Aaron and Anthropomorphism, Plus Some Photos
Aaron is enchanting. As long as I've known him, he's always been great at eye contact. That's the general truth with chimps. They aren't like macaques, who bare their teeth and lunge at you if you stare for too long. Chimpanzees hold your gaze. They remain present with you. A fleeting moment, shared by fleeting creatures, on a fleeting planet.
It's easy to get lost in these moments, and in our interpretations of them. We have these very certain insights -- or what we believe are certain insights -- into how chimps feel.
"She's not fond of humans."
"He's jealous that you're giving her attention."
She laughing because it's funny to her."
Sometimes we may be right, but behavior can be shaky ground. After all, what infallible yardsticks do we use when we qualify our behavioral observations? This is tricky enough with humans, but with nonhumans, the gauge might be entirely different. We have some clues, though. There's consistency in actions and reactions. Context also helps. So do gestures, and vocalizations, and expressions, and yes, even intuition.
And yet there remain some terms, like empathy or jealousy or benevolence, that raise the red flags of anthropomorphism. Who are we, after all, to label chimpanzees with emotions as they are understood by our human terms with our human brains?
But then, who are we to rob them of them?
I hadn't seen Aaron since he was about eight years old. His best friend was Boumba. Then, as today, they have personalities made for caricatures. Aaron is the smart one. Thoughtful, intentional, and profound. Boumba is his goofy, droopy-lipped sidekick who needs his own catchphrase. Holy bananas, Batman! It's a person! Eight years ago, they cruised their spacious enclosure under the watchful eyes of elderly Bouboule and alpha male Ballas. Today, Aaron has risen through the social ranks to become the new alpha male of his social group. He's big -- a good sight bigger than either Ballas or Boumba. But his thoughtfulness remains.
I went with Sandra to go see them the other night as they were preparing to nest. Aaron descended from his platform as soon as we arrived, sitting with us in fertile silence.
"You all right, Aaron? Ça va bien?"
His eyes scanned the rebar separating us before landing on my hands. He pushed his shoulder against the mesh of the enclosure, wanting me to groom him.
"Oh, buddy, I haven't seen you in years. I need a little time before I can groom you."
He looked at me again, (seemingly) processing the information. Often, I feel sad for big male chimps. Sometimes they really just want to be groomed and nothing more, but humans who have worked with chimps for a long time tend to be very cautious around them. I call it the Lenny (Of Mice and Men) syndrome. Too strong and unpredictable for their own good, even when they're not harboring any destructive intentions. But forget not: it's not unusual to see missing digits on people who work with chimps. I'm hoping to leave this life with all of mine in tact.
Aaron turned and walked to the other side of his sleeping quarters. He rifled through the foliage (with which later he would make his night nest) until he found what he was looking for: a long stick. He strode back to the mesh that separated us and carefully handed me the stick.
There. Keep your fingers. Groom me.
So I obliged, grooming him as best I could with the stick, a poor substitute for a finger. But it sufficed. He watched me the entire time, content (I think) that we made the connection.
With captive chimps, sticks are often the first in a long line of grooming tools. Aaron knows this. He's been there before. In fact, we both have. It's how we make our respective ways in this strange, juxtaposed world, where woman meets ape and new etiquette unfolds.
Under the gaze of Aaron.
Akim and Muna keep an eye on the goings-on.
Monica, here's a haiku I wrote about Aaron a long time ago. What a privilege it's been helping him grow up over the years!
Dark, swarthy hero
plotting to capture my heart.
Rhett Butler on fours.
Our closest relatives can be mirrors which encourage us to know ourselves better than we did before we have fallen under their gaze. Priceless lessons can be taught and learned across this biological divide, and Aaron has much to teach.
How can we not be anthropomorphic ?
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