I’m tired of just being a man

How I learned about my own animality (and "humanzees," Stalin and scary creationists) by living with a chimp

Topics: Environment, Noble Beasts, Evolution, Science

Four thirty a.m. Something is up with Roger. Something I don’t remember hearing described as one of his neurotic tics, and that he has certainly never done with me before.

He is sitting in the middle of his room, slowly lifting cupped handfuls of air from the right side of him and then putting them down on his left, one by one, in very caring and deliberate measures, like a child in a sandbox. Every so often one or two handfuls will go up over his left shoulder, as though they contain something offensive in his mind or at least are not worthy of conserving, and then he resumes the careful side-piling again.

Whatever this may be about, I’ve no intention of interrupting it. He seems to be in such a deep trance, reliving and reveling in one of his fondest memories, for all I know, playing in the yard, perhaps, as a baby chimp with his life’s one chimpanzee friend, Sally.

Maddening, at times, the proximity of so much unspoken meaning and motive. But I have learned to just take it. To remain in uncertainty and incomprehension without impatiently reaching for and imposing on Roger any motives or meanings of my own.

Of all the retired chimpanzee and orangutan entertainers who reside here at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida, Roger is the only one who lives alone. A former cellist in an all-chimp orchestra at Ringling Bros., raised all his life around people, he still prefers our company to that of his fellow chimps and my company in particular. My company a priori. From the moment I met Roger last week he seemed utterly convinced we already knew each other, actually stood and applauded. Excited but not overly fawning applause. Three loud, slow claps of his long leathery hands. As though he’d somehow been expecting me all along. As though to say, “Oh, you, finally. Where have you been?”

Mostly, though, I was struck by his stare, his deep-set hazel eyes peering out at me with what, to my deep discomfort, I soon realized to be unchanging expression. It is a beguiling mix of amazement and terror, the look, as I’ve often thought of it since, of a being stranded somewhere between his former self and the one we humans have long been suggesting to him. A sort of hybrid of a chimp and a person. A veritable “humanzee.”



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I knew right then, I suppose, that I would be staying here for a while longer. That there were a number of things Roger and I needed to get to the bottom of. It isn’t often, after all, that a chimp reminds you of a journey you’d forgotten you were even on. It’s as though in Roger I’ve found my primatological doppelganger and pre-assigned escort back into my own animality; back past the usual entrapments of the human brain’s added spindle cells: things such as linear logic, reason, direct causality. And once beyond those, one is literally in no-man’s-land.

Roger, strangely enough, was not the chimp I was looking for. I had originally intended to meet up with another chimp when I first set out two weeks ago. I hopped in my car in Brooklyn, New York, and drove for three days straight to Zoo Nebraska, a remote, roadside attraction in the tiny town of Royal, Nebraska, population 75, in hopes of finding a chimpanzee there named Ripley. One of four residents of The Carson Center for Chimps (as in Johnny Carson, the late great king of Late Night) Ripley and three fellow retired chimp entertainers had recently escaped their enclosure at the Carson Center. Ripley even made a brief visit into downtown Royal. He reportedly tried to get into the town’s one gas station, climbed up a cottonwood tree in a nearby yard, took one long look at the surrounding blankness and then promptly returned to the zoo. Local sheriffs were on the scene by then and all the escapees were eventually shot dead except for Ripley, who’d managed to dash back to his enclosure just in time.

The Carson Center, I soon learned upon my arrival to Zoo Nebraska, was now permanently closed down. Ripley, I was told, had been dispatched to some other facility just outside of Kansas City and would not be receiving visitors. I remember upon leaving Zoo Nebraska that afternoon, feeling as I imagine Ripley must have the day he broke free, perched high atop that cottonwood tree, with no other refuge to return to but his former entrapment. I had, in effect, gone thousands of miles out of my way to arrive at the physical epicenter of a metaphysical malaise, the latter somehow only beginning to come into focus upon achieving the former.

I promptly recrossed the wide-rolling swells of Highway 20, and checked back into the same Sioux City motel that I’d stayed at the night before. Up in my room, I poured myself some whiskey and started to think hard about what I was doing and what I might want to do next. But it wasn’t long before the realization that I had little idea of either began to fill me with a nearly transcendent thrill. The very pointlessness of my predicament had now become the point, an achievement in and of itself, the completion of the early stage of some larger plan that I wouldn’t even begin to recognize until the moment last week when Roger clapped his hands and reminded me, in a sense, of just how tired I had, in fact, become of being only a man.

I phoned my wife, Bex, back in Brooklyn to tell her that Ripley was no longer at Zoo Nebraska.

She told me to come home.

I said I wasn’t sure, that I had to think about it, that I’d come an awfully long way to just turn around and start back now. Then I hung up and remembered how hungry I was.

Not wanting to venture far for dinner, I ended up walking over to the same barbecue joint where I’d eaten the night before. I took a seat at the bar, ordered a drink and some dinner, pulled out my copy of “Growing Up Human,” and opened furtively to the page I’d left off at the night before: Dr. Temerlin, in a chapter titled “On Incest and Oedipus” explaining that while he never experienced sexual desire for Lucy, the female chimpanzee that he and his wife had raised from infancy as their own “human” child, he did frequently let Lucy mouth his penis. He also admits to having fantasies of Lucy making sexual advances toward him, and of his artificially impregnating her with his semen.

Such “fantasies,” it turns out, are hardly original to Dr. Temerlin. Recent comparisons of the newly completed chimp and human genomes done by a team of scientists at Harvard indicate that there must have been cross-species commingling between the earliest ancestors of the modern chimp and human lineages, probably saving the human race from early extinction due to sterility in the first protohuman males.

We humans, in other words, are not merely 99 percent the same as chimps. We may well owe our very existence to primeval intercourse with them, something we’ve been reenacting, in both mythology and reality, ever since. The Dionysian chimp-human satyrs of ancient lore are, it seems, not so much a willful conceit as a deep cellular memory. Actual sex with apes, meanwhile, while not generally a matter of public record, has gone on for ages, from palm oil plantation workers currently raping orangutans in the jungles of Borneo and Malaysia, to long-ago and elaborately staged acts of public bestiality featured in Roman games and circuses, “events” involving a range of creatures from leopards and wild boars to jackasses, dogs, and finally apes. Typically mandrills or baboons, they would be made drunk with wine and then loosed upon groups of young girls, most often virgins, whose genitals had been soaked with the female urine of either a mandrill or a baboon.

As for the possibility of a human impregnating a chimpanzee (or vice versa) and producing a viable offspring, the chances are greatly complicated by the discrepancy in the number of chromosomes between the two species, chimps possessing 24 pairs and humans 23. Still, a chimp-human hybrid, though likely to be sterile, is biologically feasible, and there has been all manner of speculation and lurid lore over the ages about the existence of actual “humanzees” or “chumans” or “manpanzees.”

While evidence of humanzees has been scant, there is no longer much doubt about real attempts to create one, and in some cases in rather spectacular fashion. Secret documents recently uncovered in state archives after the fall of the Soviet Union have revealed that in the mid-1920s Joseph Stalin enlisted Russia’s top animal-breeding scientist, Ilya Ivanov, the father of artificial insemination, to conduct a series of “interspecies hybridization experiments” with the intention of creating what Stalin envisioned as an invincible “Planet of the Apes”-like army of humanzees with superhuman strength and stamina.

Put in the form of an official request from the Politburo to the Academy of Science in 1926, the plan was to create both a “living war machine” to bolster the then beleaguered Red Army, and a new labor force for the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan to build a modern industrialized and egalitarian society.

“I want a new invincible human being,” Stalin is quoted in Russian newspapers as having instructed Ivanov, “insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.”

Ivanov arranged an expedition to the western African nation of Guinea in March 1926 to conduct his experiments. Despite repeated failures at impregnating chimpanzees with human sperm, Ivanov was reportedly convinced that he’d have no trouble enlisting local women to be inseminated with chimp sperm, but could find no one willing to participate.

Upon his return to the Soviet Union, Ivanov continued his hybridization experiments at a newly established primate station in Sukhumi, Georgia. He had intended to impregnate five human volunteers there, but the only mature male chimp at Sukhumi died before the plan could be carried out. In the course of waiting for new chimp recruits, Ivanov and a number of fellow scientists involved in the experiments fell victim to a political shakeup in Moscow. Ivanov eventually lost his position and in 1930 was sentenced to five years of exile in Kazakhstan, where he died of a stroke in 1932.

“Good book?”

I looked up from my Sioux City barstool at a man who appeared to be in his early forties, dressed in a snap-buttoned denim shirt, blue jeans, and cowboy boots, a carefully etched goatee framing his pursed lips and square jaw. Thankfully, my copy of “Growing Up Human” had no jacket, had been shipped to me without one, so all that my curious companion could see was the book’s blank, bright red cover.

“Yes,” I said.

I’ve often found in instances like these that where just a bit of diffidence on my part would likely disabuse anyone of the assumption that I want to converse, some admixture of my own vanity and reportorial curiosity always compels me to further engage the very person I’d rather flee.

I spared this guy, of course, the details of Dr. Temerlin’s doings in “Growing Up Human.” But I did use the book’s general subject matter to go on at some length about my own pursuits, my attempt to find Ripley, and about the number of captive chimpanzees in the United States, all the while replaying in my mind an eerily similar encounter I’d recently had near the very end of my travels in Uganda to write about elephants.

I had just returned to my lodge in western Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park after a day of elephant tracking. I got cleaned up in my room and was on the way to the bar to get a beer when I passed a small meeting area off the lodge veranda behind a pair of nearly drawn curtains. There were rows of folding chairs inside set before a large TV that had been rigged up to show World Cup soccer matches in which a number of African teams were still competing at the time. Not certain at first if this was somebody’s private affair, I took a closer look and, seeing no one inside, I went and got my beer, came back, and slipped into the last row of seats.

I can’t recall now what teams were playing, only that after ten minutes or so, a few more people wandered in, and then in one big rush, a contingent of what, judging from their appearance, accents, and conversation, I guessed to be a group of Midwestern American college kids on some sort of a field biology junket. I was intent on keeping to myself, but it wasn’t long before one of them was turning in my direction in that same upbeat, forthright manner as my Sioux City barmate.

“Here on safari?” he asked.

My vanity, in this instance, compelled me to distinguish myself from the ranks of mere safari tourists, and it wasn’t long before I was mentioning, in as offhanded a manner as I could muster, the story I was researching about “psychotic elephants,” I think I called them, just to spice things up a bit.

In no time, the entire group was turned my way, questions flying. With the help of a few more beers, I was soon going on and on, the story of how we humans are systematically destroying elephant culture, inevitably leading me to talk of the similar plight of chimpanzees, and then to broader musings about, among other things, our deep biological bonds with all creatures. I even managed to segue into a recent story I’d written about the newly emergent science of “animal personality,” in which researchers from a broad array of disciplines are now detecting all the different aspects of our individual personalities, things such as sociability or shyness, aggressiveness or timorousness, in creatures from primates to the merest paramecium.

At one point — I think via a discussion of the elephant brain versus our own — a number of my new companions started talking about the human body’s different organs and what complex biological entities each one of those is. Nodding his head vigorously, the kid who’d first introduced himself to me then began telling the story of how he had recently donated the right lobe of his liver to his younger brother, who was dying of a rare form of liver disease, an increasingly common transplant procedure now in which, the liver being the only part of our body that can regenerate itself, both the donor and the recipient develop full livers again in as few as three to four months after the surgery.

“The surgeon who did the operation,” the kid said, sitting forward in his seat, his eyes widening, “told me something amazing. He said that organs are so sensitive that if he were to even touch someone’s stomach during an operation, the stomach would feel the impact of that for more than a year afterward.”

A sort of reverent silence seized the room, and although I’d never heard anything quite like that before, I was soon launching into my own reverie about the vast amount of time it took for evolution to even concoct something like our stomach, and how removed we humans tend to be from such primordial particulars of our own biology.

From the fact that every part of us is, in the end, the compendium of billions of years of biological borrowings: our hearts, for example, which evolution, like some workshop-bound artificer, fashioned from countless prior cardiac templates and other long-ago patented parts, right down to using for our heart muscle’s prodigious pumping power the same molecular motor that keeps a fly’s wings beating more than 150 times a second.

Or the fact that the different microorganisms that look and function like miniature bodily organs within each one of our body’s cells (and everyone sitting there around me that evening knew their names, the “mitochondria,” the “ribosomes,” and so on; the very organisms that power our cells and govern all of the functions that allow our lives to happen) are themselves each direct descendants of the very first bacterial life-forms that, for billions of years on Earth, were the only life on this planet.

“We, in other words,” I declaimed at one point, “carry within each of our body’s cells the definitive fossil evidence, or ‘living fossils’ of our and all life’s descent from Earth’s very first bacteria, the very evidence that some are still claiming the ‘theory’ of evolution lacks.”

On and on I went, piling up air just like Roger here: how we self-important humans with our illusion-inducing extra neuronal threads are ultimately mere motes on the eyelash of the body of all those billions of years of biology that both preceded and prefigured us; and how if we as a species (and here I was really going for broke, as though looking to recruit my young science-minded cronies for some sort of new crusade on behalf of science’s inherent mystique and spirituality) could only learn to redirect our collective heavenward gazes downward and inward, we would, paradoxically, find consoling intimations of the infinite and the eternal in the very minutiae of our own and of all life’s makeup.

It was, I suppose, the sound of my own voice that at last arrested this rant. I briefly noticed my own hands still gesticulating against the silence, and then looked up to find myself more or less pinned in place by an array of shrouded, dead-eyed stares, like a bunch of just-touched turtle heads that had all withdrawn into their carapaces.

The entire group then stood and, one by one, quietly filed out of the room, a last voice calling out from between the wafting curtains something that sounded to me like “Six days, dude … He did it all in six days,” words I didn’t fully make sense of until I’d gone around the corner for some dinner on the veranda a short while later and saw from my table the entire group, standing fully clad in the nearby lodge swimming pool, performing baptisms and singing praises to the Lord.

I had taken care in front of my Sioux City bar mate that night not to tip my hand so readily, restricting myself to generic chimp and roadside zoo stories and to the book I was hoping to write.

“I heard about those Zoo Nebraska chimps,” he interrupted. “I got a place along Highway 20 between here and Royal. Tell you what. If any of those chimps had made it as far as my land I’d have shot them straightaway, no hesitation. Wild animals. Powerful. People forget that.”

I nodded.

“Know what’s funny,” he went on. “That people believe we could have descended from them.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, somewhat incredulous now that I’d stepped into the same lair twice in such a short period of time.

I was soon getting the usual spiel about all the flaws in the theory of evolution, the arrogance of its proponents, the “gaps” in the fossil evidence, and so on.

And then things got really scary: detailed reenactments of scenes from a documentary he’d seen, scenes so ludicrous-sounding that upon returning to my motel room that evening — I would quickly finish my drink at the bar and repair to a table to have dinner in peace — I went to my computer, typed in something along the lines of “evangelicals on apes,” and there it was, former childhood star Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort’s The Way of the Master Web site.

“The Evolution Zone,” one among a number of The Way of the Master films listed, opens with a wide-eyed, baby-faced Cameron doing a particularly lousy imitation of Rod Serling from “The Twilight Zone,” introducing us in this instance to bizarre delusions and distortions of Darwin’s theory, followed soon thereafter by the scenes of Cameron and Comfort sitting at a restaurant table on either side of Bam Bam, the sweet-faced orangutan who lives here now at the Center for Great Apes, just a few enclosures down from Roger’s place. As Bam Bam begins throwing his salad around and chewing on the table cloth, Cameron and Comfort sit smugly by, talking about this definitive evidence that we couldn’t possibly have descended from apes.

As often as I’ve asked myself who or what exactly we have made of creatures such as Bam Bam, or Roger, I’ve also wondered who or what exactly those who believe that God literally made Roger and us in only a matter of days think a chimpanzee is: an intelligently designed near-intelligence; an artful almost-us; an animate allegory, perhaps, like the chimp-satyrs of ancient mythology.

I have, during this past week, never lied to Roger, about myself or him, in either word or deed. I have even remarked — if only to myself — that my sitting with him like this each day is in many ways no different from an old ape-house zoo visit. Or, for that matter, the somewhat desperate last dash I would make some months ago through Uganda’s Kibale rain forest in hopes of having that one encounter with his own species that chimps such as Roger have never had.

It is all, in the end, a form of spying, part of an ongoing attempt on our part to catch in the eyes of the sentient non-us glimpses of who or what we seem to remember ourselves once being.

Charles Siebert, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, is the author of the novel "Angus," and two previous memoirs, "Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral," a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and "A Man After His Own Heart."

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