Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Exposing the Impact of Our Choices on Nonhuman Animals

Care2 by Zoe Weil (Sept. 19, 2011)

In 1985, I was fascinated by what I’d read about Sarah, a chimpanzee who could use a symbolic language to communicate, so I contacted Dr. David Premack, the principal researcher working with Sarah and other chimps at the University of Pennsylvania primate research lab, to volunteer. I’ll never forget meeting Sarah. When I was brought to her cage, I was warned to stay away from the bars because Sarah was strong enough, and often aggressive enough, to grab me and cause severe injury.

Sarah lived alone in her cage. The four other chimps at the lab were only three years old, and I was told that Sarah might harm them, so this social animal was confined permanently in solitude. She had long since refused to continue with her language training, so her life consisted largely of watching soap operas on a TV on the other side of her cage or sitting in her small outdoor enclosure. It was the new young chimps, who were the subjects in the ongoing language acquisition studies who lived together and had a huge outdoor space in which to play.

Sarah threw what was described as a temper tantrum when introduced to new people, and I was no exception. She screamed and bounded from wall to wall, but I felt determined to have a positive relationship with her. Every time I volunteered I made a point of visiting Sarah. One day I said to her, “Sarah, turn around and I’ll scratch your back.” I rotated my right index finger in the air as I said “turn around” in case she didn’t understand my words. Sure enough, Sarah turned around, sank down to sit on the floor and pressed her back against the bars of the cage. I was unafraid as I went up to her and scratched her back.

I didn’t volunteer for very long. One of the young chimps bit my hand when I was paying too much attention to another who had climbed onto my shoulders. Even a three-year-old chimp can administer quite a bite, and it came just a week before my father died, and I needed to be gone for some time. I realized I didn’t really want to go back. Once I’d seen behind the scenes of something that had initially seemed so benign – teaching chimpanzees language – I realized just how much suffering was being inflicted on these cousins of ours.

For years I felt haunted by Sarah. Was she to live out her days in isolation and misery? All I could do was tell her story and, as a humane educator, teach, so that we might make different societal choices in relationship to others, whether people or nonhuman animals. Fifteen years later, I learned that Sarah had found a final home at Chimp Haven, a chimpanzee sanctuary that houses chimps formerly used in medical research, entertainment and as pets. My eyes filled with tears of relief at this good news.

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