentions in passing the difficulties of research there as “The DRC has only recently emerged from a bloody civil war that killed an estimated five million people.”

The bonobo and the atheist is full of interesting observations: The confusion people make between predation and aggression; the difference between the origin of a trait and its subsequent uses; the common comparisons made between human altruism and the behaviours of social insects rather than those of other mammalian societies; and, how when testing animals, researchers often assume the animal doesn’t understand the problem, when it is the researcher who doesn’t understand the animal.

The bonobo and the atheist is another accessible and enlightening book by Frans de Waal.

The Song of the Ape: understanding the languages of chimpanzees by Andrew Halloran – 2012

song of the ape

From the publisher: “An absorbing investigation of chimpanzee language and communication by a young primatologist.

While working as a zookeeper with a group of semi-wild chimpanzees living on an island, primatologist Andrew Halloran witnessed an event that would cause him to become fascinated with how chimpanzees communicate complex information and ideas to one another.

The group he was working with was in the middle of a yearlong power battle in which the older chimpanzees were being ousted in favor of a younger group. One day Andrew carelessly forgot to secure his rowboat at the mainland and looked up to see it floating over to the chimp island. In an orchestrated fashion, five ousted members of the chimp group quietly came from different parts of the island and boarded the boat. Without confusion, they sat in two perfect rows of two, with Higgy, the deposed alpha male, at the back, propelling and steering the boat to shore.

The incident occurred without screams or disorder and appeared to have been preplanned and communicated. Since this event, Andrew has extensively studied primate communication and, in particular, how this group of chimpanzees naturally communicated. What he found is that chimpanzees use a set of vocalizations every bit as complex as human language.

The Song of the Ape traces the individual histories of each of the five chimpanzees on the boat, some of whom came to the zoo after being wild-caught chimps raised as pets, circus performers, and lab chimps, and examines how these histories led to the common lexicon of the group.

Interspersed with these histories, the book details the long history of scientists attempting (and failing) to train apes to use human grammar and language, using the well-known and controversial examples of Koko the gorilla, Kanzi the bonobo, and Nim Chimsky the chimpanzee, all of whom supposedly were able to communicate with their human caretakers using sign language.

Ultimately, the book shows that while laboratories try in vain to teach human grammar to a chimpanzee, there is a living lexicon being passed down through the generations of each chimpanzee group in the wild. Halloran demonstrates what that lexicon looks like with twenty-five phrases he recorded, isolated, and interpreted while working with the chimps, and concludes that what is occurring in nature is far more fascinating and miraculous than anything that can be created in a laboratory.

The Song of the Ape is a lively, engaging, and personal account, with many moments of humor as well as the occasional heartbreak, and it will appeal to anyone who wants to listen in as our closest relatives converse.”

Chimpanzees of the Lakeshore: natural history and culture at Mahale by Toshisada Nishida – 2012

chimpanzees of the lakeshore

A wonderfully comprehensive documenting of Nishida’s work with the chimps of the Mahale Mountains, on the eastern shore of  by Lake Tanganyika. Beautifully illustrated and full of great research and consideration of culture, documenting in detail the tool use that is unique to the area.  The book is factual and particular, but Nihida’s love of his subjects shines through – he insists they make beds not nests at night.   Nishida wrote and designed the book before sadly passing away before its publication.

From the publisher: “Chimpanzees are humanity’s closest living relations and are of enduring interest to a range of sciences, from anthropology to zoology. In the West, many know of the pioneering work of Jane Goodall, whose studies of these apes at Gombe in Tanzania are justly famous. Less well-known, but equally important, are the studies carried out by Toshisada Nishida on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. Comparison between the two sites yields both notable similarities and startling contrasts. Nishida has written a comprehensive synthesis of his work on the behavior and ecology of the chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains. With topics ranging from individual development to population-specific behavioral patterns, it reveals the complexity of social life, from male struggles for dominant status to female travails in raising offspring. Richly illustrated, the author blends anecdotes with powerful data to explore the fascinating world of the chimpanzees of the lakeshore.”

Bonobo Handshake: a memoir of love and adventure in the Congo by Vanessa Woods – 2010

bonobo handshake

An informative, honest and heart-warming book.

From the publisher: “A young woman follows her fiancé to war-torn Congo to study extremely endangered bonobo apes-who teach her a new truth about love and belonging.

In 2005, Vanessa Woods accepted a marriage proposal from a man she barely knew and agreed to join him on a research trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country reeling from a brutal decade-long war that had claimed the lives of millions. Settling in at a bonobo sanctuary in Congo’s capital, Vanessa and her fiancé entered the world of a rare ape with whom we share 98.7 percent of our DNA. She soon discovered that many of the inhabitants of the sanctuary-ape and human alike-are refugees from unspeakable violence, yet bonobos live in a peaceful society in which females are in charge, war is nonexistent, and sex is as common and friendly as a handshake.

A fascinating memoir of hope and adventure, Bonobo Handshake traces Vanessa’s self-discovery as she finds herself falling deeply in love with her husband, the apes, and her new surroundings while probing life’s greatest question: What ultimately makes us human? Courageous and extraordinary, this true story of revelation and transformation in a fragile corner of Africa is about looking past the differences between animals and ourselves, and finding in them the same extraordinary courage and will to survive. For Vanessa, it is about finding her own path as a writer and scientist, falling in love, and finding a home.

Almost Chimpanzee: redrawing the lines that separate us from them by Jon Cohen 2010

almost chimpanzee

In 1925, the American psychologist and primatologist Robert Yerkes published his book Almost human, arguing that the similarities between humans and chimpanzees would make chimps good objects for scientific study.  In Almost chimpanzee, Jon Cohen explores how different our two species are, and what that might mean for our relationship with chimps.

In 1863, in his Evidence as to man’s place in nature, Thomas Huxley asked “Is man so different from any of these Apes that he must form an order by himself?”  Taxonomically chimpanzees were classified along with gorillas and orangutans as Pongids, while humans were classified as Hominids.  With DNA analysis we now know that Huxley was right, humans are more closely related to chimpanzees than either species is to gorillas or orangutans.  Much has been made of this close genetic relationship; a quick Internet search will throw up a range from 96% to 99% of DNA shared by chimps and humans – I own a t-shirt saying I am 98.7% chimpanzee.

Humans haven’t always been comfortable with having close chimpanzee relatives; as well as advocating for chimps to be used for research, in Almost human, Yerkes tried to counter the revulsion people felt for chimpanzees, the view that they were “inventions of the devil.”  This negative view might have arisen in part from feelings similar to the “uncanny valley” phenomenon of robotics and virtual reality – humans being creeped out by beings that look imperfectly like us, but it was also related to the increasing acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the discomfort some felt with ‘just’ being part of the animal world in general and related to chimpanzees in particular.

Since Yerkes established his Primate Laboratory in the early 1920s, there have been many scientists and researchers who have argued for better treatment of chimpanzees in laboratories, in zoos, in captivity and in the wild, and against their use in invasive research.  High profile authors such as Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal go further, advocating that chimps don’t just share our DNA, they share our ability to view the world with self-awareness, compassion, Machiavellian strategizing, and a sense of awe and wonder.

This emphasis on the similarities between chimps and humans has been a double-edged sword for the chimps; as well as a reason to treat them with special regard, the kinship between humans and chimps has been used as a rationale for invasive research for human benefit, keeping chimps as pets, displaying them in zoos and circuses and eating them to absorb their power or fecundity.  The commodity value of chimps outside of their territories has on the one hand made them attractive for poaching, and on the other, according to Emily Otali, Field Director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, Uganda, made it difficult to enlist local support for chimp protection as: “People look at chimps as belonging to the white people.”

Cohen questions the narrative of ‘closeness’ and looks at many aspects of the human/chimpanzee relationship. He visits chimps in the wild, in labs, in sanctuaries, and talks to researchers in many disciplines in many countries.   He states he has ‘no agenda’, and he talks of how valuable chimps are as research commodities, as well as presenting the views of those who believe that chimps deserve special regard.  He describes the medical breakthroughs that have led from research on chimps but doesn’t shy away from the suffering that was endured during that research.  And the suffering of chimps isn’t confined to those in captivity; his interview with Otali includes horrific descriptions of the snaring of chimps in Kibale.

Cohen includes a lot of detailed science; blood work, DNA, hybridisation, theories of evolutionary development, genetics, evolutionary theory, medical science experiments, space science experiments, morphology.  And he discusses the chimpanzee language experiments and those looking at ‘theory of mind’ (i.e. the ability to infer the mental states of others).  It is primarily in these areas where some researchers believe genetic and morphological similarities do not lead to ‘inner life’ similarities. In the words of Daniel Povinelli: “just because we look alike does not mean we think alike.”

Cohen criticises Goodall (at one point he refers to her as ‘Saint Jane’) for embellishing some stories to emphasise the inner life of chimps: “Goodall twists the facts to serve the moral of the story she wants to emphasise: more and more people are recognizing that chimpanzees are almost human, and they should be treated with similar respect, dignity and concern.”  This is criticism of Goodall’s use of information to try and gain wide public support for chimpanzee conservation, not of her research.  There is a wealth of research that would counter Cohen’s view in Almost chimpanzee that chimps don’t just lack a ‘theory of mind’, they have in fact ‘mindblindness’, such as people living with autism do who “have difficulty understanding the wants and beliefs of others.”

Cohen sides with the sceptics in discussions of the chimpanzee language experiments and ‘theory of mind’, and a large part of this scepticism hinges on a supposed lack of ability in chimps to teach.  Psychologist David Premack is quoted as saying: “chimpanzees would not evolve a language for a simple reason: they do not teach one another, which is how human children develop vocabulary.”  And in the context of ‘theory of mind’ Premack says: “Chimpanzee mothers do not recognize that their infants lack knowledge and cannot, therefore, crack nuts with rocks. … Therefore they do not teach them.”

Cohen mentions the inability to teach throughout the book: “chimpanzees do not teach each other anything.”  At one point he does grudgingly allow “Could it be that there are [chimp] behaviors that lean towards instruction but do not qualify as teaching?”  But chimpanzees do ‘learn’, de Waal in his 2019 book Mama’s last hug observes: “We know from a wealth of research that young chimps learn from their elders not only what to eat and what to avoid but also how to access hard-to-reach foods. They learn how to fish for termites, crack nuts, and collect honey from beehives” (p. 159). Cohen mentions Washoe, the first chimp to learn some American Sign Language (ASL) signs, but doesn’t discuss Loulis, her adopted son who learnt some ASL signs from Washoe.  Learning by imitation is still transmission of knowledge and skill, employed by humans as well as chimpanzees.

In Almost chimpanzee, Cohen sets out to look at the differences between chimps and humans and ends up by being sceptical of chimps having a rich inner life, because that life is not the same as that experienced by humans.  Most of the experiments on chimpanzees are aimed at learning more about humans or trying to gain benefit for our species, and therefore many of our judgements about them are based on comparisons with us and our human abilities.  Chimps may not be ‘almost human’ but they are entirely chimpanzee, and that alone, not their similarity or ‘use’ to us, should be reason to protect them and allow them to flourish.

I think Cohen would agree that even though he sees a marked discontinuity between chimpanzees and humans, they still deserve special regard and protection.  In a lovely touch he ends his book reflecting on his visits to Geza Teleki, a primatologist who was beyond caring if chimps were similar or dissimilar to us, he just wanted them left alone.  Teleki’s life was changed one evening at Gombe National Park in Tanzania in the late 1960s, when he observed two chimps greet each other and sit together to watch the sunset (described in his essay They are us in The Great Ape Project (1993)): Teleki said “I had seen my species inside the skin of another.”  Cohen quotes Teleki trying to put into words the experience of being in the presence of chimpanzees and how “… there is no animal anywhere in the world where I’ve experienced what I’ve experienced with a chimp.”  Those who have felt this connection understand, and Cohen himself relates a similar experience he had when he was amongst chimpanzees in the wild and having the feeling that he was “almost a chimpanzee myself.”

Almost chimpanzee is an extensive overview of human/chimp relationships, however there are some omissions, particularly around research on chimpanzee culture.  The book is a good addition to the growing body of popular work on chimpanzees, and the more information out there on these wonderful animals the better, as there is no getting away from the fact that, as Cohen says, “Humans will determine the fate of chimpanzees. Chimpanzees of course will have no say in the fate of humans.”

Among the Great Apes: adventures on the trail of our closest relatives by Paul Raffaele – 2010

among the great apes

I struggled with the emphasis on ape brutality in this book – especially the descriptions of Mawa in the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary:

From the publisher: “The great apes—bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas—live in some of the most volatile regions on our planet, lands plagued by civil unrest, poverty, environmental degradation, and corrupt governments.


In Among the Great Apes, acclaimed nature journalist Paul Raffaele goes into the wild to see how our closest relatives are faring today. He takes us through isolated jungles and misty mountain forests, sharing wonderfully intimate observations of ape life paired with the most current research about their behavior.

Raffaele introduces us to leading conservationists and researchers working to save

and study the apes. But best of all, he gets up close to these amazing animals. As Raffaele moves from Borneo to the Congo, Rwanda, Cameroon, and Uganda in Among the Great Apes, he brings us to the natural habitats of all the species and subspecies of the great apes—a trip possible for perhaps the last time.”

Primates and Philosophers: how morality evolved by Frans de Waal – 2006

Primates and philosophers

From the publisher: Can virtuous behavior be explained by nature, and not by human rational choice? “It’s the animal in us,” we often hear when we’ve been bad. But why not when we’re good? Primates and Philosophers tackles this question by exploring the biological foundations of one of humanity’s most valued traits: morality.

In this provocative book, renowned primatologist Frans de Waal argues that modern-day evolutionary biology takes far too dim a view of the natural world, emphasizing our “selfish” genes and reinforcing our habit of labeling ethical behavior as humane and the less civilized as animalistic. Seeking the origin of human morality not in evolution but in human culture, science insists that we are moral by choice, not by nature.

Citing remarkable evidence based on his extensive research of primate behavior, de Waal attacks “Veneer Theory,” which posits morality as a thin overlay on an otherwise nasty nature. He explains how we evolved from a long line of animals that care for the weak and build cooperation with reciprocal transactions. Drawing on Darwin, recent scientific advances, and his extensive research of primate behavior, de Waal demonstrates a strong continuity between human and animal behavior. He probes issues such as anthropomorphism and human responsibilities toward animals. His compelling account of how human morality evolved out of mammalian society will fascinate anyone who has ever wondered about the origins and reach of human goodness.

Based on the Tanner Lectures de Waal delivered at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values in 2004, Primates and Philosophers includes responses by the philosophers Peter Singer, Christine M. Korsgaard, and Philip Kitcher and the science writer Robert Wright. They press de Waal to clarify the differences between humans and other animals, yielding a lively debate that will fascinate all those who wonder about the origins and reach of human goodness.