A Tribute to the Deep Emotional Lives of Chimpanzees

An interview with Debra Rosenman, editor of "The Chimpanzee Chronicles."

Posted Jun 10, 2020

"Debra Rosenman has gathered up real life stories that will, collectively, sadden, anger, and inspire all who read them … Thank goodness for the dedicated, passionate, and often very courageous people whose work is recognized in this important book, one that will, I am sure, inspire all who read it to do their bit to improve the lives of the animals with whom we share, or should share, our planet. On behalf of the chimpanzees whose lives they changed, I thank and honor them." —Jane Goodall

"The strongest messages in this anthology are about the resilience of spirit in the face of suffering and how grief, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and love transcend all boundaries." 

It is my pleasure to offer this interview with Debra Rosenman, editor of the award-winning anthology The Chimpanzee Chronicles: Stories of Heartbreak and Hope from Behind the Bars.1,2,3 It was my honor to write the Foreword for this important book that reveals many facets of the world of captive chimpanzees and the dedicated people who care for them. This unique collection of 25 firsthand stories by primatologists, veterinarians, primate sanctuary founders and directors, and others charts a path for compassionate change. The accolades for this agenda-setting collection are uniformly positive, and the stories assembled, each an emotionally penetrating thread of insight and compassion, invite us to reflect on our relationship with these intelligent and sensitive beings. You can meet the chimpanzees here.

Why did you collect the stories for The Chimpanzee Chronicles?

I have always had a fascination with chimpanzees. Thirty years ago when I owned an event-planning business in New York City, I hired a baby chimpanzee named Casey for a client’s birthday party. She arrived on roller skates and was the hit of the evening. My client was happy and, truthfully, I was thrilled that I had an opportunity to interact with a young chimp.  

Debra Rosenman, with permission
Source: Debra Rosenman, with permission

Years later, I went through a challenging time with my health after I was poisoned by pesticides. My immune system collapsed and altered my body’s chemistry causing severe allergic reactions to almost everything—perfume, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, car fumes, and hair products. Living with these environmental sensitivities forced me into isolation in order to heal.

It was during this time that I began having powerful dreams about chimps. The dreams piqued my curiosity and I began reading everything I could find and the more I read, the more depressed I felt. I was shocked to find out the extent of abuse and violence captive chimpanzees were being subjected to. These majestic beings were prodded, probed, stunned, tranquilized, and injected with infectious diseases in biomedical labs, forced to perform in movies and television, forced to grow up as human children, and killed for their meat. My heart broke into a million little pieces as I remembered Casey, the little chimp I had hired for a client’s party decades earlier. The realization that I had contributed to the exploitation of a young chimpanzee was almost too much to bear. In that moment, I vowed to Casey that because I had been part of the problem I would find a way to be part of the solution. My advocacy for chimpanzees started that day.

At first, my vow took the form of writing articles about the ethical and moral implications of our abuse of chimpanzees and then starting an educational program for children designed to foster respect and empathy for chimpanzees and other animals. Then, one day I woke up knowing my next step was to compile an anthology about the experiences of captive chimps so readers around the world could bear witness to the suffering they endured, the healing many of them experienced once retired into sanctuary, and the transformation of the contributors themselves. I have never wavered in my promise. 

We have put chimpanzees behind bars because we ourselves are living behind bars, locked away from our hearts. I hope the narratives in The Chimpanzee Chronicles can awaken a deeper awareness of our own human nature and the choices we make that affect other living beings. When we are not able to feel our own sorrows and those of others, we become physically, emotionally, and spiritually numb, as evidenced by the hundreds of researchers who, while experimenting on chimpanzees were incapable of responding to their observable terror, grief, and despair. While this book is intended for the general public, my secret wish is that researchers who use animals in experiments will read it and be moved enough to refrain from using any animal for research in the future. 

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

As a Rubenfeld Synergist and Somatic Archaeologist specializing in trauma and grief, it was natural for me to work on a book about abuse, suffering, grief, healing, and hope. I have been assisting people on their healing journeys for 30 years, so a book about the healing journeys of chimps was a perfect fit. As a writer, I’ve always been drawn to story, particularly personal narratives that open us to the power and resilience of the human—and nonhuman—spirit. Stories carry the potential to reach across divides, forge an emotional connection with the reader, open our heart in new ways, and shift our perspective. That is what I am hoping my book will accomplish. 

How did you pick your contributors?

I was interested in original stories by individuals who were on the front lines in the rescue and rehabilitation of chimpanzees, and who would weave their own stories of transformation into the narratives. 

The contributors needed to write about one or more of these captivity issues: the suffering and abuse of chimpanzees in biomedical, behavioral, or psychological research; the use of chimps in the entertainment industry; the emotional lives of chimps and how they show compassion and empathy; the long-lasting negative effects of PTSD in chimps; how chimps deal with death and grief; chimps living in zoos; young chimps raised as human children; the physical and emotional changes chimpanzees experience after being retired to sanctuary; and chimps who use a human language (ASL) to communicate. The contributors' stories needed to inspire all of us to be better humans. 

What are some of the book's main messages? 

The strongest messages are about the resilience of spirit in the face of suffering and how grief, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and love transcend all boundaries. 

A profound illustration of how love heals and the resilience of spirit is found in Gloria Grow’s story, Knowing Jeannie. Jeannie suffered a nervous breakdown in a biomedical research lab, and was moved with other lab chimps to Gloria’s sanctuary in Canada. The chimps retired to her sanctuary were able to adapt to their new home with loving caregivers, nourishing food, daily enrichment, other chimps to socialize with, blankets to build nests, and access to grass and open sky. However, Jeannie was so traumatized she could not tolerate anything new, even these positive changes. Gloria sat with Jeannie day after day, year after year, showering her with kindness and love. Jeannie slowly began to trust and to heal because of the love and caring shown to her. Truly, this is a most extraordinary story.

What are some of your current projects?

I’m planning a series of virtual book readings with the contributors, focusing on themes such as how chimps deal with death and grief; the fascinating minds of chimps and what they choose to communicate using a human language; working with special needs chimps; compassion fatigue in animal rescue work; the healing power of love, and many more compelling topics. Also, this summer I will be collaborating with Tanya Taylor Rubinstein on her Requiem Project, a global virtual performance of diverse monologues, happening this fall. My contribution will be helping children from different ethnic backgrounds write monologues about their feelings and personal experiences around issues such as the pandemic, racism, the ethical treatment of animals and their rights, etc. A few of the monologues will be chosen and read by the children during the virtual live performance. 

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

We have an enormous opportunity right now to spin gold from our collective wounds. There is no time now to be silent or complacent about the injustices and abuse of both human and nonhuman animals. We must wake ourselves up and out of our long spell of historical amnesia. The elixir that can heal the world lives within each of us, and our job is to continue speaking truth to power while unraveling our own deep-rooted judgments, silences, and prejudices.

References

Notes

1) Debra is a writer, educator, and workshop facilitator who has worked as an advocate for captive chimpanzees for almost twenty years. She has developed children’s educational programming that fosters deep respect and empathy for nonhuman animals, and facilitates workshops that explore the sacred relationships between humans and other species of animals.  As a Rubenfeld Synergy and Somatic Archaeology practitioner specializing in trauma, compassion fatigue, ecological grief, and companion animal loss, Debra helps clients unearth emotions associated with old belief systems, embedded negative somatic patterns, and intergenerational trauma. She is also a Wisdom Healing (Zhineng) Qigong teacher and visual artist. Debra lives in the high desert of New Mexico with her recently adopted elder dog, Freida Heart. 

2) "From the shores of America to the forests of Africa, The Chimpanzee Chronicles: Stories of Heartbreak and Hope from Behind the Bars by longtime animal rights activist Debra Rosenman offers a glimpse into the world of captive chimpanzees who have been exploited as biomedical research subjects, entertainers, and pets. This anthology of twenty-five stories exposes the suffering they have endured; the healing many of them experienced once retired into sanctuary; and the life-changing transformations of the contributors themselves, each of whom was committed to a single mission—improving the lives of captive chimpanzees. Composed of firsthand accounts by primatologists, veterinarians, primate sanctuary founders and directors, a documentary filmmaker, and others, The Chimpanzee Chronicles ultimately charts a path for change while prompting readers to reenvision their relationship with these sentient beings and choose kindness and compassion toward all nonhuman animals." A portion of proceeds from the sale of this book will benefit chimpanzee conservation programs and sanctuaries. 10% of book sales purchased from the website will be donated to Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection to help them build their new sanctuary for orphaned baby chimps. 

3) Awards for The Chimpanzee Chronicles include Independent Publisher (IPPY) Book Awards, Gold Medal for Best Anthology (Tie) and Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Winner: Best General Nonfiction and Best Animal Book.