Sunday, July 24, 2005

PLANET OF HUMANS

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Dr. Zira, chief Humanologist at the Human Containment Facility
By Elaine Meinel Supkis

The New York Times Magazine has this long, charming article about the "retirement home" for the chimpanzees we have used for entertainment or medical or psychological experiments. Here is a photo of the typical facility we put these near relatives of ours into when they were often only three years old, still children. From the NYT:
This past spring, in a secluded patch of forest in northwest Louisiana's Caddo Parish, a singularly bizarre bit of evolution unfolded. There, amid the sun-dappled pines and flitting birds, a pair of 40-something chimpanzees named Rita and Teresa -- lifetime research subjects who were originally taken from Africa for use in NASA's space program -- became American pioneers of a whole other sort: the first beneficiaries of an inspired piece of retirement legislation passed by the United States government. Under the watchful eyes of animal behaviorists, veterinarians, enrichment specialists and daily caretakers, Rita and Teresa checked in on the afternoon of April 4 at the recently opened Chimp Haven, the first federally financed, taxpayer-supported retirement home for chimpanzees.
I remember the controversy! We rewarded the chimpanzees who were supposedly our astronaut heroes by turning them over to a nasty prison to be experimented on. Here is a picture of where they lived while we committed crimes against chimpanzinty: f
The narrow two-lane road to Chimp Haven winds through a sparsely populated stretch of forest, punctuated here and there by trailer parks and roadside farms, a few new housing developments and, just up the road from the entrance to the Eddie D. Jones Nature Park, the paint-chipped hull of the Macedonia Baptist Church. Chimp Haven's 200 acres are situated within the grounds of the park, which assures the chimps a relatively good buffer from human encroachment. The only other tenants are a cemetery for war veterans and the Forcht Wade Correctional Center, a state prison with its own new geriatric facility for aging lifers.

A prison work crew was scything a field in the park not far from Chimp Haven's entrance gate the afternoon I arrived. One prisoner pulled back from his work as I drove up and he locked eyes with mine, a searing, deeply unsettling stare that suddenly had me wondering if there wasn't something to the rumors I'd heard that the inmates weren't pleased about their new neighbors. I'd ask Forcht Wade's assistant warden, Anthony D. Batson, about this later that afternoon, making an impromptu visit to the correctional facility after leaving Chimp Haven. Batson came to the front desk and showed me to his office, a veritable museum to the Tigers, Louisiana State University's beloved football team. He told me the prisoners were certainly aware of Chimp Haven, having access to TV and newspapers, and doing occasional work in the area, but that he hadn't heard them express any particular opinions about it. ''A number of guys have asked me what would happen if one of the chimps gets out,'' he said. ''Whether they'd have to go get it. But we both have our escape procedures. Theirs is a modern, up-to-date, first-class containment facility. They're on top of it. Of course, they tranquilize. We don't tranquilize.''
No, we shoot to kill.
'Everything we use here we try to evaluate on a scientific level,'' Fultz explained when I asked her about some of the other enrichment items I'd been shown: crayons and chalk, giant plastic toys and Nylabones (basically big dog-chews), Mighty Mouse and Woody Woodpecker videotapes and television sets, specially rigged with clear plastic coverings to protect the electronics. Chimps have very strong and immediate likes and dislikes. Observational evidence to date has revealed that chimps find nature-sound CD's soothing. Younger chimps prefer kids' movies, Disney specials, ''Barney'' and the like. The mature chimps' tastes, on the other hand, tend toward melodrama and anything with lots of action and aggression. Soap operas like ''Passions'' and ''General Hospital'' are big hits, the latter, it seems, because lab chimps have gotten so used to people in white coats. ''The Jerry Springer Show'' and N.F.L. football games are also quite popular. Golf, baseball and PBS programming (except, of course, for nature shows) are not.
Chimpanzees living with humans seem oddly similar, don't they? f
Jerry Springer Show

They love Woody Woodpecker? I wonder why? Ahem. We know that chimps love to smoke and drink beer. While watching football, of course. I bet the ratings would go through the roof if the football was replaced with the body of a dead monkey. Or a human head.

Here is a picture of the "haven's" outdoors: f

Here is what a jungle looks like: f
From King Kong, Skull Island. I bet the chimps, if given a choice, would overwhelmingly choose Skull Island as a place to live. We humanoids like the savannah look. Note that chimps don't like golf. We think Paradise is a golf course.

To get a better perspective of all of this, I took a trip in the Tardis courtesy of Dr. Who. I traveled forwards in time to interview Dr. Zira, chief Humanologist at the Human Containment Facility.

Dr. Zira, thank you for granting me this interview.
(Dr. Zira) You are welcome, human. I am surprised you can communicate so cleverly. You are very well trained. Some, like my fellow scientist, Dr. Zaius here, believes it is only tricks of training to teach humans simple language skills. He thinks they really can't say much.

I did get the benefit of not only training at home but many years of school, all set up to teach me these things, Dr. Zira. I assume you, too, had to be taught.
(Dr. Zira) Ah, but for us, learning comes naturally. Humans, on the other hand, have to be rewarded every step of the way or they become surly.

I heard that humans destroyed themselves during WWIII by dropping nuclear bombs on all their cities and then the survivors cannibalized each other. How did the chimpanzees end up in control of the planet?
(Dr. Zira) When the humans guarding our enclaves fled, we took over. We already had learned how to use the technology they left behind. Our young were changed by the environmental side effects of that war. We evolved into a New Chimpanzee and in concert with the Gorillas and Orangatangs, we decided to take matters firmly in hand and try to prevent the crazy apes, humans, from ever destroying the planet again. This is why we study them here. But they are dangerous still! If untrained, they will revert to killing and cannibalism! Turned loose, they attack our children and befoul the land with pollution again. So we keep them in restricted areas where they can compete with the baboons.

You are very similar, in many ways, to the way human culture worked. Are you worried about that?
(Sighing, nodding) Yes, this troubles us deeply. If you want an earful about that, talk to Dr. Zaius.

Dr. Zaius, I presume.
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Dr. Zaius, Defender of the Faith
(Dr. Zaius) Hrumph. How dare you address me directly!

(Dr. Zira) Come now, she isn't one of the primitives, she is from the past. Perhaps you can teach her.

(Dr. Zaius) Teach a human? Hrumph. I'll tell you what, our ancestors swore they would be One with the Great Tree of Life and this is why we were granted the right to rule. The humans hated the Great Tree of Life and chopped down all the forests and in their mad wars, burned the pitiful remainder. We lost our Eden, our Mother Tree but we have retaken the earth from the destroyers. Can they learn anything? Hrumph. I seriously doubt it. History makes it clear, even with full information at hand, humans refused to change, refused to learn and refused to stop destroying their own planet. Now we rule it and we won't let them do it again!

You know, if someone changes the future, the past changes. Aren't you worried that this interveiw might wake up humans to their own peril and cause them to change course and not destroy themselves?
(Dr. Zaius) Hahaha. You have a sense of humor. Up until now, I thought humans were incapable of joking. Seriously, if this interview does that, I'll be a baboon's uncle.

Oh dear, the wormhole is shifting and I have to return to my own time/space. Thank you both for taking the time to talk today.
(Dr. Zira) Bye bye, be good!

(Dr. Zaius) Hrumph. (Turns back)

Back to my own time, reading the NYT article again:
Lunch hour for the Save the Chimps staff members that afternoon soon gave way to lunch hour for the chimps. We were sitting at a picnic table beside the compound's headquarters when Noon stood up and clanged an old-fashioned ranch dinner bell hanging from a post just overhead. She waited a moment and rang it again.

''That did it,'' she said. ''Here they come.''

Off in the distance, we could see the black blobs move again, row upon row of them, coming across the island's grassy mounds, past the strung catwalks and huge platform jungle gyms, toward the chimps' central housing quarters. Noon and I and some of the staff members started over to meet them. Once all the chimps had made their way inside, the feasting began, chunks of fresh cucumbers and carrots and oranges giving off, in stark contrast to Coulston, the strongest aromas in the place.

''The difference is pretty amazing,'' said one staff member, Chance French, a former employee of Noon's at Alamogordo. ''A lot of the chimps we bring from New Mexico will be balding. But the minute you bring them here they stop plucking. They stop smearing feces around. It's 100 percent better.''
Sigh. Shaking my head.

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