Friday, February 25, 2011

Lucy the Chimpanzee

So, I was listening to This American Life the other night at work, and I heard a pretty depressing story.  So I of course have decided to share the sadness with all y'alls.

I don't want to get too into the story, if you are interested you can go to the Wikipedia article, or listen to episode This American Life #401 or Radiolab 702 - Lucy.

Basically the story was about the life of a female chimp named Lucy Temerlin.  She was adopted by psychologist Maurice Temerlin and his wife in 1964 as part of a psychological experiment.  Basically, he wanted to see how human Lucy would become if she was raised as a human.  The old "nature versus nurture" experiment.

Initially, I was a little wary about the idea of the project.  Lucy was taken from her mother immediately after her birth and was raised by a human couple.  However, the squick of the child-napping was overcome by my interest in the idea.  What would happen if she was raised as a human?  And considering that Lucy would be treated with kindness and love, I was able to reconcile the uncomfortableness of the way in which they got her.

The interesting thing is that the experiment worked.  Alarmingly well.  As Lucy grew, she seemed to become more and more human.  Of course, as anyone who has watched the discovery channel knows, many animals -- especially primates -- learn through imitation.  It's how we learn most of the skills we know: by watching our parents.  Lucy did the same thing.  She learned to eat using silverware, go to the bathroom, and even to make tea when there was company.  She wore clothes of her own volition (skirts, mostly).  Perhaps most interestingly (to me, at least), was that she became very good at understanding human emotion.  (Something that chimpanzees tend to be pretty bad at.  In fact, dogs tend to better at understanding human visual cues than chimps are.)  She would even comfort her foster mother when she could tell she was upset.  She was so human, in fact, that she was sexually aroused by copies of Playgirl magazine and reacted with fear when she was introduced to another chimp.

So, in creating Lucy, the Temerlins had created something that essentially didn't fit anywhere.  She wasn't human and couldn't ever truly be, but she also was not a chimpanzee an any social sense.  This is kind of a dark place to put a living thing just for scientific knowledge, but again, at least she lived a more or less happy life.  She was "loved like a daughter" by her foster parents.  So, as far as freaks of science that straddle two worlds while belonging in neither can, she lived a pretty good life.

That is, until she grew up.

Many people don't realize that chimpanzees are extremely strong.  They see the way they waddle around and act all cute in movies and zoos, without really realizing that they have incredible strength: far more than the average human.  An average chimpanzee could literally rip a person in half if it wanted to.

So, as Lucy grew, she started destroying things.  The Temerlins realized they couldn't keep her, despite the love they had for her.  I guess I can sympathize with this as well.  I can't imagine what it would have been like for them to try to keep a full-grown chimpanzee in their house, and they were probably correct in their assessment that she couldn't live with them anymore.  However, I cannot get behind what they decided to do next.

They decided to let her go in the wild.

Doesn't that seem like the worst possible idea in the history of bad ideas?  The experiment was over.  This wasn't an effort to see how she would respond to being confronted with the world of her species; this was just a way to get her off their backs.  She wasn't a chimp and shouldn't have been treated like one.  It seems to me that there wasn't a whole lot of meaningful difference between Lucy and a mentally handicapped human.  She might not have been physically or intellectually a human, but she was socially and mentally as human as any one of us.  She preferred the company of humans, even believed she was human.  So who's to say that she wasn't?

The Temerlin's may have made a mistake in choosing to raise Lucy in the first place, but I think the biggest injustice is in abandoning her later in life.  They taught her to trust them and to love them, and then abandoned her, by herself, in the wild.  Would you do that to a human child?  The transition from human life to life in the wild was extremely tough on Lucy.  She was helped along during the transition by a woman named Janis Carter, who stayed with her in the jungle for a time.  She starved herself and constantly begged (through sign language) Janis to "come to her," and whenever Janis said "no," she would respond with "hurt."

Ugh.  That's just horrible.  Lonely and abandoned by her loved ones, all Lucy wanted was human companionship.  Isn't that what we all want?  She was ultimately denied it.  For no good reason at all.  There was nothing stopping the Temerlins from taking Lucy to someplace where she could be happy.  They could have taken her to a number of shelters or even zoos, where she would have been able to live a happy life surrounded by people.  But instead they made the baffling decision to abandon her and force her away from the species she identified with.

Lucy was found dead several years later.  Her skeleton indicated that she had been killed by poachers whom -- due to her close association with humans -- she likely approached without fear.  A horrible story indeed.

I've done a lot of reading about this story since I heard about it, and haven't really been able to think about much else.  A lot of people over at the radiolab site have commented with various diatribes against science and experiments, etc. as a result of this story.  I think that saying science is bad or condemning all of humanity for doing something like this is a bit of a broad generalization.  Frankly, I do not object to the scientific question behind the story.  I don't think it was science or human curiosity that killed Lucy.  It was classic human lack of understanding.

I think that every tragedy should be learned from.  If we are to make Lucy's life mean anything, it should mean this:  we are not as special or important as we think we are.  We may have been granted greater intelligence than other creatures as a gift of natural selection, but it is pure arrogance to assume we are better than them.

The idea that we are better than the other inhabitants of this planet is a strong and pervasive one, especially in western culture.  In the book of Genesis, God grants Adam dominion over all plants and animals, and the power to name them.  This human-centric view of nature has been predominant ever since, and the view that certain organisms are somehow "better" than others has produced great evil even within our own species.

So I suppose what I am trying to say is that when looking at life around us, we should think more about our similarities and not our differences.  I'm not saying that we shouldn't eat animals; I enjoy a burger as much as the next guy.  I'm saying that we should treat them with respect.  As Lucy showed, there isn't as great a difference between Us and Them as we would like to think.


  1. I don't think that relocating the Lucy to Baboon Island, also known as Chimpanzee Island, is exactly abandoning her to the wild. That island is

    "Baboon Island, also known as Chimpanzee Island is home of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust which is the longest running chimp rehabilitation project in Africa."

    I can agree about their first mistake, but it seems that if Lucy was on this island an attempt was being made to rehabilitate her.

  2. Rehabilitate her from what? It would be one thing if she had been taken from the wild after having known that life. Then I could understand trying to rehabilitate her back into that life. But she was raised as a human, in a human world. Throwing her into a world she just doesn't belong doesn't seem like a kind or caring thing to do. At least to me. It seems cruel.

  3. What I think is that most people would say it was better for Lucy to go the island where she would have a lot of freedom rather to a zoo where she would be more confined.

    It would have been better if she was never in a home like she was, but places like Chimpanzee Island are there for animals like Lucy.

    Regardless it was a sad situation.

  4. I don't think the choice between a zoo and Baboon Island isn't exactly the best choice, but at least at the zoo she would be surrounded by people, which, you must remember, she related to far more than she related to other chimps.

    I think that Baboon Island is surely a great place for chimps that have been taken from their natural habitat and put in entertainment, circuses, etc. but I think that Lucy is a very different case. She was raised by humans and therefore belonged with people more than she belonged in the jungle.

    1. I agree with you completely. I heard the Lucy story on public radio -- I was haunted by it for days. People who think she was better off in a place for "animals like Lucy" just aren't getting the fundamental point here. There ARE no chimps "like Lucy." There never was. She was not a previously wild animal who happened to have spent some time in captivity and now needs to be "rehabilitated" (i.e., relearn survival skills for the wild). SHE didn't feel that members of her own species were "like her" -- she was afraid of them! She was never a wild animal. She was not even a domesticated pet. She was a human. She was socialized as a human from the start. Leaving her on Baboon island was exactly like abandoning a socially/mentally impaired human being among wild animals. Your analogy is exactly right. This was a stunningly cruel thing to do to someone these people pretended to have loved as their own child.

    2. This is the point. Thank you. I am so sad about this story too and how another creature was hurt for our inconsideration.

  5. This story is so tragic. Lucy was done a great injustice by being raised in a way that was against her nature then abandoned when she no longer served a scientific purpose.

    Lucy never should have been raised as a human, but she was and it was inhumane to put her "back" into an environment/habitat that was completely alien to her.

    No amount of "rehabilitation" could have prepared Lucy for life in the wild. At some point she accepted it but it was never home and it was never good for her.

  6. I almost think it would have been kinder to euthanize her. I just heard this story on radio lab today and cried in the car. The fact that she probably went willingly to her killers, because she was taught to trust them, is beyond tragic. The "father" sounds as if his ego was the driving force behind this and his narcissism is to blame for it all. In that perspective, Lucy felt as abandoned and unloved as any human child with a narcissistic parent. They found her body by Janis Carter's cage, which I don't think is by accident. If she were shot, she might have went to the cage in an effort to be safe or be comforted. Tragic, just horribly, horribly tragic. I'm crying again.

  7. i found this.. it makes me feel a little better about how they relesed her. they didnt just drop her into the wild they did what they could.

  8. Who-knows-what-was-done-to-that-little-girl-with-all-those-chimps.

  9. Lucy repeatedly made it clear that the felt she belonged with humans and was lonely without them. Whenever Lucy saw Janis, Lucy asked for Janis to stay with her. When Janis refused, Lucy would sign "hurt." Here's an article written by one of the founders of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust:

  10. I think it was criminal to expect her to 'return to the wild'. She'd never lived in the wild. She was more "domesticated" than any dog and we consider it cruel to just drive them out to the country and let them go. The fact that they were some what supervised and assisted on "Baboon Island" does nothing to forgive what was done to her. I agree that she would have been akin to a mentally challenged human. She should have had love and comfort all her life, not abandoned like a wild kitten when the "experiment" was over. It wasn't an "experiment" - it was her life.

  11. I just heard the story on NPR and I still can't get over it. Such cruelty in abandoning her in that matter for she was for all intents and purposes ...human. Saddens me terribly to know that such intelligent, developed and hopefully tho not very obvious, enlightened people would not realize that chimps are wild animals and should be respected as such however they chose to embrace her and raise her as their child well, they should have bitten the bucket and deal with the consequences THEIR actions caused. Lucy was simply abandoned by her parents. That's it, you're too big and strong for me therefore you should go back to the wild"

    1. Yes, a VERY sad outcome. Lucy's story underlines how strongly all of us apes are wired for social connections. We now know Lucy could never have fully functioned in human society. Unfortunately, as we found out, she could never later in life learn to fit into chimpanzee society. Janis Carter tried more than any human, I can imagine would to make this happen. Whether this was a good decision or not, this is our well documented lesson and there is value in sharing it. As an aside, this story took place in the sixties and seventies. And being in my sixties, I can reflect on how it was a different time with many naive ideas. We are learning so much about the emotions and cognitions of intelligent social animals. Our shared overlaps fascinate me. Acknowledging them broadly to our precious species is going to take dedication by all of us committed to changing the “US humans vs THEM animals” mindset.

  12. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this sad story. Humans are curious and often hurtful out of ignorance. I agree that we can learn something here. Animals are no less deserving of kindness and respect than any other beings. It takes courage to look honestly at how we treat one another... especially animals. We have tremendous power to change our world for the better. If Lucy's story helps to do that... if she helps to open our eyes to suffering, then she did not die in vain.

  13. As social creatures, the need to belong can be as strong as the need to eat or drink. I, too, feel the horror of the complete betrayal of this gullible animal by this family. It seems worse than abandoning a human child, because this chimp probably had less ability to recover from such a blow. I wonder about the family. Are they sociopaths? Or, are there things about the situation that we do not understand? There were undoubtedly other options--building a large habitat next to their home is one that springs to the imagination. Thanks to 'unknown' for the hopeful note that Lucy's story will help others.

  14. She did die in vain, for human arrogance. Beyond's cruelty writ large. Imagine Lucy's last moments, and weep.

    Harrison, you can't respect animals and eat them. Ask that cow you're munching on if he felt respected while crammed into a hot truck for hours on end before being herded up a ramp to the smell of blood and fear. Did you know many cows aren't properly stunned before being hoisted up by a leg for their blood to drain? Respect my ass.