“Minds Enough to Lose and Histories that Can Only Hasten the Process”

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As I mentioned in my previous post, last year, I was in a craft course on memoir, which focused on narratives of trauma.  We had just read Teresa Cha’s Dictee.  After the third read, I understood it to be  a fragmented story exploring  rupture and  loss resulting from Cha’s separation from her mother, mother tongue, and her mother land, Korea. Dictee explores what it meant for an individual and a people to be torn apart by colonization, war and migration.

It was around the same time, I had been reading about post traumatic stress disorder in chimpanzees and elephants and was interested in similar questions in the animal context.   What does it mean for an animal as an individual or a species to be subject to similar ruptures?  In The Wauchula Woods Accord, Toward a New Understanding of Animals, Charles Siebert, explores this further when he examines psyche of captive chimpanzees.

Siebert visits Patti Ragan’s Center for Great Apes in Florida, which he calls “a place to house bad dreams.”  These rescued chimpanzees had previously been stripped of their mothers and denied their own chimpanzee culture. They like others born and bred for entertainment or biomedical research may have been “chimps with a name but no recollection of a tree.”  Though these animals are well protected and cared for now, traumatic memories can still intrude their present. He notes that chimpanzees “have, like us, minds enough to lose and histories that can only hasten the process.”

Siebert who has written several thoughtful and beautiful long narrative pieces about animals in the New York Times Magazine, incorporates some of that research in The Wauchula Woods Accord.   The book is framed around one evening he spends with Roger, a chimpanzee in the sanctuary,   but he provides background into a vast body of knowledge of our complicated history with primates.  The story of Lucy is one such example and you can listen to Siebert talk about her on Radio Lab.

What is also particularly fascinating in the book is  Siebert’s description of the history of trials against animals as described in The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals: The Lost History of Europe’s Animal Trials, where all animals were granted a lawyer—and “accorded the same legal rights as human beings, right down to being provided with the best available defense attorneys, and all at the taxpayer’s expense”   He goes on to suggest that if captive animals today who have been put down as a result of a violent outbreak, were accorded “the same legal privileges as their medieval counterparts, the most amateur lawyer would be able to get them all off on insanity pleas.”

One of my favorite things about  reading is how one book leads me to the next.   Through Siebert, I learned about Gay Bradshaw and Eve Abe, two women working with elephants.   In Gay Bradshaw’s Elephants on The Edge, What Animals Teach us about Humanity, she explains that elephants have long-term social memory and up until recently have peacefully lived in co-existence with humans. Human activities, wars, competition over land, have led to a recent phenomenon of human elephant conflict. Elephants, who are known to visit the graves of their dead, also bury and visit the graves of their human victims. “The rupture of elephants lands, lives and history is mirrored in the legacy of rupture in their brains, bodies and behavior,” Bradshaw writes. She is studying the collapse of elephant societies that is resulting from the poaching of adults and leaving a population of orphans.

“A matriarch’s death means not only the loss of a loved one but also a loss of cultural and environmental knowledge,”

In The Wauchula Woods Accord, Siebert also introduced me to Ugandan ethologist Eve Abe who studies the Acholi people and the elephants whose lives have been disrupted by the Lords Resistance Army.  She creates an interesting  parallel between the collapse of both societies.

“Everyone within my tribe lives now within these refugee camps, and there are no more elders.  They were systematically eliminated…All these kids who have grown up with their parents killed—no fathers, no mothers, only other children looking after them, and nothing for them to do.  No schools. No adult supervision.  They form these roaming violent destructive bands.  And it’s the same thing that happens with the elephants.  They are wild and destructive and completely lost.”

Siebert, Bradshaw, and Abe’s  work provides some insight into how human actions have impacted the animal mind, on a singular and global level.  They also presents the question about the human psyches as individuals and a species living in a world with violence on so many levels.   We are ruptured, fragmented and traumatized, and must understand this particular narrative, to be able to write a restorative one.

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