Grad pens award-winning book

Andrew Westoll received this year’s Charles Taylor Prize for his book on a chimpanzee sanctuary in Quebec

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Andrew Westoll still dreams about the chimpanzees.

In 2009, the Queen’s alumnus spent 10 weeks at Fauna Foundation, a chimpanzee sanctuary located just south of Montreal. His time with the apes inspired him to pen this year’s Charles Taylor Prizewinner, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary.

Westoll has yet to return to Fauna since his stint volunteering at the sanctuary for chimps rescued from laboratories and zoos. It currently houses 12 chimpanzees.

“It’s been so long that I’m not sure who wants me to go back there more — is it for the chimps or just for me so I could see my old friends?” he said. “Part of the book is thinking why we all want to have these experiences with great apes, so I had to be really honest with myself and realize it’s probably just me who wants me to go back.”

The award was founded by Noreen Taylor in 2000, in honour of her late husband, Canadian author and journalist Charles Taylor. The winner receives $25,000.

Westoll’s win was announced last week, almost three years after he left the chimps of Fauna.

His book details his time as the chimps’ caregiver and the relationships he formed with them.

“They all have really distinct personalities and we’ve known this for a long time, ever since Jane Goodall started working with chimps,” Westoll, ArtSci ’00, said.

Goodall, who visited Fauna earlier this year, is a famed primatologist who began working with chimpanzees in the 1960s. Her work was the first to reveal the chimps’ use of tools as well as their distinct personalities.

“I knew this intellectually but I didn’t know it in my gut until I experienced it at Fauna,” Westoll said. “They are as different from each other as you and me.”

As an observer, Westoll said he had a difficult time documenting the chimps’ experiences.

“I was there as their biographer and I was there trying to write a story, but I was experiencing some of the emotional things,” he said. “Witnessing a bunch of unbelievably intelligent, emotional and sensitive creatures in captivity day after day can also be emotionally wearing.

“You can just imagine what their life would have been like if they had been born in the wild.”

Westoll said one of the chimpanzees, Rachel, had the greatest difficulty adjusting to the sanctuary because of her traumatic past. She lived in Florida as a pet before being brought to New York University’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP).

“When Rachel would have a meltdown [it] would be really awful to witness,” he said. “The one that I witnessed most often was her attacking her own fingers.”

According to Westoll, Rachel experienced phantom limb syndrome, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. Rachel, failing to recognize her own hands, would attack them.

“She was screaming when she was doing it as if she was being attacked, because she was attacking herself,” he said. “It was really upsetting to watch it.”

Despite the emotional toll, Westoll said his time at the sanctuary had its good moments.

“I would have a breakthrough with a chimp and one of them would invite me to play with them, or I would see them getting along or just relaxing,” he said.

Westoll said he was interested in animal behaviour from a young age, but his passion grew significantly during his time studying biology at Queen’s.

“One of the only textbooks when I was at Queen’s that I read cover to cover was the animal behaviour textbook,” he said. “I just loved it because it was filled with these intimate dramas of these animals — mating strategies and their natural histories.”

Westoll got his start in writing with the help of Carolyn Smart, a creative writing professor at Queen’s.

“Without her encouragement, I’m not entirely sure I would have continued on the track of becoming a writer,” he said. “She kind of reached out to me which I think is what a young writer needs more than anything else.”

After graduation, Westoll put his creative writing on hold. He was offered work as a field assistant in Suriname, South America, and spent a year observing the wild capuchin monkeys of the Guianan rainforest.

“When I was in Suriname, I fell out of love with the idea of being a scientist,” he said. “I felt like I was missing out on a much grander experience — that’s one way of looking at it.

“The other way of looking at it was that was that I was just too lazy and maybe I was too lazy to be a good field scientist but just lazy enough to be a good writer.” After receiving his MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia in 2004, Westoll returned to the Guianan rainforest to work — there he wrote his first book, The Riverbones.

“After I wrote that book and it came out … I was looking for another story,” he said, adding that he had set his sights on Fauna.

While writing, Westoll worked as a freelancer.

“I lived below the poverty line for many years because I was doing something I loved to do,” he said.

Westoll wrote an article in Canadian magazine the Walrus about one of Fauna’s chimpanzees — catching the attention of the Fauna Foundation’s founder and director Gloria Grow.

“[She] invited me to the sanctuary for 10 weeks to work as a voluntary caregiver and to essentially … tell the story of what they’d been through in the laboratories and [the chimpanzees’] incredible stories of recovery since their rescue,” he said.

The sanctuary, opened in 1997, first welcomed 15 chimpanzees. They’d been smuggled out of LEMSIP upon its closing.

Chimpanzees had been raised by human surrogate mothers in the laboratory’s nursery until they were 18 months to two years old. Westoll said this is when the scientific experiments would begin.

The laboratory experimented on primates by injecting them with lethal human viruses like HIV and hepatitis. Scientists would also test surgical procedures like punch liver biopsies — where a needle is used to remove pieces of liver from the unconscious animal for testing.

Westoll said he hopes winning the Charles Taylor Prize will call attention to the chimps and their past in the labs.

“[Winning] was an amazing moment,” he said. “It felt so good as a writer to receive that kind of encouragement, but it also felt good because it means I can talk to a lot more people about the chimps at Fauna now.”

Stevie Cameron, a Charles Taylor Prize juror, said Westoll’s book is important because it will help people understand issues of animal cruelty.

“I think it’s going to have a big effect,” she said, adding that Westoll’s book stands out among other primatologists’ stories.

“This book brings it home,” Cameron, a Canadian author and journalist, said. “It’s about a sanctuary in Quebec — we’re not reading about a place in Africa or New York.

“It’s right here.”

Cameron was one of three jurors for the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize. They spent weeks reading around 115 books sent in by Canadian publishers or discovered by the jurors themselves.

The jurors would convene over conference calls to discuss the nominations. Cameron said she was the first one to read Westoll’s book.

“I phoned the others and said ‘You’ve gotta read this,’” she said.

From The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

The first thing I notice upon walking into the Fauna chimphouse is not, as I’d expected, the smell, a brooding stench of compost, urine, flatulence, and feces that apparently makes some visitors vomit. And it is not the sweltering humidity, an absurdity considering our northern locale.

No, the first thing I notice is the fear, which runs up my spine like a silverfish as Gloria leads me down a dark corridor. It is a familiar feeling, reminding me how I felt the first few times I walked alone in the jungles of Suriname, with only a machete to protect myself from the menagerie of rainforest predators. But this is not Suriname, and despite the smell and the heat, it is not a place where a bushmaster or a jaguar might roam. So I begin to wonder: is this my fear, or is it perhaps someone else’s?

As we walk, an eerie sound rises, like something large and hollow being dragged across the floor.

Gloria turns to face me. “Rules,” she says. “First: take your jacket off. The bigger you look, the more threatening you are. Second: you’re tall, so I need you to crouch. Third: do not stand too close to me. They don’t interpret it properly. They can’t control it. It’s threatening. Four: respect the red lines on the floor. They’re there for a reason. Inside the red, believe me, they will try to get you.”

“What’s that sound?”

“The welcoming committee.” Gloria smiles. “They already know you’re here.”

We walk on. The dragging grows louder. Then a terrible boom detonates up ahead. It echoes throughout the building, a crash of something extremely dense slamming into a wall of steel. I stop dead. The crash is followed by eerie silence; I hear birds chirping. But a few seconds later an identical blast goes off, followed by another and another, and I decide no, this fear may have started out as someone else’s but now it’s entirely mine. The building fills with the booms. The cement walls seem to shake with the noise.

“Full-moon week,” says Gloria between the blasts. “Everyone’s in such a good mood.”

© 2011 by Andrew Westoll,
published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

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