Only the most intransigent heart will be unmoved by Andrew Westoll’s account of his time spent volunteering at Quebec’s Fauna Sanctuary, a refuge for chimpanzees that have been “retired” from biomedical research. In Westoll’s hands, Fauna’s 13 chimps – each ravaged by years, sometimes decades, of staggeringly cruel experimentation – are drawn as vividly as characters from the best literature, leaving us with no doubt about their profound sentience.
At the core of Fauna is its crackerjack founder, Gloria Grow, who originally intended the sprawling farmland she and her veterinarian husband bought in 1990 to be a temporary refuge for dogs rescued from Quebec’s notorious puppy mills. The decision to convert the facility into a chimpanzee sanctuary was Grow’s unusual response to a midlife crisis that prompted her to do something substantial in the name of animal welfare.
Westoll describes Fauna’s “chimphouse,” with its labyrinthine walkways, privacy rooms, and sliding metal doors, as “one part Alcatraz, one part Rube Goldberg.” This is a world of boundaries, rules, and rituals, in which even minor violations of protocol can have major, sometimes deadly, consequences for both chimps and humans.
The most difficult passages of the book deal with what the chimps endured as experimental subjects. Most were removed from their mothers at birth, injected with deadly diseases such as HIV, repeatedly operated on, and frequently driven mad through isolation from their social group. At Fauna, there are still dramas: escaped chimps, vicious fights, illnesses, and deaths. There is also poignancy in the way the chimps reach out to their human caregivers. Astonishing stories abound, such as that of a group of escapee chimps trying to mop the floors and wash the dishes as they had observed their human counterparts doing.
The U.S., where most of Fauna’s rescued chimps originated, is the last country to allow biomedical research on chimps. Westoll urges his American readers to lobby for passage of the Great Ape Protection Act, which would ban the practice. Appealing to our hearts and minds in equal measure, Westoll builds his case so convincingly it’s hard not to see the potential failure of the bill as a failure of humanity.