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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chimpanzees and Us

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with primatologist Jane Goodall and author Dale Peterson about their recent book Visions of Caliban, on the treatment and behavior of chimpanzees in captivity and the wild.


CURWOOD: Chimpanzees and humans share more than 99 percent of their genes, and more than 99 percent of their emotions, including family bonds, humor, and an affinity for culture. For instance, chimps not only make tools and use plants for medicine, each regional tribe is likely to have its own distinct pharmacopia and characteristic way of using tools. How we as humans relate - and don't relate - to our closest relatives is the subject of an absorbing new book called Visions of Caliban. It's written by author and primate researcher Dale Peterson, and world-famous chimpanzee scientist Jane Goodall. I asked Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall what they've found in their years of work to be the most startling similarities between humans and chimps.

GOODALL: The most striking similarities are in social behavior, the long-term bonds between mothers and youngsters, the cooperation, and also in the emotions and intellectual abilities. In all those ways they're incredibly similar to us.

CURWOOD: Dale Peterson?

PETERSON: To me the most striking and surprising thing, something I never even imagined, is that chimps laugh. Just like humans. And it's unbelievable. No other animal, with the possible exception of the other great apes - gorillas, orangutans, and bonnevilles - laugh.

GOODALL: Very often they laugh ( demonstrates) ahahahahhahahhhahahahh.

CURWOOD: ( Laughs )

PETERSON: Jane's doing a wonderful job of imitating it, but what you may not get in the sound of this is it's absolutely similar to human laughter. They have the same expression, they do the same kinds of things - they don't quite vocalize in quite the same way, but it's absolutely laughter.

CURWOOD: And the big difference?

GOODALL: Well, for me the big difference is that chimpanzees haven't developed a spoken language, and because of that they're unable to discuss the past, they're unable to make plans for the distant future, they're unable to sort of bounce ideas back and forth the way that we do.

CURWOOD: So they may have abstract reasoning abilities but they can't communicate.

GOODALL: Yeah, we, we know they have abstract reasoning capabilities because of a lot of the work that's being done in captivity, the fact that chimpanzees can learn 300 or more signs of ASL, that's the American Sign Language, and so these higher cognitive abilities have been very, very well demonstrated.

CURWOOD: Your book is about conservation of chimps in the wild and the ethical treatment of chimps in captivity. Why did you pick this title, Visions of Caliban ?

PETERSON: Caliban is a character in a Shakespearean play called The Tempest . The play is about the, partially about Europeans coming to a tropical island and discovering one original inhabitant, that's Caliban. And they treat Caliban very poorly, in fact, they treat him like an animal even though he can talk and even though he looks like a human and in many ways acts like a human. And as I examined this play, I began to realize that this is very much the story about chimps and humans. And it's my opinion, in fact I consider this a discovery, that the earliest reports of chimpanzees and gorillas coming out of Africa into Europe, inspired Shakespeare's creation of this character. And so Jane and I have used the play, the picture of the play, as a template for the book.

CURWOOD: I want to ask you, Jane Goodall, where do chimps live nowadays?

GOODALL: Well, in Africa they live still in 21 countries, although they've gone from four, and they're disappearing frighteningly fast. There's only 4 places where there's a real significant number of chimps, and that's Congo, Zaire, Cameroon and Gabon, and even there the lumber companies are penetrating deeper and deeper into the forests, opening them up for settlement and hunting. Chimps are being hunted, as well as their habitat being destroyed, in response to increasing human population pressure. And so the situation in Africa for the chimps in most countries is really very grim.

CURWOOD: What should be done about chimpanzees in Africa, their home?

GOODALL: By and large what we should be trying to do with the African governments is to set aside sufficient areas of forest that at least some communities can live out their lives in peace and free from the fear of losing their habitat and being hunted. That can only be accomplished in different ways in different countries. One of the things that we're working very hard on is trying to convince governments and the local people living in these areas that by saving the chimpanzees they get some kind of benefit from it, because, as I say, they are so economically poor, it's just very hard for people to understand until they've been there, what this poverty is like for so much of Africa. So we have to develop things like controlled tourism, bring in some foreign exchange, so that there appears to be a point in saving the chimps.

CURWOOD: What are lives like for chimpanzees in captivity?

PETERSON: Well, of course it depends on the situation. I think probably the worst life, as people say, is in labs. You get total deprivation. Among other things you get a complete breakup of the family, so in many ways it's like breaking up a human family, and just kind of aesthetically, you know, they're in this steel place with all of these artificial noises rather than in the beautiful forest.

CURWOOD: What about chimps who are used otherwise in captivity - on the stage, in shows, in movies?

PETERSON: Chimpanzees that you see in the movies tend to be child actors. Chimps are so physically strong that by the time they're about 5 or 6 or 7 years old they're dangerous. By the time they've graduated from being a child, they're put in a cage and left there. In order to get chimps to do some of these behaviors, sometimes various things go on behind the scenes. For example, some chimps are fitted with remote control electric shock devices.

GOODALL: Yeah, like a shock collar on a dog.

PETERSON: Yeah, and I don't think either Jane and I are going to say that abuse, if this is abuse, happens in all cases, with chimps in entertainment, but it happens a lot.

GOODALL: Happens a lot.

CURWOOD: So what sort of special considerations are you seeking for chimps in captivity? Are there laws, do you think we should change the rules about who can keep chimps and how they should be kept?

GOODALL: Yeah, I think that it should be absolutely not legal for private individuals to buy and sell chimpanzees. It's rather like the days of the slave trade where humans were actually bought and sold, and families broken up. Now we do the same to chimpanzees and I believe the day will come when we realize that they share sufficient human attributes that we should treat them in a very different way from that that exists today.

CURWOOD: So where does this leave us regarding the treatment of other animals who aren't as smart as chimps or gorillas or people?

GOODALL: Well, see, for me the chimpanzee always acts like a kind of bridge. Once you realize that we humans aren't as different from the rest of the animal kingdom as we used to think, and it's the chimp that really demonstrates this best, then you reach a new awareness, a new understanding, a new respect for the other amazing non-human beings and once you accept that not only humans have emotions, then you can pay more attention to the emotions, to the feelings of other sentient beings.

CURWOOD: Thank you. Jane Goodall and Dale Peterson are authors of Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People. Thanks for joining us.

GOODALL /PETERSON: Thanks - thank you.



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