In 2005, a group of four chimpanzees managed to escape their pen in the small, rural Zoo Nebraska and began to run amok in the zoo and the surrounding neighborhood. After failing to sedate the animals with tranquilizer guns, and despite the fact that no one had been injured, the zoo director himself grabbed a handgun and started shooting. Only one chimp made it back to his pen to survive the day of freedom.
In his new book The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals, Charles Siebert examines the complex — and too often violent and exploitative — relationship between man and chimp. Siebert talks to a group of creationists, who trot out the old (Testament) trope of humans given "dominion" over the animals. But, as he points out, we have taken that dominion and used it to dress apes in funny costumes in the movies and the circus; to drug or murder female primates in order to sell their exotic offspring as pets; and to destroy habitats and poach and torture for sport.
Siebert blends science writing, travel journalism, history and philosophy to argue for a new approach to human-animal interaction, one that includes respect and compassion. He notes that the line between human and animal is a thin one, and it gets thinner when we learn about the tool-making capabilities of corvoids or the language abilities of whales. While we know that apes can have nervous breakdowns from the stress of experimentation or confinement, or that elephants experience post traumatic stress disorder when their family members are poached, the well-being of the animals is the last thing humans take into account, lagging far behind profit and convenience.
Siebert, a longtime contributor to the New York Times Magazine about animals and the author of Wickerby (1997) and A Man After His Own Heart (2004), two books that had as their subject the human heart, could have resorted to writing a diatribe. Instead, his new book is a well-researched, deeply felt work encompassing centuries of the troubled interactions between humans and animals. For its spine, The Wauchula Woods Accord uses Seibert's faux-philosophical (and occasionally long-winded) accounts of watching a chimpanzee in a cage. Skimming these sections improves the book greatly.
In the end, however, the argument Siebert lays out is an important and compelling one: "The degree to which we humans will finally stop abusing other creatures and, for that matter, one another will ultimately be measured by the degree to which we come to understand how integral a part of us all other creatures actually are."