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July 2000
Visions of Primates

The Satya Interview with Dale Peterson


Dale Peterson
is the author several books, including The Deluge and the Ark: A Journey into Primate Worlds (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), and co-author with Jane Goodall of Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People (University of Georgia Press, 2000). He is also editor of a two-volume autobiography of Goodall, An Autobiography in Letters (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), the first volume of which was published in April. He recently spoke with Catherine Clyne about how he became interested in primates and the crucial issues that they face in the wild.

What inspired you to write The Deluge and the Ark and to continue exploring primates with Jane Goodall in Visions of Caliban?
I received a Ph.D. in English and American literature in 1977. I didn’t want to be a teacher, so I became both a carpenter and soon gravitated toward writing about computers. In the mid-1980s I decided that I wanted to write about animals and conservation, because that’s what I cared about.

In 1984, I read about the endangered South American muriqui monkey. There were just a few hundred left in the world, in South America, although they used to be common. The last of the muriquis were in a patch of land in a forest in Brazil, which was owned by one man. He was going to retire and his sons had already said that they would cut down the forest when they inherited the land. At first I just tried to raise money to help save the forest, though eventually I volunteered my services as a writer. This offer wasn’t taken up. Instead I ended up writing my first book about endangered primates—The Deluge and the Ark.

I started from zero not even knowing what a primate is. I did a glut of research, but at that point all I had was an encyclopedia of facts. I realized that I had to travel and actually see primates for myself. I started late in life; it was all a big adventure for me. Basically, I bought a plane ticket to Brazil and just dropped into a rainforest to look for primates, so it was totally self-taught. So The Deluge and the Ark became the story of my journey around the world, looking for the 12 most endangered primates and fitting them into a larger context of why so many primates in general—this wonderful group of perhaps 300 species—were endangered, and why some are so critically endangered that there are only a few handfuls left.

I discovered that the human population has increased five or six-fold in the last hundred years and so humans are basically taking over every possible habitat and either using it directly or just destroying it. Strange people in the States say that there isn’t a problem. These are people who are living in wealth and haven’t really looked at the rainforest in Brazil. But in other parts of the world you’ll see intense poverty and a conflict between human growth and the declining natural world.

I carefully selected the 12 primate species that I wrote about to represent geographical areas and specific problems. Chimps are endangered but I avoided them in this book; there’s so much written about them and so much to know, so it would take a full book just to cover them. But in the back of my mind, I thought that somebody should write a good book about them because there are some real problems that should be described. After writing The Deluge and the Ark I met Jane Goodall—a great hero of mine. We decided to do Visions of Caliban together. Again, here I was with no particular expertise on primates, working with a world expert. What could I contribute? In this case, with my literary background, I could think of chimps through Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I think it made the issue more attractive to people who were not themselves primatologists.

Why the keen interest in primates?
Primates are wonderfully poetic animals for me. It’s so spectacular to see them in the wild—a world of difference from seeing them in zoos. I’ve been privileged to see more primates in the wild than most people.

Apes are so close to humans—closer than we imagine. Seeing them in the wild you start to realize this; it breaks down the barrier of "us" vs. "them." They have the same emotions and perceptual world—so close to ours. In the wild, it’s not apparent right away. Then you begin to notice. Mothers have the same expression of adoration when they look at their baby, like a Madonna and child. Jane Goodall referred to them early on as "ladies and gents out there." She recognized that our usual distance from animals is a human construct.

What was one of the greatest moments that you experienced while doing these projects?
One of my greatest moments was seeing West African chimpanzees in the wild use stone tools. Suddenly they no longer look like animals. They keep these stones in their little workshop right beneath the nut trees. The stones are rare in the forest, especially ones of the right size, so they get used again and again and after a while they get very rounded and shaped. If you took them out of the forest and didn’t know that a chimp had used them, you’d think that it was some sort of human artifact—there’s no way to tell the difference. The chimps squat down, just as people would, and they hammer nuts with a stone until they crack open and they eat them. They do it very skillfully—it’s not easy cracking nuts open. It’s fascinating to see and to experience them in that way.

What was the greatest shock and/or disappointment?
Looking at the utterly devastating ecological destruction in parts of the Third World. You’ll go into an area that you know was recently tropical forest then—boom!—it’s just a wasteland, somebody cut it down and it’s gone. It’s the most shocking thing. Ten years earlier it was this gorgeous, rich and full place, and all of a sudden it’s just a desert with the hot sun beating down and that’s it. It’s devastating to see, particularly when you become aware of just how extensive it is.

What I find disappointing is the general indifference we have in the First World where we have the money to solve these problems. People that I know, that we all know, are more focused on—let’s say the bestseller list—all of the kinds of things that are utterly trivial navel gazing. It’s depressing to see that people are so shallow. Americans are no different from others, except that we have the wealth and the political clout to change things. But we just don’t seem to care enough. Human indifference is something that I find discouraging.

People are bombarded by bad news. It’s a natural human instinct to just stop listening to it. The big news is what doesn’t get put on the daily news. The big news is the big environmental things, the changes that are affecting us on a large scale and in very long-term ways, like the loss of species diversity. I’m almost voting for us to stop reading the daily trivia so we can figure out what the really important things are and worry about those.

What needs to change to cut down the rate of the extinction of primates in the wild?
The biggest issue is that somehow human population growth has to stabilize. Then we have to both reduce the total population and consolidate in some sense, which means preserving wilderness areas in spite of human demands. In order to reach this long-term picture, we need the political will and money. I get disturbed when I see philanthropists giving away great sums of money—they’re giving to good causes, of course, but it seems that every worthy cause in the world has to do only with people. I think that is short-sighted because people and animals are in the same boat and when the wilderness is gone, humans will be impoverished.

What purpose should zoos have, if any?
The weakness of the animal rights view is that it tends not to distinguish between nonhuman species—I think that’s a mistake because ultimately you are comparing a worm to a gorilla. When you look at zoos from an ethical/animal rights point of view, you have to have some sophistication about what animals are. One level would be to say that the apes—chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans—are so close to humans that all four species have learned language in laboratories, are capable of recognizing themselves in mirrors, which means they have some sort of self recognition, and all four species are capable of real laughter and mirth. So those species have a special mentality that puts them, in my opinion, in a pretty special place. Basically I don’t think they should be in zoos. On the other hand, they are in zoos and zoos can provide the best possible captive environment; certainly they can provide something better than laboratories.

Whether zoos are doing the right thing, the answer is yes and no, and it depends on the zoo. I think mostly what zoos have to offer is education, and it’s there that zoos can make a big difference—they should be doing that both with their exhibits and obviously with their information presentations. But education is the "business" of zoos and by and large I don’t think that they are doing enough.

What comments do you have regarding the conservation role that zoos put forth as their mission?
Conservation? You might have seen a little bit of cringing about that in Deluge and the Ark. When I went to San Diego Zoo I saw this big sign about how zoos are "saving the world" and so on. They’re not. The captive breeding that goes on in zoos has been good in some cases, but it is not a serious aspect of the conservation of primates. Having said that, I certainly applaud captive breeding because it reduces the pressure to take animals out of the wild. And there’s something to be said for preserving the gene pool in captivity, but it’s so difficult and so rare to return endangered species to their habitats; the ones you can do it with best are birds and grazing animals and the occasional primate (the golden lion tamarin is one example). I’m certainly glad that we have a good population of bonobos in captivity because they’re so rare and extremely endangered and at least in the darkest moments, you can feel "well, even if they go extinct in the wild at least they exist somewhere." But really, after a generation or two—particularly with the intelligent social primates—it would be hard to imagine putting them back. It would be like taking a person into the woods and saying "now go be a caveman." It doesn’t really work that way.

What current projects are you working on?
I’ve just finished editing Jane Goodall’s family letters—many written by her while sitting in the forest, waiting for the chimps. They are extraordinary, not just because they are written by a historical figure but because they are utterly charming and engaging. She just wrote and wrote! She sometimes wrote letters every week, giving a wonderful series of precise snapshots of her life. I have about two million words worth so I put the best 10 percent into a two-volume autobiography called An Autobiography in Letters. The first volume, Africa in My Blood, was just released in April. I’m also writing her biography.

I’m also writing a book about bushmeat—wild animal meat. It’s a problem because people are now eating the apes who are highly endangered and could easily go extinct by the next generation.

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