Trinity University Press

Jane Goodall- Benjamin B. Beck

Eyes Filled with Pain and Hopelessness

Benjamin B. Beck

    In June 1998, at the Disney Institute in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, some colleagues and I convened a workshop that was later documented in an edited volume entitled Great Apes and Humans: The Ethics of Coexistence. The workshop was inspired by the central declaration of The Great Ape Project: that great apes should be classified with modern humans in the genus Homo and are thus entitled to the same rights and should not be harmed, killed, or held captive. The workshop was small, intimate, and closed, in order to facilitate frank discussion of this idea, which still has profound implications for conservationists, biomedical researchers, zoofolk, and protectionists.

    During one of the workshop sessions, I was expounding on an idea in which I believed strongly at the time: that ape sanctuaries served no role in ape conservation and indeed absorbed money that might otherwise be used for “real” conservation efforts. I argued that ape orphans should be released quickly back into the wild, placed in reputable zoos, or humanely euthanized. Otherwise, rescuing a great ape orphan simply destined him or her to a lifetime in a substandard range-country facility at considerable cost, with no direct benefit for the survival of his or her wild conspecifics.

    Jane, after listening politely until I was finished, then speared me, speaking in her soft, smiling, unwavering voice. I’m not sure of her exact words but my memory is so vivid that I’ll dare put them in quotes anyway. She said, “Ben, if you encounter an ape orphan chained to a tree in a small rural African village, and you look directly into his pained and hopeless eyes and walk away, you will lose all credibility as a conservationist. Rural Africans do not distinguish between the welfare of one individual ape and the conservation of a whole community of apes. You will not be seen as sincere, and you will lose the good will of these people. Worse yet, if you don’t care, why should they?”

    I have been questioned and challenged many times in my professional life. Sometimes I responded defensively and usually ended up tweaking my opinion and seeking consensus. But this was different. Jane’s simple statement, and a subsequent dramatic increase in the quality of ape sanctuaries, caused for me a fundamental conversion. I now work with range country ape sanctuaries to improve their care and understanding of apes and to reintroduce orphan apes responsibly to the wild. Like Jane, I also support the protection of even very small populations of wild apes, which I call “unsanctuaries” or “wild sanctuaries,” because if these apes are not protected they will inevitably end up in sanctuaries that are already filled to capacity.

    Jane has had a strong influence in the formation and advancement of my interests in animal tool behavior, but it was her simple, ten-second observation about ape orphans and sanctuaries that is the most memorable and has had, for me, the most impact.

    Benjamin Beck is Scientist Emeritus of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. He coordinated the reintroduction of zoo-born golden lion tamarins to Brazil and a program to save a small population of chimpanzees in Rwanda.