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.” Continue reading