By Lori Marino
As I read about the recent story of Santino, the chimpanzee at the Furuvik zoo in Sweden who was throwing stone disks at visitors I could not help but be taken back to the classic movie Planet Of The Apes. Santino is being given all this attention because he is planning his behavior, choosing, modifying and stockpiling appropriate rocks during the evening for throwing the next day when visitors are around. This obvious instance of foreplanning has sent shock waves through the scientific community because planning ahead is supposed to be a distinctly human trait and Santino is apparently in possession of it. Here’s the part that is like Planet Of The Apes. In the movie Charlton Heston is captured, collared, and confined by great apes who consider Heston “an animal”. When he tries to talk and show similar cognitive abilities to the apes their response, led by a close-minded orangutan named Dr. Zaius, is to silence him by threatening castration or a frontal lobotomy. All because they are deathly afraid of the obvious – that Heston thinks and feels the way they do. The implication is that if they admit this, their treatment of him is nothing short of immoral and they have to change.
This scenario was played out in real life in the case of Santino. The zoo’s response to his agitated behavior? Castration. They imagine this will make him more docile and less motivated to throw stones. It may work. But that is not the issue. It reminds me of the old, pre-Civil War diagnosis of "drapetomania" - the "psychiatric" disorder "possessed" by slaves who tried repeatedly to run away from their “owners”. Rather than listen to those who are imprisoned, we so often prefer to malign them, which is a good way of reducing the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
The focus of attention on Santino is driven by the psychological traits he shares with us, and yet, the response of the human great apes is stunningly inconsistent with that fact. Like the apes in the movie, we avoid the obvious and try to “keep him quiet” with invasive procedures. There is no apparent attempt to use this discovery as the occasion for considering the fact that Santino might actually have a point. There is apparently no recognition of the fact that Santino is communicating loud and clear that he does not want to be in a zoo watched by unfamiliar people all day. Must he wear a sign? The author of the report , Mathias Osvath, in Current Biology (Vol 19, Issue 5, R190-R191, 10 March 2009) states that "These observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way,". He adds that "It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events." Yet, apparently this discovery warrants a review of a scientific paper but not a review of how Santino is being treated.
The time has come for us to listen to these beings who are expressing their feelings about captivity and their experiences. They may not speak the words in English or some other human language but the message is obvious. We can, like the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” apes in the movie, choose to suppress the obvious with strong-arm tactics or we can choose the truly educated and enlightened path and listen to what Santino and his kin are telling us. The choice is ours.
At the end of the movie Dr. Zaius discovers a human doll that talks. It says’ “mama” and he knows the justification for his treatment of human apes is crumbling before him. Well, we have heard our “mama” in the form of Santino’s stone throwing. The question is whether we will answer our fellow great ape with consistency in thought and compassion or, as Dr. Zaius does in the end of the movie, blow up the mine and forever seal the truth and our fates.