January 26, 2012

Animal research

by Kenneth Oppel

Ben Tomlin's father, a behavioural psychologist, moves his family across the country to pursue his latest research project - to teach chimps how to talk. The Tomlins are given a baby chimp to raise as a human. The chimp, named Zan, would wear human clothes, play with human toys, and learn to communicate through American Sign Language.

Ben isn't too thrilled at first, but slowly warms to Zan. As Ben becomes both researcher and loving older brother, Zan becomes a media sensation. But when the project loses its funding, Ben has to wrestle with some serious ethical problems. Is Zan a chimp, a human, or just a specimen in a cage? And what will happen to him?

Oppel has managed to meld the themes of scientific research and animal rights into a compelling coming of age story for both boy and chimp. Ben has to adjust to new surroundings, new friends and girlfriends, and a family that has been forever changed. Zan becomes attached to his human family, taking on human characteristics and emotions, but is forced to reassume his chimp identity. 

Moving, disturbing, and humorous at times, the story moves at a brisk pace, leading up to a suspense-filled, yet hopeful, ending. 

After reading Half Brother, I watched Project Nim, a documentary about a baby chimp raised as a human in 1973. It is much more disturbing than Oppel's book in that the humans really had no idea what they were doing. Their knowledge of chimp behaviour bordered on ignorance. Nim's human mother had no scientific training and spoiled him as she did her own children. Meanwhile, the arrogant project director screwed things up by having an affair with one of his students. Nim paid the price in broken attachments and a succession of ill-equipped animal sanctuaries, including a stint in a medical research facility. Sorrowful and haunting, the documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in animal welfare.

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