Debbie Lee Wesselmann offers some insight into animal captivity

We’ve been hearing a lot about Sara Gruen’s new book, The Ape House, which explores the two worlds of humans and bonobo apes and the links that bind them. If you liked this book and are itching to read more about these furry little guys, we have just the book for you: Captivity by Debbie Lee Wesselmann, first published in 2008.

In Captivity, Dana Armstrong, director of a  chimpanzee sanctuary in South Carolina, arrives at work to discover the worst has happened: someone has set loose a group of particularly dangerous chimpanzees. She mobilizes her staff to capture the missing chimps before they can injure the local citizens or be killed themselves. The sanctuary is already on precarious ground, and if it fails, the chimps—some infected with HIV, some survivors of experimental surgeries, some rescued from roadside zoos—have nowhere to go. The sanctuary is all they—and Dana—have left.

As Dana scrambles to determine who was responsible, pressure mounts from all sides—from local protestors; from animal rights groups; from the university that oversees the sanctuary; from an old nemesis bent on destroying her; from journalist Sam Wendt, who seems attracted to Dana one moment but exposes her vulnerabilities the next; from her brother, Zack, an overgrown child who shares her past even as he sabotages her future. As political and personal tensions rise in the human world, the chimpanzees have their own crises, events that Dana, more than ever, cannot afford to ignore.

Captivity is a unique, surprising world unto itself—a high literary work, a page-turner, and an issues novel all at once. And we’re not the only ones who fell in love with this story–Publishers Weekly and Library Journal gave Captivity starred reviews. PW even said, “The stirring stories of Dana Armstrong and her family play out in unforgettable fashion. With empathetic insight, the author precisely observes both human and animal behavior.”

We sat down with the author, Debbie Lee Wesselmann, to ask her just a little bit about her book and her thoughts on chimps in captivity.

Have you always been interested in animals and the natural world?

Although I was born in New York City, I am primarily a small-town girl. I grew up in suburban Demarest, New Jersey, as the oldest of three. During the summer, I spent long hours wading in the brook behind our house, catching pollywogs and crawfish and learning how to imitate the mating trill of toads. The woods bordering our property held acres of solitude, and I found a special “cave” formed by brambles where I could hide and read. It was an unconventional life for a bookworm; I spent as many hours locked in my room reading books and writing stories as I did climbing trees and digging through pond sludge for critters. When it came to deciding what I wanted to study in college, I had a difficult time choosing between science and the humanities. Eventually, the drive to write fiction won out.
How long did you research primate behavior for Captivity?

Before I began writing Captivity, I spent about a year researching chimpanzee behavior, although my research continued while I was actually writing the novel. My research time was a minimum of two years, probably more, although my active search for information on nonhuman primates was not as intense in year three.
Probably the two most influential books early on were Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man and Next of Kin by Roger Fouts with Stephen Tukel Mills. At first, my reading was indiscriminate—anything on chimpanzees would do—but as I delved deeper into the issues of the novel, I began to select works that promised to pertain directly to my writerly needs. For example, a book called Animal Underworld led me to the broader issues of all captive animals in the United States. I was able to get a sense of the history of animal rights from The Animal Rights Movement in America. And then there were the more specific books by Frans de Waal: Chimpanzee Politics and Chimpanzee Cultures. I occasionally branched out to read about other nonhuman primate species. I didn’t stick to books, however. I read articles and performed internet searches.
Have you had any contact with chimpanzees?

Several years ago, my family and I took an Asian vacation that included a few days in Singapore. I was still in my research phase, and I had read that the Singapore Zoological Gardens, one of the best-known zoos in Asia, housed chimpanzees. The zoo is known for its “open” exhibits, without visible barriers between visitors and animals and with care given to the reproduction of native habitats. Indeed, it is a beautiful property, some of the animals running freely throughout. There, at set times during the day, tourists can pay a fee to have their picture taken with a chimp or an orang. I really needed to know what a chimp—at least one chimp—felt like to be able to describe it in my novel, so I was first in line. When they brought the juvenile chimp out, I saw at once that he was ill, with a runny nose and dull eyes. He didn’t seem curious or energetic, merely indifferent. He did not want to be there but had no choice—that much was obvious from the way he regarded me. I didn’t know what to do. I was torn between my research and my empathy for the chimp. Here I was, researching nonhuman primate rights while contributing to an ill chimp being paraded for the sake of tourism. I was caught between being thrilled to finally make physical contact with a chimp and understanding the reality of the situation that allowed it. Despite my reservations, I went through with it. I still have the Polaroid shot of him sitting in my lap. Although I’m smiling, he is leaning forward, wanting to get it over with. When I left the chair, I saw that about fifty people waited in line, and that the chimp could not return to his enclosure until every one had his or her chance to hold him. This moment, and my own participation in it, taught me, as none of my previous research had, the unwitting cruelty we show toward other primates. No one was hurting the chimp. No one was withholding food or locking him up in a small, sterile box. As zoos go, he probably lived in the best of the best. But he was working for no other purpose than to satisfy human amusement and curiosity. It showed me how subtle exploitation can be.

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