In a refuge “built to house and heal bad dreams,” New York Times Magazine contributor Siebert (A Man After His Own Heart, 2004, etc.) communes with a chimp retired from the entertainment business.
Roger is a 28-year-old former Ringling Brothers performer—one of the lucky ones who now lives at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Fla., where traumatized primates seek succor from their emotional travails. When Siebert and Roger locked eyes, he writes, something deep and abiding clicked. Here was a long-lost friend, a cross-species confidant, an escort for a glimpse “into our human essence through the eyes of the sentient non-us.” Human culpability for the mistreatment of chimps—and elephants, dolphins, whales…the list is endless—is not up for debate, nor is the chimp’s capacity to suffer the effects of trauma: erratic behavior, violent anger, etc. Siebert cogently examines the physiology of psychology, and he offers plenty of well-told evidence of chimp, whale and elephant populations displaying behavior consistent with human traumatic brain injuries. Throughout, Siebert strives to connect the dots between the human sense of expulsion from its animal state and the longing for restoration it creates, and between redemption for us and psychic release for Roger: “Do we each have in this world an extant version of our former simian selves? A primatological doppelganger and preassigned escort back into our own animality? I can’t say for certain. All I know is that I’d never have posited such a thing until I met Roger.”
Humans damaged Roger, but it is Siebert’s very humanity—open-minded and compassionate—that offers healing. A winner.