Charles Siebert / Scribner / 224 pages
In the Wizard of Oz there is a scene in which Dorothy is in her house as it swirls in the tornado. She stands before her window and a cast of characters, friends and foes, whiz by outside the window as she begins a bizarre adventure. Siebert’s newest book The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals reminds me of this scene. He takes the reader on an odyssey that explores what it is to be chimpanzee in a world of humans. Like the characters outside of Dorothy’s window, in Siebert’s book we meet many players and issues relating to captive chimpanzees. We meet chimpanzees retired from circuses, acting, biomedical research, and the space program, chimpanzees raised in homes as pets, chimpanzees murdered for escaping their confines, and a few orangutans.
The reader floats through thought provoking issues often untouched in other books on this topic. Siebert describes chimpanzee-human hybrids (maybe real and mostly imagined) and surveys non-humans who have been on trial and their punishments (ironically, a guilty verdict implies a sense of morality). He delves into physiological similarities in brain structures of humans and other animals, their similarity of function and responsibility for higher order thinking. He explores the culling and poaching of wild elephants and the resulting chaos in their social order. The parallel between that and the degradation of human cultures wracked by war is startling. He describes trauma in humans, elephants, and chimpanzees and rehab for the lucky few. These issues explore the gap that humans have decided separates them from other animals. They expose human-imposed brutality on other species. We finally meet the keepers of chimpanzees: individuals who use them for entertainment or biomedical experiments; those who pulled the trigger on escapees; those who liberated chimpanzees from torture.
Wauchula, Florida is the locale of the Center for Great Apes, home to chimpanzees and orangutans, many of whom are retired actors. It is here that Siebert parked himself outside of the cage of Roger, one of the residents. He uses this as the backdrop for his ruminations and for the journey he takes to various facilities—midwestern roadside zoos and southern sanctuaries. Siebert’s journey is of discovery and in this book he shares what he learns. Unfortunately he also shares some of what he hasn’t learned, his understanding of chimpanzee behavior. As a result his description of some of the chimpanzees he encounters makes them sound crazed and terrorized when really he has described typical chimpanzee behavior. He misidentifies chimpanzee community groups as “pods”; whales live in pods.
Siebert describes himself as an animal rights person—indeed how could he not be with what his book brings to light. His book puts us in a house, like Dorothy’s, swirling on a tornado of abuse and outside the window we see many ugly things and some hopeful things. When we’ve finished the odyssey, we close the book and see on the jacket cover a chimpanzee posing for a photograph. Eye catching, yes; it will sell books. How startling that despite meeting the former chimpanzee actors, illuminating the abuses, and writing the book, Seibert himself has contributed to the use of chimpanzees in entertainment. Hopefully the readers of this fascinating and important book will learn and actualize more of its message than its author.
—Mary Lee Jensvold, Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute