So, Ape House revolves around Isabel, a woman who works with bonobos in a language lab, studying their ability to communicate, and John, a reporter who is doing a story on them. The language lab is bombed, Isabel is injured, and the bonobos go missing. Isabel is beyond distraught because to her the bonobos are family and she is afraid that they may have been sold to a medical lab. John's initial meeting with both Isabel and the apes has hooked him enough to kick his journalistic prowess into high gear, even after losing the story to a rival journalist. The whereabouts of the apes is eventually determined, and although they aren't in a medical lab, it's clear that whoever is in control of them does not have their best interests in mind.
There were several things I liked about this book. The first is that it is by the same author who wrote Water for Elephants, which I loved. The next is this set of quotes at the beginning of the book:
Give orange give me eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you.
--NIM CHIMPSKY, 1970s
Gimme gimme more, gimme more, gimme gimme more.
--BRITNEY SPEARS, 2007
I'm not sure who comes out looking worse here, but I think it's a funny comparison. (Nim Chimpsky was a chimpanzee who was raised in a human family in the '70s as part of an experiment to see if chimps could learn sign language. His name is a play on Noam Chomsky, an MIT linguist. You can read more about Nim in this NPR article which also includes an excerpt of the book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess.)
Something that I found interesting was that this is the first book that I've read that I felt handled modern-day communication as a matter-of-fact, embedded part of life. John didn't insist on sitting down in front of his favorite typewriter to bang out his stories, he didn't rely on the neighborhood kids to help him figure out his darned confusing cell phone. His publisher sent read receipts, he and his wife used text speak, and there was no assumption that the reader might not be tech-savvy enough to understand what was going on. I guess a lot of the books I read are not necessarily set in the present day, so maybe authors have been getting it right for a while now, and I just haven't noticed because I was busy cursing out my darned confusing cell phone. So, am I just late to the game, or has anyone else noticed this shift in modern-day fiction?
Now that I've got all the little stuff out of the way, the thing that I liked most about this book (aside from the fact that it has a dog named Booger in it) is that it is based on reality. It would be an interesting story on its own--apes who are able to communicate in a meaningful way with humans--but the fact that it's based in reality makes it fascinating. John's experience visiting the language lab is based largely on the author's experience visiting the Great Ape Trust. Not only did Sara Gruen have to receive approval from the personnel, but from the apes as well. If they didn't give their approval, she was not going to be allowed in to visit them. Lucky for her, they saw something in her they liked (possibly the back packs filled with goodies like M&Ms and Mr. Potato Heads that she brought with her) and she was granted access. In the Author's Note, Gruen says:
The experience was astonishing--to this day I cannot think about it without getting goose bumps. You cannot have a two-way conversation with a great ape, or even just look one straight in the eye, close up, without coming away changed. I stayed until the end of the day, when I practically had to be dragged out, because I was having so much fun. I was told that the next day Panbanisha said to one of the scientists, "Where's Sara? Build her nest. When's she coming back?"
In this video Gruen talks more about her experience. You can learn more about Panbanisha and Kanzi and the lexigrams they use to communicate at the Great Ape Trust's web site.
On the surface, this book is just a good story about an interesting topic, but it leads to some difficult moral and ethical questions in the long run. Language has long been a clear delineator between humans and animals--humans have it, animals don't. Not only does it help define us, but it helps define us as superior. The more we learn about great apes and their ability to communicate, in human terms no less, the fuzzier this line becomes. If we can liken an ape's comprehension of spoken language to that of a two-and-a-half-year-old human child...then what? We would never consider exposing a human infant to radiation and then locking it in a cage to study the effects--that would be cruel. I think most people have now accepted apes as close enough to humans that we would be outraged at the idea of doing the same to them, but is being less-close-to-human really the appropriate deciding factor?
What about monkeys? I don't know where they fall on the spoken-language-comprehension scale, but presumably NASA considered them far enough removed from us to feel OK about subjecting them to such experiments as recently as last year. As it turns out, enough other people did not feel OK about this that NASA has since changed it's mind. That's great for the monkeys, but does that mean that we just keep moving down the scale of sentient beings until we find something that can't articulate its suffering? Just because an animal can't tell us, in our words, how terrible something is, does that mean the experience isn't terrible?
I'm not trying to sermonize here or tell people how to think; I'm not anti-NASA, and I'm not pro-PETA, but I think humans have a long way to go in realizing that just because something doesn't use our words, it doesn't deprive them of experience, it just means they can't tell us about it. Heck, I can think of a lot of people who use a lot of our words whom I would gladly volunteer for medical studies ahead of an animal who doesn't. Maybe then they could put some of their words to good use.
I realize that bringing up things like animal communication, medical experiments, and PETA all in one post opens the door right up for some emotional responses. Comments are welcome and encouraged, but anyone who can't use their words like a civilized human, or any other great ape for that matter, will be neither welcome nor encouraged. Please note, comments from any actual non-human great apes will be widely shared with everyone I know. I'm just sayin'.