By KATHRYN GREENAWAY
The Montreal Gazette
Kenneth Oppel wanted to write a book for teens about chimpanzees - specifically about chimpanzees who were raised as humans in the 1960s and 1970s and taught sign language to communicate.
And he wanted to write about what happened to these chimpanzees when they were no longer cute babies and became too large to follow household rules.
The book is called Half Brother (HarperCollins), and the Governor General's Award-winning author did part of his research at the Fauna Foundation, a sanctuary for abused animals located just outside Chambly in the Monteregie region.
The sanctuary is home to 12 adult chimpanzees, most of whom were rescued from biomedical facilities.
"It was a really energizing trip," Toronto-based Oppel said of his visit to the Fauna sanctuary in 2008. "I learned so much about how chimpanzees behave in captivity, how they assert their domination.
"I was struck by their power and the power of their scent. You feel respectful. Some of them came close to have a look at me, and one tossed a green pepper at me."
There are about 600 chimpanzees in sanctuaries in the United States alone. Some of them worked in the entertainment industry, others were raised as pets, others came from zoos or were the offspring of chimpanzees used way back for space-travel experiments. Many come from biomedical facilities.
All chimps come to sanctuaries as damaged goods -traumatized by repeated scientific experimentation and extended periods spent in isolation and cramped quarters. Those raised by humans suffered the betrayal of being rejected and removed from familiar surroundings when they got too big or suffered from stress disorders from being forced to do tricks to entertain.
The Fauna Foundation has cared for 19 chimpanzees since veterinarian Richard Allan and Gloria Grow opened the facility in 1997. Seven chimpanzees have died. Their life expectancy is 40 to 50 years.
"It was beautiful to see how they were so loved by the staff. Gloria loves those chimps, and they don't have to do anything," Oppel said. "That is a great achievement because we all put conditions on how we love each other. That's an uncomfortable truth about human relationships."
Oppel had been kicking around the idea of writing a book about great apes for 20 years. He was inspired to start writing the book after reading the obituary of Washoe, a chimpanzee who was raised by humans and taught sign language in the late 1960s. Oppel also read about Sarah, a chimp who began learning sign language as part of a behavioural experiment during the same period. She now lives at a sanctuary in Louisiana and is 47 years old.
When Washoe became too large to control, she was taken from the only family she knew and placed in unfamiliar surroundings. She was 42 years old when she died in 2007.
In Half Brother, infant chimp Zan is ripped from his mother's breast (she is tranquilized at the time) and taken into the Tomlin household to be raised as a human and taught sign language. The Tomlins' teenage son Ben grows to love Zan and becomes his protector and saviour after the Tomlins shut down the sign-language experiment and ship Zan off to a horrible "sanctuary."
Not all sanctuaries are created equal. "Just like there are good doctors and bad doctors, there are good sanctuaries and bad sanctuaries," Grow said. "At the Fauna Foundation, we try to give the chimpanzees the peace and comfort they deserve after coming from such traumatic backgrounds."
Chimpanzees are our closest genetic relative. They have definite likes and dislikes and personalities.
The chimps at the Fauna sanctuary love to paint pictures, drink tea, eat spaghetti from a bowl and play with toys and trinkets. Colourful hair "scrunchies" are a hit right now, especially with alpha male Binky, 21, who likes to wear a neoncoloured scrunchy on his upper arm. (The scrunchies are so popular, a woman in Ontario sews extra-large ones so that they don't cut off circulation in the chimps' arms.)
The staff has also designed an enrichment program for the chimps. The recently introduced construction-work theme was particularly popular. The chimps had a blast playing with the toy tools.
They have fun, but they are also prone to moods, just like us, and that's when their size and strength can come into serious play.
"One of the biggest dangers is for people to think chimpanzees can be perfect and predictable pets," Oppel said. "I was in the middle of writing Half Brother when that horrible thing happened in the United States. Chimps are not meant to be pets."
Last February, Travis, an adult male chimp weighing 230 pounds, attacked a friend of his owner, blinding her and severing her nose, ears and both hands. Travis was shot by a police officer while trying to attack another officer.
The Fauna Foundation is located on 60 hectares and includes concrete buildings and a series of specially designed islands where the chimpanzees can hang out. The buildings are locked up tight to prevent escapes, and the area is surrounded by a powerful electric fence.
"Kenneth's book is great because it captures everything about a chimp's life in captivity, and it didn't turn into the Pollyanna world of chimpanzees," Grow said. "It's educational and it's based on fact. And he's written it for exactly the right audience. I recently did some work with students from Miss Edgar's and Miss Cramp's School. They were so engaged and wrote letters to (government officials) about the unethical treatment of chimpanzees. They are the generation that will change things. They are the ones that will read Kenneth's book and then talk about why it's not right to use chimpanzees in commercials."
Grow is one of the founders of the recently established North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, an organization dedicated to the health and survival of quality sanctuaries for abused animals.
Is the Fauna Foundation accepting new chimps? "That's hard to say right now," Grow said. "It costs a lot to care for them ($250,000 a year) and they live a long time. We have to make sure the foundation is financially secure and that there are measures in place to care for the chimpanzees after we are gone. They are here for the rest of their lives."
Half Brother is in stores now. kennethoppel.com.
For information about donating to the Fauna Foundation, faunafoundation.org.
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