Review of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary
Andrew Westoll’s latest book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, explores the fraught relationship between two great apes, humans and chimpanzees. This exploration occurs in the context of Westoll’s personal account of the time he spent at Fauna Sanctuary, a refuge for chimpanzees who had previously been used in research, in the entertainment industry, or had otherwise been raised and then rejected by humans. Against this backdrop, Westoll, a primatologist by training and currently a writer at UTSC, examines the range of human perspective of chimpanzees, from those who view chimps as useful laboratory animals, to those who view them as sentient sister-species deserving of the same consideration we afford our own species.
This said, as the title of the book implies, most of Westoll’s account is given over to the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary themselves. This is the great strength of the book. Each chimp has its own back story, its own personality, its own very personal journey from a horrific life to one of attempted rehabilitation. Throughout, Westoll never shies away from some of the more unsavoury aspects of the human-chimpanzee relationship. He compels the readers to test their own perspectives of the relationship—where we place ourselves in the panoply of beings on Earth, particularly in relation to the species to which we are most closely related. In examining how the chimps fare in their personal transition from a life of subjugation to life “as a chimp” at the sanctuary, Westoll accomplishes the feat of balancing the value of being human with the value of being chimp. In doing so, he forces the reader to address the moral issues surrounding the treatment of not only chimpanzees, but other non-human species as well. Westoll accomplishes this without proselytising, but rather by using the skills of a great storyteller.
Great stories will often make you care deeply about the protagonist’s well-being for the duration of the story and sometimes will create a lingering apprehension about their future once the story has come to an end. Westoll has succeeded in telling such a great story. Had he done so with a protagonist that is human, it would have marked him as a writer to be reckoned with—that he has done so with a cast of chimpanzee protagonists is remarkable.