The man who stares at chimps


The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals, by Charles Siebert, Scribner, 208 pages

On the second page of The Wauchula Woods Accord, Charles Siebert claims we are living in “The fast-dwindling days of our dominion.” An optimistic reader might, for a moment, think Siebert is prophesying the end days of animal exploitation, a coming animal liberation.

Actually, he’s describing “a decidedly topsy-turvy moment in the history of civilization when the number of captive apes is burgeoning even as their wild populations continue to dwindle.” An end, then, to wild animals for us to watch over, a prediction posited on statistics rather than any kind of vision.

Siebert’s book began as “a sad civil safari” in search of some of the two to three thousand chimps and counting that currently live in the United States. In particular, he’d wanted to meet with Ripley, a former entertainer. In September 2005, Ripley escaped from his home at Zoo Nebraska with his three fellow residents, Reuben, Jimmy Joe, and Tyler. The escapees ran around the zoo grounds, scaring patrons into the visitors’ center. Ripley went into town, tried the locked door of a gas station, climbed a tree, then went back to the zoo. When a couple of the chimps tried the door of the visitors’ center, the zoo’s director grabbed a gun and shot and killed Reuben, Jimmy Joe, and Tyler. Ripley somehow made it back to his enclosure and let himself in.

Siebert never managed to meet Ripley, but he feels an “inescapable, multisided sadness” in the presence of the apes that he does meet. And Ripley’s is not the only horror story he recounts. There’s the adult female orangutan fully shaved and then chained for weeks to the bed of a palm plantation worker as a sex slave. There’s Mary, a circus elephant impounded in September 1916 by a Tennessee sheriff for killing a caretaker, then hanged for her crime. And there are the elephants of Uganda and South Africa currently suffering psychological and emotional breakdowns, raping and killing rhinos, attacking humans as well as one another.

Siebert is devastatingly clear about what’s at stake in this moment: “They have no future without us, the chimps, elephants, whales, and the rest. None. The question that we, the keepers, are facing is whether we’d mind a future without them . . . whether we’d be bothered by an Earth with no living vestiges of our own differently shaped selves.”

And yet Siebert is never alarmist. Indeed, his voice is so gentle, his narration so understated, that his book feels like a refuge from the sadness of this moment rather than a cataloguing of its horrors. This is a testament to Siebert’s gifts as a writer. But credit is due, too, to Roger, the co-author of Siebert’s Accord.

Roger is a humanzee, “A sort of hybrid of a chimp and a person.” He’s a retired Ringling Bros. performer who lives at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida, with other retired chimps and orangutans, some of them former pets, some of them former research subjects, many of them, like Roger (and Ripley), “lifelong, languishing cast-offs of a few minutes of our laughter.” There’s Bam Bam, Passions’ nurse Precious and evidence against evolution in one of Kirk Cameron’s Way of the Master documentaries. And Jonah and Jacob, stars of the Suburban Auto Group’s “trunk monkey” commercials who had their last roles in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. And Bubbles, who doesn’t appear in Siebert’s book, but who was recently in the news following the death of his one-time owner, Michael Jackson.

Siebert’s safari ends in Wauchula by chance, and everything in his book begins there, with Roger. There is a “strange business” between these two, the “Inveterate ape-house lingerer” who is “uncommonly attuned to [chimpanzees] and their unique brand of intelligence” and the only one of Wauchula’s residents who refuses to room with another ape. Roger prefers the company of humans in general but of Siebert in particular, and Siebert, too, recognizes something in Roger “aside from the deep biological kinship.”

On the last night of Siebert’s stay at the Center, Roger leads Siebert in a kind of meditation; he dares his “primatological doppelganger” to remain within his “wild stare,” to obey its command to “Keep venturing the wordlessness, the apparent blankness.” Siebert does his best, and when he leaves Roger that morning he promises him he will write “a kind of missive or manifesto on his behalf and that of all his fellow captives.”

The Wauchula Woods Accord more than fulfills that promise. It is a beautiful, moving book, a meditative missive that is never boring and never heavy-handed. It’s a sad story that’s suffused with love. In putting the wordlessness of his encounter with Roger into words, Siebert only once resorts to adynaton: “How to describe it?” Yet even here, he has an answer. The task that reviewers of his book are faced with, on the other hand, is impossible. The Wauchula Woods Accord cannot be summed up; it must be read.


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