Review: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll

Sunday 23 October 2011

A week ago, if someone had asked me about the last book that made me cry, I wouldn’t have had an answer. Thankfully, I didn’t inherit the crying gene that causes my mom to lose it to Hallmark commercials. That’s until I read the last few pages of Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, which completely did me in, forcing me to become that unstable girl with tears streaming down her face on the GO Train.

My favourite books are those in which an author paints pictures of characters that are so tangible and vivid that I can’t help but hope for their happy ending. I didn’t expect to find these characters in a non-fiction book about Westoll’s time living and working at a sanctuary for retired biomedical research chimps, but that’s exactly what happened. Westoll creates loving portraits of each of the chimpanzees rescued by activist Gloria Grow when she started her sanctuary outside Montreal in 1997, resulting in a book that I have been recommending to everyone I know.

The chimpanzees living at Fauna were lucky to escape their traumatic lives as biomedical test subjects; however, they carry the psychological scars of their horrific experiences, which for some included being torn from their mothers shortly after birth, social isolation, and hundreds of operations and other cruel procedures. The book is a stark reminder of how alike chimpanzees and humans are, as Fauna’s residents experience post-traumatic stress, grief, depression, and at times, even self-mutilation even years after entering the “labyrinth of private and communal living spaces” that make up Fauna.

What makes Westoll’s book exceptional is that he is not simply an outsider observing the chimps of Fauna Sanctuary and interviewing the staff who take care of them, rather he is an active participant in their day-to-day lives, scrubbing crusted excrement from their belongings, blending and serving them smoothies, and slowly learning to recognize their unique and colourful personalities.

“This understanding comes with an unexpected consequence. As much as seeing each chimpanzee as a distinct being fills me with happiness, it also fills me with dread,” writes Westoll. “Real empathy has two sides, the joyful one and the grieving one. Everything that has happened to these apes, for better and for worse, is now a lot more personal to me. They have welcomed me into their world, and with this new citizenship comes a responsibility I’m totally unprepared for.”

Most readers will find themselves totally unprepared for what they read in The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. As soon as one feels optimistic about the destiny of these often-misunderstood creatures, Westoll writes another startling scene, jerking readers away from any misconceptions that life at Fauna is a five-star retreat.

“Confronted with Annie’s body just moments after she died, Binky pounded on her with his fists over and over in a grief-fuelled attempt to wake her up,” writes Westoll in an especially affecting scene.

The emotions exhibited by the chimpanzees are so raw and written about so eloquently that my heart ached in a way that is usually reserved for unbelievable works of fiction. Thankfully, Westoll also shares the many small triumphs that Gloria and her team experience at Fauna, urging them to continue their heartbreaking, yet heartwarming, work.

“The Fauna team began to focus on these small triumphs, these passing moments of connection, to get them through the days: a faint expression of a unique personality, the pleasure of a happy memory, an act as simple as opening the fridge to a cacophony of hoots and hollers,” writes Westoll. “They had no choice but to persist; there was no turning back now. Somehow, they had to find ways to counter the profound distrust, fear, and anger that each chimpanzee held inside. Through simple acts of kindness and concern, Gloria and her sisters worked to lift, one small corner at a time, the veil of annihilation that had been cast upon these apes the moment they were born or sold into research.”

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary may not always be an uplifting read; however it is a necessary one that readers are unlikely to forget. Personally, in the week since I finished the book, I haven't been able to shake the colourful cast of characters that Andrew Westoll made me fall in love with.

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