Book Two Vs Book One

The RiverbonesBook two is normally writers’ downfall, but in the case of Andrew Westoll, it was when he found his form. The problem is that I started—and fell completely, rabbit-ravingly in love—with Westoll’s second first. Then I did was any logical obsessive would do upon discovering an incredible author: I ordered up and cracked the spine of his oeuvre.

Westoll’s first book’s title, The Riverbones: Stumbling after Eden in the jungles of Suriname, hints at the issue I uncovered within. That is, that while Westoll is an undeniably talented writer, in this book he staggers about trying to find the story.

That’s in part the point—he returns to Suriname, a place where he spent an entire year researching monkeys during his primatology studies, to find meaning, to get things straight in his head about a place that completely got under his skin. The problem is that that necessarily involves a lot of chapters in which he’s kind of lost—literally and/or figuratively.

The other problem is that I had, having just finished his exquisite book about chimps rescued from drug testing laboratories, over-the-top expectations heightened by a desire to read more about primates. In short, I thought The Riverbones would be about Westoll returning to the monkeys.

And maybe he does. I just didn’t make it that far into the book. I tried, honestly. I really, really tried. But after many stuttering false starts and perseverance, I fell over roughly halfway through the book (at page 191 to be precise). If Westoll visits the monkeys or if something ground-shatteringly, life-changingly important happens after that, please let me know which pages and I’ll carry on. Or at least skip to and read those.

That’s not to say there weren’t some stellar moments in those first 200-odd pages, not least the following quote that still puzzles me: How will we feel the end of nature? (Bill McKibben)

Another is when Westoll visits a mine being carved out of the resource-rich, spectacularly forested landscape. The most economical way to extract ore is to expose it to a ‘complexant’. The issue, of course, is that said complexant is cynanide, which is highly toxic.

The most depressing part is that the PR-driven tour guide puts a perpetually positive spin on this:

‘You would have to drink four litres of this stuff to have a 40 per cent chance of dying!’ our tour guide bellows. The group goes quiet. Kevin leans over and asks me if eight litres would do the trick. I laugh and megaphone-man frowns at me. Trying to justify a lake of cyanide in the middle of pristine rainforest must be a mining engineer’s worst nightmare.

‘A rabbit is not going to drink four litres of something like this,’ he shouts over the roar of the pipe. ‘And I don’t say this as a Cambior employee. I say this as a Suriname man!’ He laughs heartily and stares me down. The bankers chuckle. There are no rabbits in Suriname.

A breeze picks up and I feel a cool mist on my skin. I take a few steps back from the gushing pipe. Our guide continues, ‘When exposed to sunlight, oxygen, and water, cyanide breaks down completely in three days. It disappears without a trace!’

‘But you’re always pumping new cyanide in, right?’ I say.

Silence. A few of the bankers ease away from me.

‘Like I said,’ yells our guide, ‘I’ve seen ducks swimming on this pond!’

The rest of the tour is conducted in Dutch.

Westoll is masterful at plucking out the lies in these moments and planting them in his story. And it’s moments like these that I was simultaneously depressed and inspired—depressed because of the entirely f%&ked up-ness of our world, but inspired by people such as Westoll who highlight the issues in order to help us tackle them. The problem is that I needed a few less of the ‘stumbling’ in between.

By virtue of its single location, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary provided the focus as well as the book’s protagonists. Suriname, on the other hand, was large and provided an impossible-to-whittle-down cast of thousands. You don’t know who’s important and, even if they are, you don’t spend long enough getting to know them.

I haven’t cheated and jumped ahead to read The Riverbones’ final chapter. I suspect Westoll finishes with something profound. I don’t want to ruin it for myself because my hope is that I will make it back to read the rest of the book. I think Westoll’s story and his storytelling skills warrant that. I just need a bit more time away from his second book so my criticisms of his first-book stumbles aren’t so great.

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

The Chimps of Fauna SanctuaryTo find The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, I did what I swore I’d never do: put out a vague question about if anyone knew of a book by a guy who’d spent time at a retirement home of sorts for chimps rescued from animal testing labs. Surprisingly, the first and correct response came back with seconds, along with a ringing endorsement: Andrew Westoll’s book is must-read extraordinary.

That’s part of the reason why it’s taken me so long to write this blog—I absolutely devoured the book, and haven’t stopped thinking about or recommending it, unprompted and perhaps frighteningly impassioned, to others ever since. Which of course means I’ve been the writing equivalent of constipated because I so desperately wanted to do it justice. This book is, quite simply, life-changingly incredible.

Westoll is a former primatologist turned writer, which positions him as the perfect person to capture the tale of Gloria Grow and her sanctuary for damaged chimps. I’m having to resist retelling the entire tale here—there are many thousands of words I could write, and yet none would eloquently capture the tale Westoll has woven. He has a light touch, which makes this heavy topic readable, digestible; its horrors are inexcusable, but I didn’t find myself entirely despairing.

Westoll opens the book with a Frans De Waal quote: ‘What kind of animals are we?’ That’s exactly what kept running through my mind throughout—that and What have we done to these intelligent, compassionate, extraordinary beings? Westoll then opens the book’s first chapter with Vaclav Havel’s statement: ‘I am not interested in why man commits evil. I want to know why he does good.’ That perhaps best sums up the sentiments of the book—yes, it explores the awful, but it also explores the hope.

Grow is perhaps the Jane Goodall of suburbia. She has taken the romantic ideal of running away to save chimps and made it a locally doable reality. Admittedly, it’s also an inadvertent kind of there’s-no-excuse-not-to-help call to action.

The sanctuary Grow has created is a cleverly built, complex, multi-purpose space, with sections designated for certain chimps, or simply areas that open up or can be closed off in order to facilitate necessary cleaning, separation for safety or annual fumigation.

Westoll included a diagram of the facility at the beginning of the book (kind of like the non-fiction version of the way spec fic books include maps of the vast and vastly confusing lands that will be battled over by various creatures on the following pages). It helped me no end to have some sense of something so foreign to me.

What shocked me most about the book—and what perhaps best demonstrates my utter lack of understanding and naivety—is that despite having been rescued and retired, the chimps remain severely psychologically damaged. They aren’t rehabilitated and happy, eking out their remaining days in mellow peace. It’s not surprising, really, but for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me.

In truth, there was so much that shocked and horrified me. Say, for example, how the chimps had been ‘knocked down’ in their lives—a term that refers to shooting them with dart guns with sedatives and anaesthetics in order to then conduct invasive experiments on them.

They’d often awake with concussions from their heads having hit the floor so hard on the way down. They injured themselves and nearly died thrashing about violently during disoriented wake-ups afterwards. And they weren’t given pain medication to alleviate the agonising after-effects of the surgeries and testing—pain meds would interfere with the science.

They often had nothing their cages except for a tyre. Imagining them trying to hide behind and cling to that while avoiding being knocked down strangely almost destroyed me more than anything at all.

Likewise the fact that some of the chimps are HIV positive, which adds a whole manner of complexity and (to me, anyway), sadness. Before HIV and its related panic arrived on the scene, some of these chimps had been deemed beyond their use-by date and destined for euthanasia. In some ways HIV and its subsequent drug testing saved these chimps. Ironic, huh?

Even more ironic is that for all their suffering and all the expense to the drug companies and the public, the various drug testing hasn’t really yielded any viable, usable results. Putting my bleeding heart and moral outrage aside, there’s not really anything life-changing or life-saving to justify the past decades of testing and cruelty.

But I’m getting too heavy.

The book contains some moments that were, if not outright funny, that warranted a wry smile. Say, for example, how two chimps tag-teamed to thwart efforts to get them to do what the handlers wanted. One would step outside to receive the treats on offer to coax them outside so they could shut off an area. Then they’d duck inside and the other would take their place. Ergo, neither the handlers could never get the two of them outside at once in order to close the door.

Sorry, but I’m going to get heavy again because I can’t not blog about the moment that most moved me most of all.

I was nearing the end of the book. I’d just that day recommended it to yet another friend, imploring them to read it and promising earnestly that it’s not nearly as sad and heart-wrenching as I’d expected it to be. Then, when I was on a peak-hour train so packed there were more heads in armpits than sardines in a can, I struck upon a chapter towards the end that absolutely floored me. I damn near lost the plot then and there.

I’m not going tell you what happened in the chapter both because I don’t want to ruin the (for want of a better word) surprise and because I couldn’t possibly do it justice—the chapter’s not just profoundly sad, it’s actually heart-warming and strangely hopeful. That’s the way it felt to me in my highly emotional state, anyway.

Suffice to say, I tried further burying my head in the book to cover my saltwater-weeping eyes—reading on, I figured, would see me quickly get past the sad part. It didn’t work. I tried not reading and studiously staring out the window instead. That didn’t work either, with my thoughts running rampant about what was possibly to still to come in said chapter.

Throughout all of this I had to hold me breath because I knew any inhalation was going to be one of those juddering, sob-wracked giveaways. Suffice to say my station couldn’t come soon enough.

The book includes many brilliant quotes, not least:

‘Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and the answer is: “Because the animals are like us.” Ask the experiments why it is morally OK to experiment on animals, and the answer is: “Because the animals are not like us.” Animal experimentation rests on logical contradiction.’ (Charles R. Magel)

‘By the time I turned fifty, I knew I wanted to be judged not by what I wrote in scientific journals about chimpanzees, but by what I did for them.’ (Roger Fouts, Next of Kin)

‘What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.’ (Albert Pine)

Those are what I’m considering the book’s ‘takeaways’.

There is, thankfully, a four-step list at the end of the book aptly entitled How You Can Help The Chimps—a positive outlet for the frustration and I-need-to-do-something passion it invokes. There’s also a list of further reading, which I’ll be tackling shortly. Westoll’s book has haunted me, in the best, most compelling way possible—for all its heaviness but not too-much heaviness, I can’t recommend reading his book highly enough.