Excerpt from Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Bonobo Handshake

A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo

by Vanessa Woods

Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods
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  • First Published:
    May 2010, 278 pages
    Jun 2011, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Print Excerpt

The most powerful person at a biomedical center is not the director—it is the head vet. The head vet makes the rules about research, animal health, and animal management. Dr. Death was so obsessed with the physical health of her animals that she made their environment as sterile as possible. One of the keepers wanted to put honey between the pages of a phone book to give to the chimps as enrichment. No, said Dr. Death, honey can carry botulism. Rope in the cages for them to play with? No, they might strangle themselves.

Dr. Death was hated by anyone who cared about the chimps. Keepers used to fantasize about keeping her in a crush cage and feeding her monkey chow for a month.

With a purse of her thin lips, she blocked Brian's FS3 transfer. There was a biomedical lab in Louisiana that wanted Yerkes's excess chimps. FS3 would go there.

Brian was devastated. He wrote to the board at Emory, pleading for the decision to be overturned. But Dr. Death was too powerful. FS3 went to Louisiana.

The final straw for Brian was Abby. Several years after he left Yerkes, he met a malaria researcher at a conference who said she had tested some of the chimps in FS3. It turned out she had ordered Abby's spleen to be removed.

"Did you ever meet Abby?" asked Brian, desperate for news. "She's amazing. Really sweet. And super smart."

"No," said the researcher. "I never met any of the chimps."

Brian paused in his story as the sunlight winked on the Nile like a thousand golden eyes.

"I know how many people malaria kills. I think research should be done to stop it and that if necessary, research should be done on chimps to find a cure. But there is no reason for the chimps to live in concrete cages their whole lives. No reason they can't have ropes and toys and honey in phone books. And in 1997, only three hundred chimps out of the fifteen hundred in biomedical centers were being used in any kind of research. The rest were just sitting there, digging out their eyeballs in boredom and throwing shit.

"I put five years into Yerkes, telling myself it was okay. But it wasn't. And people like me, who study behavior, we tell ourselves that there's nowhere else we can do the research. We can't study them in the wild—we need to interact with them to figure out how they think. We need controlled conditions like a lab so we can be sure of the results. Apart from Leipzig, zoos aren't usually set up for research. And even if they are, most of them don't have a large enough sample to run the most powerful statistics.

"But paying biomedical labs to use their chimps means we are supporting how they operate and the conditions those chimps live in."

He pushed his hair back from his forehead and his eyes were all the colors of a shattered glacier.

"And there is somewhere else we can go. My Harvard adviser, Richard Wrangham, has a wild chimpanzee field site up-country, in Kibale. He told me about Ngamba. We can work at sanctuaries. There are over a thousand chimps in sanctuaries all over Africa. They have night buildings we can run our experiments in. There are heaps of subjects, of all different ages. After we work with them for a couple of hours, they go out to a huge forest. They live like chimps, not rats in a cage."

He broke off and leaned in conspiratorially.

"I just applied for a million bucks from the Germans. If I get it, I'm going to make three sanctuaries, world-class research facilities. I'm going to build buildings better than any biomedical lab, where people can do the best studies ever. This is where we belong, in Africa, giving back more than we take away."

He was so passionate, so hungry, that I forgot everything. I stopped calculating how I could lose less than he would. How I could come out of this less broken, more intact. He had an intense frown creasing his forehead, and those glacier eyes were full of purpose. His dream lay between us, spilled and uncorrupted.

Excerpted from Bonobo Handshakeby Vanessa Woods. Copyright © 2010 by Vanessa Woods. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

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