News Detective: Pondering Primates

Emily, SNK’s intrepid reporter, ponders primates .
I have to admit I have mixed feelings about treating primates like people.

Don’t get me wrong. I love monkeys. I always visit the ape house when I go to the zoo, and I watch them with fascination. It’s amazing to see animals that look and act so much like us. And I do often feel sad that they are locked up in cages. But ape-to-ape videoconferences? That’s one of the goals of a group of organizations called Animal Nation. I’m just not sure.

Emily with a large stuffed animal, orangutan-style.
Emily with a large stuffed animal, orangutan-style.
Courtesy of Emily Sohn.

My reservations are complicated. Like most people, I tend to read things into animal behavior that probably aren’t there. When my cat meows early in the morning, I think, “She must be angry at us for sleeping so late and neglecting to feed her.” When she stares at me while I’m talking on the phone, I’m convinced she thinks I’m weird for making noises into a piece of plastic.

In reality, my cat probably doesn’t think about the telephone. She just knows it sometimes makes a noise that startles her. In the same way, I’m doubtful that nonhuman primates think or feel the way we do. Even if we raise them like children and do experiments to show how smart they are, gorillas and orangutans will never really be people.

That said, I really enjoyed talking with Lyn Miles at this year’s American Primatological Society conference in Madison, Wis. Her passion is contagious. She spoke like a proud mother about all the amazing things that Chantek can do. Then, she showed me videos of Chantek making jewelry. His skills were definitely impressive. Maybe if I had raised an orangutan from birth, I’d be campaigning for their rights, too.—E. Sohn

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