Debbie Lee Wesselmann,
(Blair, 2008)

Today is no more than, and no less than, the sum of all our yesterdays.

I understand this quote, but think it falls short of reality, leaving the nature portion out of the nature-nurture equation. Captivity is a lot about the nurture part, but does not forget the aspect of nature.

The story starts out as a mystery. Dana Armstrong runs the South Carolina Primate Project (SCPP), a sanctuary for chimpanzees rescued from zoos, circuses and homes (where they were kept as pets). These chimps never learned basic chimpanzee behavior and could not survive in the wild, but the SCPP tries to guide them toward becoming more chimp-like, while conducting minimally-intrusive observational studies of their behavior. The sanctuary is mainly an enclosed wildlife area, keeping the chimpanzees safe from human intrusion and vice-versa. The chimpanzees, when brought to the sanctuary, are gradually taught natural chimpanzee behavior and introduced into the larger, more wild sections of the preserve. But one morning the chimpanzees are set free by an intruder. Nothing was damaged or stolen, and there were no protest slogans spray-painted anywhere. A stupid prank? An animal-rights protester intent upon freeing the chimpanzees, who cannot survive wild? It does not add up.

I had a strong guess about the mystery early in the book, and it turned out to be right, but that spoiled nothing for me as the mystery is really but a small part of this story. It is really the story of Dana Armstrong, the head of the SCPP -- her past, her present and her struggle to reconcile the two.

What is special about her past? If I explained in detail, it would spoil part of the story. Suffice it to say, her childhood was most unusual, and it connected, conceptually, with her eventually founding and running the SCPP. Her past taught her much, caused her much harm and was of great benefit to her. Her brother did not fare as well, and neither did her sister. Her brother is a major part of the story, and her sister plays a major role but in a very different way.

The story is very engaging and interesting, and then is elevated further when the Dick Lamier character joins the cast. Lamier is a brilliant psychologist-ethologist who specializes in studying chimpanzee behavior. He was also once a close friend of Armstrong's family. The words "was" and "once" are critical here, and the reason for the past tense is a key to what occurs in the present of this story. Lamier is as good a villain as you will find in any story.

The writing is crisp and clear, with good pacing and flow. The characters are well-developed, especially Dana Armstrong, her brother Zack, the journalist Sam Wendt and Mary, Armstrong's assistant. Armstrong is a woman whom Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas (the less-famous but equally knowledgeable researcher of orangutans) would respect. The human relationships and the human-chimpanzee interactions are all highly credible. The descriptions of chimpanzee behavior indicate that thorough research was done.

The only misstep, possibly -- and it is a minor one, if it indeed is a misstep -- involves Dana's naivete regarding the politics of academia and her surprise when she does figure it out. The character displays a strong understanding of the primate dominance hierarchy in chimpanzees, and university personal and interdepartmental politics is, at its heart, nothing but a slightly more sophisticated version of that very same hierarchy, transposed to a different arena. Perhaps it is but another symptom of the character's immersion in primatology, somewhat at the expense of her human social interaction.

There are two factors that need to be considered regarding the book's suitability for younger readers. One character occasionally spouts profanity. It does not seem gratuitous, as it is infrequent, and fits the character. There is also significant description of substance abuse by two characters.

By the way, if the South Carolina Primate Project did exist, I would be tempted to work there. Alas, there could not be a Michigan version, as the climate is not one chimpanzees would appreciate. It is close to zero outside, as I write this, with over a foot of snow on the ground.

review by
Chris McCallister

5 September 2009

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