rescued lives

This is a brief post, as I am still recovering from the horrible virus I caught while travelling. Just wanted to tell you about a book I’ve reviewed recently, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, by Andrew Westoll.

The author is a Toronto biologist and primatologist, who spent some time on a small farm near Quebec, where 13 chimpanzees live protected lives in a sanctuary surrounded by over 100 other animals who have been rescued from abusive circumstances. These chimps were taken from their mothers, usually at birth, and forced to perform in circuses, or imprisoned in cages in laboratories, and subjected to repeated invasive surgery and tests, often infected with viruses such as HIV and hepatitis, in the name of science.They are traumatised, physically and psychologically, and will never be able to live in the wild.

But at Fauna Sanctuary, they are loved and nurtured, and given as much private and shared space as possible, looked after by a team of carers and volunteers, under the direction of Gloria Grow, who started the sanctuary over ten years ago.Through Andrew’s eyes, we get to know each of them, their quirks, their bad habits, their loveable traits: Tom, the wise and loving elder who can cram 5 apples into his mouth at once; Jethro, the peace-loving leader of the young gang known as the Hoodlums; Sue Ellen, who has a thing about tall bearded men, and loves to deck herself in baubles and bangles — and more.

We are not spared any sad or gruesome details, as there is nothing romantic about looking after a mob of wild creatures in confinement, that have been damaged mentally and physically by human cruelty.

Reading this book, I was reminded of my days as a mental health nurse. A few days into the job, in an acute admissions ward, I was told to special a woman who was psychotic. I sat with her in her single room, as she lay on her bed, her eyes swivelling from one side of the bed to the other. She muttered phrases that I interpreted as a conversation with God and the devil. I was at a loss for what to say or do, as I watched her toss around, becoming more agitated. After a while, I said: ‘Sue, you know these voices you’re hearing aren’t real …’. She looked at me contemptuously, and said: ‘what the f..k do you know?’

I sat for a few minutes, speechless. Then I said: ‘You’re right. I’m sorry, I don’t know. Tell me what they’re saying to you …’
So for the next hour or so, she told me what they were saying, how they were tearing her apart, and how desperate she felt.

She taught me that her reality was as real as mine. I cared for so many people, in those years, whose lives were lost and broken, at a time in my life when I was struggling too. I felt I was able to help them because I understood something of what it felt like to be in their shoes. I used to think it was such a fine line between me and them, and there but for the grace of god ….

So it is with the chimps, and other animals that have been exploited and abused to meet human needs and greeds. They are our cousins, and share our world, but through no fault of their own, their freedom and health have been damaged and lost. Reading about their plight is moving, but also inspiring, to hear how people like Gloria Grow and her staff are working to help them recover in peace and comfort for as long as they live. Andrew Westoll takes us into that world, in the best tradition of biography.

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Filed under andrew westoll, fauna sanctuary, gloria grow, life writing, mental health, rescued chimps, trauma recovery

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