Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Naked Ape

In the introduction to his influential 1967 book The Naked Ape, British zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris writes, "There are some who will prefer not to contemplate their animal selves....There are others who will resent any zoological invasion of their specialist arena. But I believe that this approach can be of great value and that, whatever its shortcomings, it will throw new...light on the complex nature of our extraordinary nature." In a 1993 essay about chimpanzees, British primatologist and ethologist Jane Goodall (whom I met, by the way, at a book-signing following a lecture) writes, "If we ascribe human emotion to nonhuman animals we are, of course, accused of anthropomorphism. But given the similarities in the anatomy and wiring of the chimpanzee and human brains, is it not logical to assume that there will be similarities also in the feelings, emotions and moods of the two species? Certainly all of us who have worked closely with chimpanzees over extended periods of time have no hesitation in asserting that chimpanzees, like humans, show emotions similar to - sometimes probably identical to - those which we label joy, sadness, fear, despair and so on." Well, a 20-year-old chimp at the Mysore Zoo in Karnataka, India, is giving visitors the opportunity to compare themselves to apes. "Guru," completely hairless due to alopecia, is described as "startlingly human" in his musculature, but his actions - beating his chest, making a lot of noise, and throwing stones and poop at his visitors - remain untamed. Zoo veterinarian Dr. Suresh Kumar is not sure why the skin condition, which Guru had when he arrived at the zoo from a circus, developed. "However, with chimpanzees being so much like humans, we think it could have been caused by factors in Guru’s life such a stress or trauma, which can induce alopecia in humans. We have tried a number of medicines on him, but to date there have been no positive results, and as a last resort we are planning to consult a human skin doctor." Guru is the latest reminder that instead of just seeing us in the apes, let us also look at the apes in ourselves...

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