Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll

Years ago I lived a long time in a populous third-world country. I remember saying to a friend living in the U.S. that a focus on animal rights seemed a distraction in view of human living conditions around the globe. She gave me a look I can still see to this day and have thought about many times since. "Why are we more important than every other living species?" and "What would our lives be like without other species?" she could have asked. There is no doubt in my mind that we must be more mindful of species living on the planet around us and treat each with great care and respect. That is also the theme of this fine documentary about research chimps living out their final days on a farm in Canada.

Westoll was a scientist first, but changed his focus to writing later in his career. He urges us to look at the evidence and acknowledge that we have a duty to restrict testing of animals in the name of science. And he urges us to insist Congress pass the Great Ape Protection Act (GAPA) which has been on the roster for discussion and passage for years now. Once again we lag behind other Western nations who long ago restricted the use of primates for research. Apparently studies using primates have determined that primates are sufficiently different from humans as not to be of great use in providing useful information for medical use. But the studies continue, Westoll suggests, perhaps because they are so lucrative to the grantees receiving federal monies.

In the meantime, social animals of great intelligence and emotional range are subjected to lives of captivity and the cruelties of isolation; are introduced to disease and treated with disregard. This story tells us mostly of what it is like to live with the animals now, their research days behind them (several were smuggled out of research facilities by sympathetic caregiver scientists). One is struck anew how little we know, and how barbaric we seem. Surely the rights demanded by groups of the disenfranchized over the years should have taught us how cruel and thoughtless we seemed before finally recognizing the rights of different groups (the poor, women, blacks). This is not a screed, nor a diatribe. It is a man reflecting on meeting some unusual characters who have a history, and with our help, a future.

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