THIS IS A BOOK with a great cast of characters: There’s Yoko, small in stature but tough and feisty. Though a ruthless adversary, he’s intensely loyal to his friends. There’s Rachel, who as a child loved bubble baths and frilly dresses, but who was abandoned by her family at age three. Jethro is a peacemaker. Regis loves to paint and listen to music. Chance is nervous and cautious right down to her taste in food; she doesn’t like hot peppers on her pizza. Sue Ellen has a weakness for large, bearded men.
And then there are the humans. One is Gloria Grow, a former dog groomer who, with her veterinarian husband and her sister, turned a 240-acre hobby farm in Quebec into a sanctuary for chimpanzees like Yoko and Rachel, Jethro and Chance. Gloria and her family and staff are fascinating, but the chimps get top billing — as they should. Each is a complex, intelligent individual with a tortured past, whose courageous struggles for health and wholeness are told with drama and dignity in this fast-paced, big-hearted book.
To research the story of this “family of troubled animals” in The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery, journalist Andrew Westoll came to live and work among them for a summer. All the chimps who live here are castoffs, mostly after years of biomedical research. Westoll was trained as a biologist and had studied wild capuchin monkeys in the jungles of Suriname. But his fieldwork with wild primates did not prepare him to work with the chimps of Fauna Sanctuary any more than living among happy, suburban teenagers would prepare you to work with traumatized war orphans or children who had been victims of torture.
Westoll’s first meeting with these devastated souls is shocking and terrifying. Fear “runs up my spine like a silverfish,” he writes, when he first enters the dark corridor, reverberating with the deafening shrieks of demented chimps. Even in a sanctuary providing loving care, delicious foods, comfortable and interesting accommodations, and blessed company, many of the chimpanzees here are not only supernaturally strong, but severely damaged and extremely dangerous. Some are plotting escape. And if they succeeded, they could easily kill staff, volunteers, or other chimps.
But this book also gives us lovely moments of peace and portraits of infinite tenderness. Jethro, an enormous and powerful male, reaches out to a frightened, injured younger inmate and extends his hand to help. Annie, once part of a breeding program at a lab, “adopts” many of the traumatized chimps who arrive at Fauna, mediating disputes, calming tantrums, and teaching diplomacy. A former lab tech from the research lab comes to visit one of his former charges, Pepper, who has been relocated to Fauna. She’s high in a tree when he first arrives — but when she sees her human friend, she climbs down in a flash, smooshes her lips through the bars, and kisses him. The lab tech breaks into tears. He knows Pepper has every right to hate him, yet she remembers only his kindness. Westoll writes movingly about these scenes, with an eye for vivid detail and the instinct of a gifted storyteller.
Despite the unethical and unfathomable cruelty they suffer, today in the United States a thousand chimpanzees are incarcerated in six biomedical research labs, in large part funded with our taxes. Ours is the last developed country in the world to continue to perform invasive biomedical research on chimpanzees. The proposed Great Ape Protection Act would change that. To promote its passage is one of the main reasons Westoll wrote this book. The other is to share the gift of the rescued chimps’ courage and example: that “no matter what kind of trauma we’ve been through, we all have the capacity to recover and to help others heal.”