Primates as People

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Primates as People

Books about families adopting primates

I read several books recently with themes about the differences and similarities between humans and other animals. I wanted to highlight some books that talk about the specific relationship between humans and our non-human primate cousins. There's a history of scientists experimenting on chimpanzees to help understand what makes our species so different from the rest of the animal kingdom, but these experiments often have a profound impact on the scientists - and non-scientists - involved. Here are some books concerned with relationships between people and primates, both scientific and familial.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
When Rosemary was five, she thought her parents had given her away to her grandparents. When she finally returns home, she learns that it wasn't her who had been given away - it was her sister, Fern. Fern - who was raised as twins with Rosemary - is a chimp. Fern's disappearance leads to their brother Lowell leaving, a family that never felt like a family again, and a narrator who feels like a monkeygirl, not a regular human.

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
Half Brother is a young adult novel narrated by Ben, whose scientist father brings a baby chimp into their family on Ben's thirteenth birthday to study chimps' ability to use ASL as a language. Ben's father initially pays lip service to the notion that Zan, the chimp, is a family member but it becomes clear that he is just a research subject, and Ben begins to think about the ethics of the experiment. Ben loves Zan, but is it fair to Zan to raise him as a human? Is it fair to Ben to expect him to see this chimp as both a family member but also as just a piece of an experiment? This book does a great job dealing with deep philosophical questions about animal rights, while also being a great young adult novel about a young man trying to fit in at a new school.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
This book looked like just another book about an experiment where a chimp joins a family, but the chimp brother - the titular Charlie - is almost beside the point. This is really a book about family, and how we often see what we want from others, rather than what's actually there. It's also a book about race and America's long and horrible history of racist experimentation and dehumanization. It's also a story about young desire, not fitting in, and longing for the wild. This is Greenidge's debut novel, and it makes me very curious about what else she has to say.

A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam
As much as these books portray these chimps as part of the family, chimps are not human beings. A Beautiful Truth is not about a family adopting a chimp as part of an experiment, but instead about a family. Walt and Judy buy a chimp to replace the child Judy cannot have and yearns for. But the chimp, Looee, is not a human despite being raised as one. This story alternates with the story of a facility in Florida which uses chimps in experiments.

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer
Sophie's mother runs a sanctuary for bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sophie has to spend the summer there. When war comes to the sanctuary, Sophie has to escape to the jungle - while rescuing and caring for some of the bonobos. This young adult novel is full of adventure, and features a realistically imperfect protagonist. 

Primates by Jim Ottaviani
While not comprehensive, this graphic novel provides a good introduction to three female scientists who hugely contributed to our understanding of primates: Jane Goodall with chimpanzees, Dian Fossey with gorillas, and Biruté Galdikas with orangutans. This book brings up some excellent questions about the similarities between humans and non-human primates, the draw of the wild, and whether scientists should be scientists first or human beings first.