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Ben Beck, the author of A History of Primate Reintroduction, has also written two novels based on or involving primate reintroduction. In Ape (published by Salt Water Media in 2015), a chimpanzee mastermind matches wits with poachers, idealistic scientists, a determined Rwandan policeman, an American college student, and a petty government official in a deadly struggle to survive. The gripping story ranges just one or two steps beyond scientific reality as it explores chimpanzee intelligence and emotion, their rights and responsibilities, and whether they can be criminals. The people and the chimpanzees face violence, rivalries, treachery, revenge, frayed loyalties, and touching friendships. As he did in his first novel, Thirteen Gold Monkeys, Beck, a scientist emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, tracks those who would save and those who would kill the endangered primates of the world.
Ape is a fast-paced, emotionally wringing thriller, but it is grounded in important contemporary scientific and philosophical issues. Chimpanzees are the living animals that are most closely to humans. Chimpanzees and humans have been evolving separately for about six million years, an evolutionary eyeblink. We are remarkably similar genetically, anatomically, physiologically and behaviorally. There are also striking differences: chimpanzees have smaller brains and are incapable of speaking a complex language. They can’t generate electricity or write operas, or at least they haven’t yet. Nonetheless, some philosophers and legal scholars have argued that chimpanzees are sufficiently human-like to deserve the same legal rights as humans living in democracies: freedom from unnecessary pain and punishment, freedom from unjustified captivity, freedom from unjustified death, freedom to move around freely, freedom to make responsible choices, and freedom of expression. This is called “personhood”. However, today, in most of the world, chimpanzees and other apes (and elephants and whales and porpoises) are legally regarded as property, like a cow or a slave.
The issue is unresolved, and as one of Ape’s characters asks: “Where do we draw the line?” The consequences for zoos, aquaria, circuses, and wildlife management are enormous. And we better have some answers if we ever encounter aliens in our universe.
Beck is uniquely qualified to examine these issues, having worked with wild and captive monkeys and apes for 45 years. He wrote Animal Tool Behavior, which included the first complete catalogue of chimpanzee tool use and manufacture, and compared chimpanzee tool use to that of the earliest humans (he also co-authored a second edition of this classic in 2011). He is an expert on reintroducing captive-born and orphaned primates to the wild, having been senior author of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Best Practice Guidelines for the Re-introduction of Great Apes, and having coordinated the highly successful reintroduction of golden lion tamarin monkeys to the Atlantic Coastal Forest of Brazil.
Thirteen Gold Monkeys (Outskirts Press, 2013) also featured primates, the small golden lion tamarins of Brazil. It’s story of hope, love, and unspeakable death in a disappearing Brazilian rainforest. A team of dogged conservationists tries to save this beautiful monkey species from certain extinction by reinforcing their numbers with tamarins born in zoos. Would these immigrants learn to find enough to eat, find secure places to sleep, avoid predators, and survive attacks by wild tamarins? Would they find mates and make babies? The technique, known as reintroduction, was new, and the conservationists struggled to find the best method. Could they train the tamarins in zoos to meet the challenges of the wild? Once the monkeys were released in the forest, should the people have given them food, shooed away predators, rescued them if they get lost, and treated them if they were injured? Or should they have been hands-off, letting the monkeys fend for themselves and become wild as quickly as possible? Beck describes the reintroduction of the first 13 tamarins, capturing their fierce determination to survive, their loves and conflicts, their nurturant families, adorable babies, hidden language, sometimes hilarious attempts to solve the problems of adapting, and the agonizing deaths of those who didn’t make it. He describes the power and beauty of the rainforest, and the loves, loyalties, conflicts, and sometimes hilarious bumbling by their human caretakers. Challenging their better-known bosses, two women, a zookeeper and a Brazilian field assistant, discovered the right way to reintroduce the monkeys. But a well-known Rio citizen almost destroyed the program in a callous act of vanity.
Acclaim for Thirteen Gold Monkeys:
“… a must read”, “… learn how science is done in the most difficult of situations in which many people would have thrown up their hands and gone home.”
Professor Emeritus Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today.
“… Beck brings us a golden lion tamarin’s view of the world in this captivating tale of heroic conservation in Brazil’s shrinking Atlantic Forest.”
Melissa Block, National Public Radio
Please note that this work is protected under copyright status. However, use of this research, data table, and charts are allowed as long as proper citations and credits are attributed to this author, Dr. Benjamin B. Beck.