Saturday, April 23, 2011

"The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary" by Andrew Westoll

Summary: This nonfiction book explores the world of Fauna Sanctuary, a home for chimpanzees retired from biomedical research.  Westoll recounts the lives of these chimpanzees and their slow process of recovery from the physical and, perhaps more importantly, psychological torture experienced over years as test subjects.

Musings: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is called a "big-hearted" book, and though I tend to resist the cheesy, the description is apt.  The stories Westoll tells about the difficult lives of the chimpanzees and their impressive recoveries, illuminated through anecdotes of victories in the relationships between the chimps and their keepers and the chimps and each other, are indeed moving and heart-warming.

Westoll is not an impartial observer, having lived and worked at the sanctuary for several months, and though he is firmly on the animal rights side, he does not sugar coat the chimps' lives.  They arrive at the sanctuary with all kinds of psychological damage from being removed at infancy from their mothers, isolated, knocked down, restricted, and tested upon for years.  They can be violent, both toward their human caregivers and to each other.  But they are also individuals with full-fledged personalities who respond, like humans, to kindness, autonomy, and respect.

Perhaps what is most moving is the chimps' relationships with one another.  Although researchers have studied the social nature of chimps for years, it's fascinating to read about their care for one another first hand and note the important role that supportive chimp friends play in each chimp's recovery.

Fauna Sancutary concludes with a strong argument against using chimpanzees in invasive medical testing, and Westoll employs both moral and medical reasoning.  Most surprising, he argues that chimp research has been largely ineffective as a way to prevent and cure human diseases and that the high price of chimp testing is wasteful.

Westoll's narrative is best when it focuses on the chimps in the sanctuary and somewhat drier when he waxes philosophical.  However, he does an excellent job of providing an insider's view into the complex and difficult work of rehabilitating chimps.  Through this window into their lives, it's difficult not to see why preventing further cruelty to these animals is important.

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary will be published in May 2011.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my review.

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