Saturday, August 29, 2015

Buenos Aires attorney general takes on an orangutan in the zoo and laments the death of Darwin

A prominent and influential government lawyer in Buenos Aires has come to the remarkable conclusion that “Darwin is dead” because of the court case in the Argentina city for rights for the orangutan Sandra.

Attorney General of the city of Buenos Aires Julio Conte-Grand wrote an article on the topic for the August 25 issue of the Argentina newspaper La Nacion.

Julio Conte-Grand signs papers
Conte-Grand argues that the real nail in the coffin of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the idea that an orangutan like Sandra should have the basic legal rights of a “non-human person.”

I am playing a role in this case after forming a committee with orangutan experts Leif Cocks, president of The Orangutan Project, and Gary Shapiro, president of the Orang Utan Republik, to write a report for the court on conditions for the ethical treatment of Sandra. The report was submitted to the court by the association of lawyers for animal rights called AFADA.

It would be interesting to speculate what the motives are for the attorney general to comment as he did on a case in progress. Whose interests does his article serve? Certainly, it seems fair to conclude that the attorney general represents some popular sentiment in Argentina that the case of Sandra is dangerous in some way. The article would be a way of being seen to exert some public pressure on the liberal-thinking judge in the case, Elena Amanda Liberatori, although the article does not say explicitly that the judge may end up killing Darwin by her decision.

Conte-Grand recognizes the “popular” and “crude” version of the theory of evolution, or natural selection, to be that “man descended from monkey.” Of course, that is a false version of the science of the theory, and Conte-Grand is careful to hint that this version is not trustworthy. And yet, at the same time, he is subtly or not so subtly invoking an error to support his article. That is why we enjoy the skill of lawyers. They are clever Homo sapiens.

Conte-Grand says the court case of Sandra goes far beyond the need to protect Sandra from cruelty, as though that is the limit of our ethical responsibility as human beings. The ethical rule would thus be that we can kill other living beings for whatever reason as long as we do it in a kind way. Should that really be the limit of our ethics?

Giving legal status to an orangutan would destroy the logic and science of natural selection, says Conte-Grand. Although he does not state his argument clearly, he is arguing that evolution is a process of developing from "lower" to "higher" forms of life. In his argument, apes are a "lower" form of life and humans a "higher" form and his concept of ethics is built on this notion of going from "lower" to "higher" forms of life. For him, an orangutan as a legal “non-human person” would have basic rights that a human embryo does not. A human at an early stage of development would thus be “less” than an orangutan in “Darwinism in reverse,” Conte-Grand says.

The argument makes serious errors in several ways. On a really basic level, evolution does not make the distinction of “lower” and “higher” forms of life in the way that human beings do. The elements that we value and distinguish as higher and lower are really concepts developed by human beings, not nature. We could also question whether a “higher” being would wage devastating wars, create massive poverty and unleash the destructiveness of global climate change.

But the more serious error is that evolution is not a system of ethics and evolution should not be used to make ethical decisions. For instance, evolution would not tell us that it is wrong to eat other human beings. As the world gets more and more crowded and resources dwindle through human wastefulness, the machinery of evolution might favour eating the surplus human meat. But we would say that is wrong and not ethical. And I suspect that Darwin would agree.

Presumably the attorney general is not a vegetarian on ethical grounds, but eats meat, like beef or chicken, maybe with gusto. And that is considered legal, because cows and chickens are objects and property under the law. But does the attorney general want Sandra to be legally an object and property which he can also eat? I have trouble imagining Julio Conte-Grand with knife and fork ready to eat an orangutan or chimpanzee steak because he believes there is nothing in evolution that forbids him from doing that. The attorney general has strong values and ethics that evolution does not have. We should be grateful for that.

So what is the real reason for opposing a little more ethical treatment of Sandra? It is the old argument that if you free women and slaves, then everybody who is not a woman or a slave will lose. That was once a “crude” and “popular” argument that carried weight.

Conte-Grand ends his article by saying that Darwin and Newton are buried in Westminster Abbey not far from each other and that they must be asking each other “what they did wrong” if an orangutan is being considered for legal status as a “non-human person.” It is not clear why the attorney general is dragging Newton into the discussion, although Newton had fascinating interests in the occult, alchemy and the apocalypse, predicting the world would not end until at least 2060, which may be foresight into the effects of our self-inflicted global climate change.

As for Darwin, his theory of evolution may owe a debt to orangutans. After Darwin returned to England from his voyage around the world and began years of thinking about his theory, he encountered his first ape, an orangutan named Jenny, in the zoo in London in March 1838. Darwin wrote in his notebook at the time about how the behaviour of Jenny started him thinking about a nonhuman person. Jenny was dressed in human clothes in drawings of the time. Darwin played a harmonica in front of Jenny and gave her peppermint candy to see if she reacted like a human being. He watched how she reacted to seeing herself in a mirror. Darwin was intrigued by the similarities of thought and emotion in his orangutan and human beings, later writing the book The Expression of The Emotions in Man and Animals.

How should we interpret Conte-Grand’s strange anxiety about orangutans, particularly since there is really not a significant population of orangutans in Argentina to worry about? I would say that it is always interesting how Homo sapiens feel threatened by the idea that an intelligent fellow species of primate might deserve a few legal rights, such as the right to life and liberty and freedom from harm by human beings. But would the stability of meat-eating Argentina really be undermined if Sandra had a few more rights?

The case of Sandra in Buenos Aires seems to have touched a nerve, based on this outburst by the attorney general in La Nacion. All I would say to Sandra is, “Don’t give up hope yet that the legal system is stronger in the end than human self-interest.” That is why we created the legal system, to protect us from ourselves. Too bad we can’t do that with global climate change.

Here is the link to the original story in Spanish:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Habeas corpus hearing for U.S. chimpanzees could change ethics radically for human beings

Jane Goodall, please take note. None other than Rolling Stone magazine has just published on the groundbreaking legal case of two chimpanzees being granted a hearing in a habeas corpus application in the U.S., with the hearing coming up late in May 2015. This is not only a huge step in the potential advancement of rights for apes, it has a potential to radically alter the ethical context for human beings. This is because ethics as we know it is basically for relationships between human beings, within the privileged circle of humanity (from which women, children and aboriginals, etc. were once excluded but are now included), and does not extend outside that privileged circle, to "objects" and "things." In the chimpanzee hearing, a university research centre will have to argue to the contrary, that apes are things and objects that can be owned and used like slaves without their consent and have no right to freedom. If this habeas corpus application is successful, that privileged circle will extend to the first time outside homo sapiens. Coincidentally, I am scheduled to give a paper at a critical thinking conference in San Francisco in July on this topic and had dinner recently with Steven Wise, the brilliant and compassionate U.S. animal rights lawyer who is pursing the case through his foundation, the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Rolling Stone article:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

the strange court case of orangutan Sandra in Buenos Aires

Sandra's case for freedom is in court in Buenos Aires

The truth about the legal status of the orangutan Sandra in Argentina has been elusive and hard to determine. 

The freedom of the orangutan is being sought from forced captivity at the Buenos Aires zoo as an ape person entitled to freedom and humane treatment. But the specific legal details of what is actually being accomplished in court in Argentina have been confused and blurred, leading to misunderstandings in the media.

The main issue is whether new legal rights have been won in the court case for the orangutan Sandra. It seems that the potential for new rights is being confused with whether new rights have technically been won yet.

Since I have been working behind the scenes since January 2015 with the association of lawyers for animal rights in Argentina called ALFADA that has been pursing the court cases on behalf of Sandra, the following is the most accurate version of the details, which I posted on wikipedia:

Sandra is an orangutan living in Buenos Aires Zoo.
On December 18, 2014, a hybrid orangutan named Sandra, born in a zoo in Germany in 1986, was termed by the court in Argentina as a "non-human subject" in an unsuccessful habeas corpus case regarding the release of the orangutan from captivity at the Buenos Aires zoo. The decision turning down the habeas corpus application also led to the court's direction to prosecute alleged cruelty by the zoo through the prosecutor's office in Buenos Aires in 2015. Meanwhile, the status of the orangutan as a "non-human subject" is uncertain and needs to be determined by the court.
It was widely reported in the media that Sandra was declared a "non-human person" by the court on December 18, 2014, but that was a legal interpretation of "non-human subject" by the association of lawyers for animal rights in Argentina, ALFADA, that is pursing court cases on behalf of Sandra.
In most legal jurisdictions in the world, an animal is considered an object without rights, or property capable of being owned, bought and sold, not a subject with rights. In most jurisdictions, there is also a legal distinction between a "person" and a "human being." For instance, a corporation can be a legal "person" without being a "human being."
In 2015, ALFADA is pursuing the release of Sandra from the zoo and a legal decision to give her status as a "person" through an amparoapplication in court, which will raise the issue of the legal status and rights of the orangutan under the Codigo Civil Argentio or Argentina Civil Code, under articles 30, 31, 32, 51, 52, 56 and 57. The civil code has two relevant categories, "personas de existencia visible" (visible existing persons), applied to corporeal entities such as minors and disabled persons, and "personas de existencia ideal" (ideal existing persons), applied to legal incorporeal entities such as a corporation given "person" status in the law. Article 51 defines "personas de existencia visible" as having "signos característicos de humanidad." There is no "non-human person" category in the code.
Little has been published about the background of Sandra. She has a daughter who was taken from her in the zoo in Buenos Aires and sent to an unknown location. The issues are unresolved of where Sandra would be sent if ordered released by the court and how that would be funded.

A key document is the Dec. 18, 2014 court decision, which has the further complication of being translated from the Spanish and not always agreeing word for word with the translation from ALFADA:

Friday, December 19, 2014

Give the North Korean dictator five red stars for the film The Interview


By Shawn Thompson

Give Young Kimchi Uno five bright red stars and an Oscar, please.

Is that popcorn butter on his fingers?

The master of astute political moves in North Korea has done what commercial Hollywood can only dream of doing, make a complete satirical masterpiece, transforming a film comedy into satire without the film even being shown in theatres.

The 112-minute Sony film The Interview was originally a clever mixture of comedy and satire, in that order, made a little bit more legitimate by including the popular missile-prone dictator Young Kimchi Uno.

Young Kimchi Uno is the safest of safe targets. No matter how bad the aim of a satirist, he sucks the arrow unto himself. And apparently, of all the evils in the world, the only thing he can't tolerate is being mocked.

Accessorize with a sub and you will feel good
Sure, there was some reverse and unintended satire in the film which plays to the misconceptions of communist regimes, that the media in the West are really the concealed political operatives of the state. That should make the media cringe, not to mention the state.

But the logical response for North Korea to this kind of dirty video warfare -- which North Korea, naturally imagining that the United States is run like Korea, interprets as coming from the U.S. administration -- is to counterattack the United States with its own hostile and aggressive comedy about the U.S. president. That is how you play political ping-pong. You slap the little white ball back using the same device. North Korea could produce its own White House comedy about a tragic botching of the annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey and call it A Big White House Turkey.

For the most part, to rewind the whole affair to its almost now forgotten origins, the antics in the film The Interview of the Green Hornet (Seth Rogen) and the Wizard of Oz (James Franco) are humorous, designed mainly for laughs, not to ridicule and expose social and political problems.

"We thought maybe we could inject some slight relevance," Seth Rogen told Stephen Colbert on air. The dictator's "feelings" about being mocked and ridiculed weren't considered, he said, although sometimes those with all the power seem to have more than their share of hypersensitivity about their abuses and vices.

However, by seizing the political stage in the film and intervening before the film was released in theatres through a cyber-attack on the Sony corporation, North Korea has become a co-author of the film and transformed it into a full satirical film.

A large degree of credit in making the film rightly goes to the efforts of North Korea. Should there be any awards and honours for the film, the fair and democratic approach would be to share the awards with North Korea. Young Kimchi Uno should come by submarine to Hollywood to tip toe down the red carpet and accept the awards in person.

Because of the participation of North Korea, a fictional three-star film is now cranked up to a five-star semi-documentary.

And there’s no need to even see the film at all, except on film night in Camp 14 in North Korea.

More red five-star reviews are welcome. #redstarreview

Monday, August 20, 2012

orangutan musing

orangutan musing by IntimateApe
orangutan musing, a photo by IntimateApe on Flickr.

I like to capture orangutans in a thoughtful pose to show that side of them. The black and white photo seems to highlight that contemplative aspect. This photo was taken at Nyaru Menteng.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Inside an orangutan sanctuary in Borneo: Nyaru Menteng and what makes it good

Sido and Happy enjoy each other's company at Nyaru Menteng, Kalimantan, Borneo
Maybe I'm too idealistic, but I like to look for sanctuaries in this troubled world, places that are safe and apart from the influence of the world and that let you heal and grow.

For the last seven days I have been in a place like that, at the Nyaru Menteng sanctuary for orphan orangutans near Palangkaraya, in Kalimantan, Borneo.

I am here as I start work on a new book about morality in apes and human beings, after leading a small eco-tour with my friend Gary Shapiro to see orangutans roaming freely at Camp Leakey, in Tanjung Puting national park in Kalimantan.

And I don't think I could be in a better place to observe morality in apes and humans than in a sanctuary like Nyaru Menteng, originally set up under the Borneo Orangutan Survival foundation by the visionary Danish angel Lone Droscher-Neilsen, whom I met here in 2004.

The current manager here, a 37-year-old Javanese man named Anton Nurcahyo, says that I am still in the honeymoon phase of being at Nyaru Menteng, but that is because he is too modest and practical (unlike me) about has accomplishments after two years here.

Having visited most of the orangutan centres, I can say that this one is well managed because of the joy I see in both the orangutans and the staff, which you don't see in the places where people and primates feel tension and pressure. The staff laugh and joke with each other and the orangutans approach them as companions would, unafraid.

Two-year-old Miko at Nyaru Menteng
Some mornings I go out in the jungle with Hani, the staff and a group of about 10 orangutans, for the orangutans to get some jungle time in the trees, which, for them, is the most interesting place to be. These orangutans are orphans who lost their mother because of human beings and need to learn how to function in the jungle. Nyaru Menteng has more than 600 orangutans, with a staff of 200, on 60 hectares of buildings, grounds and forest, plus some additional patches of land on a few islands and in other locations.

After the morning jungle romp, I return for the end-of-the-day meal and playtime from 3-5 p.m. Some of the orangutans still have some energy left from the trees and roll, stretch and play with their friends.

I spend the evening and sleep in a staff cabin where I have to dodge a vicious macaque on the narrow walkway over the swamp and watch for the renegade female orangutan who borrowed the cushions I put on the rattan couch on the deck. I am happy if I could make her life more comfortable.

I have to say that being here in Borneo with the orangutans I have forgotten about my other life -- except for my partner Wendy, of course, and my children, Pearce and Caitlin -- and it takes some effort to remind myself that I live in North American and have responsibilities there.

One day I was even drifting off in a hammock in the jungle with the orangutans, watching the sky and the trees for entertainment as they would, oblivious like the orangutans to the babble of Indonesian around me -- when the voice of Hani cut through asking, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING, MR?" "Thinking," I said, which seemed like what a writer and university professor should be doing. Since then, whenever anyone seems to be catnapping for a moment, it is called "thinking" in honour of me.

But that's the magic of a sanctuary too. It satisfies you and fulfills you and gives you the space to think unobstructed. Too many abstractions and theories can blind you. I think that being in places like Nyaru Menteng will help me understand in a practical way how we can establish a moral purpose that resists the destructiveness of the world and works to maintain a healthy community of people and apes.

There are so many different theories of what is good and moral, without agreement of what actually works, so Nyaru Menteng for me could be a living model of how these things can function.

I hope that Nyaru Menteng will last many years. I suspect it will seem much the same to me as today when the honeymoon is ended. At least, that's want we need to believe in a world like ours. We need to think that this place is possible, that, while it would be too idealistic to think that it is perfect, it still survives all the temptations of a difficult world with its basic integrity intact, that it deserves the name of "sanctuary."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Psychology Today magazine, "mating" with an ape and how to dress your chimpanzee at the wedding

Funny or exploitative and misleading about apes? February 2012 issue


My favourite and sometimes provocative magazine Psychology Today has an eye-catching photo on the cover of its February 2012 issue showing a chimpanzee in a tuxedo with a woman in a wedding dress as her "mate."

The article is called "Are You With the Right Mate? What to do when you think it's all a mistake (and you will)"

As an older divorced primate with what I believe is now a promising second attempt at lifelong companionship, I am compelled to read this article and others, ones in the February issue like the cure for insomnia, thinking like a genius, how to keep your brain young -- all essential information for me.

The chimpanzee mate article is illustrated inside with a series of photos of a chimpanzee dressed in human clothes with his bride, with a final photo of them sharing a kiss. (Chimpanzees naturally kiss without having to be coaxed by human beings.)

There is a playful, humorous suggestion in the photos -- but not in the article itself -- that a male chimpanzee is almost akin to a human mate. One wonders what the children would be like.

But avoiding the temptation to see where the idea of a chimpanzee mate leads, is it right to dress an ape in human fashion?

Facebook profile photo that sparked outrage
I know that some of my Facebook primate friends would be appalled. In the last few days they have had a scorching debate about censoring a Facebook contact of ours who is using a monkey dressed in clothes as her profile photo.

The moral issue is a fascinating one.

The argument is that it is wrong to turn a fellow thinking and sentient being into an object of our pleasure. That is not only degrading, it validates their status as "pets" and helps to justify the abuse of the species.

The same type of thing was done years ago to women and non-Caucasians, in the days when male Caucasians had all the power and seemed destined always to have all the power.

Just in case you haven't heard, the reign of the white, male Caucasian has come to an end.

What was disturbing about the Facebook monkey photo feud was how quickly it descended into moralistic squabbling to pressure and punish anyone who didn't attack the offender.

But enough of social squabbles. What about the rights of apes?

Like all moral principles, particularly when they are promoted as absolutes, principles need to be scrutinized.

From Psychology Today magazine
We might say that it is absolutely and universally wrong to murder another human being, but then how is it right to fight wars, execute murderers, and kill terrorists? Are there some situations where murder is justified?

I would argue, by the way, that killing an ape is also murder, and I expect there would be fewer exceptions than there are for human beings.

But back to clothing and apes.

What if a chimpanzee decides of his own free will that he would like to wear a piece of clothing? Should we say that he does not have a choice, because we humans know better and have taken the right to make decisions for him?

But, someone will say, chimpanzees in the wild don't wear clothing. We want to keep them in a pristine state and wearing just your natural fur is part of that.

An interspecies kiss, in Psychology Today magazine
One answer might be another hypothetical test. Suppose you found a previously undiscovered tribe in the Amazon jungle. Should they be kept in a pristine and uncontaminated state without choice, against their will? Should they be given the choice if they want to learn from us and adopt some of what we have?

At what point do apes have basic rights and the freedom to make basic choices for themselves? How can we make all the choices for them?

Whatever the answer, whether Psychology Today magazine is bold for making a chimpanzee somewhat of a "mate" of a human being or reprehensible for a joke that makes an ape a plaything, our thinking about apes is far too sloppy.

The U.S.-based Psychology Today uses a chimpanzee human plaything on the cover at a time when the moral issue of using chimpanzees in medical experiments is being seriously debated in the U.S. Only two countries do this -- the U.S. and Gabon.

 Even with the best of motives we have done apes wrong.

Who is reading this blog entry? Where is the interest? In the first week of this blog item being posted on the web, here is a breakdown by country of the page views: United States 332, UK 99, Canada 85, Germany 24, France 20, Australia 19, Russia 19, Indonesia, 18, China 14, India 13.

(By the way, Psychology Today is still my favourite magazine (along with the Economist), despite our rocky history. I was invited to write an online column for Psychology Today magazine in 2010 , with the publication of my book about orangutans, but I was dismissed later that year for raising the issue of the magazine's treatment of online columnists. I also criticized the magazine for using a cover photo of a woman in a bikini that seemed more Cosmopolitan magazine than Psychology Today.)

The editor of my favourite primate psychology magazine:


Sunday, December 18, 2011

A meditation on apes, corporate greed, feelings of extinction, and the loss of literacy #OccupyBarnesAndNoble

by Shawn Thompson

It's terrible to contemplate the death of a species like the orangutan. 

I've been thinking of various ways to try to comprehend this unimaginable event. I imagine that extinction is a big death similar in some ways to the small death of the individual.

But what jolted me into thinking about this in a different way was the shock of strolling into my favourite Barnes and Noble bookstore in Seattle this weekend and discovering that the bookstore will come to an end on December 31, 2011. Good bye to the old year and hello to the new era!

As a book author writing about orangutans and someone concerned about literacy, a bookstore is my sacred space. In a bookstore I see the people like me who cherish the flow of the written word pass through the commercial arches.

Now the space in the fifth largest Barnes and Noble store in the United States, in the readership district of the hinterland of the University of Washington, shrinks day by day towards its demise at the end of the year, one book at a time, just as the forest of orangutans shrinks one tree at a time.

If we didn't have memories, we might not notice the change and just think that the size of the shrinking forest has always been the same.

Certainly corporations, whether book chains, mall owners or the companies converting the rain forest to palm oil plantations, must feel safe in the knowledge that people and orangutans feel powerless and simply adjust to change over time. The annoying sounds they make in protest will simply grow fainter and fainter.

I was talking to a frustrated and introverted employee of Barnes and Noble, with the word Graham on his name plate, and learning that he and the others were suddenly laid off, with one week's pay for each year of bookselling, his dedication to books and literacy eroded over the years by corporate insensitive and illiteracy. A customer came up while Graham and I were discussing  localized fate and change, and when I asked the customer how she felt about the store closing, she shrugged. It made her sad. "But there is nothing we can do," she said and seemed uncomfortable that I wanted to discuss the issue. She wanted to buy a book instead.

I had already told Graham that, as the author of a book about the looming extinction of orangutans, I am a great supporter of lost causes. Just because you think a cause is lost doesn't mean that you should stop the fight.

But the change is relentless. The death of books. The death of literacy. The death of a noble species of ape.


In the case of the University Village mall in Seattle, Graham told me that the mall corporation wanted to raise the rent of Barnes and Noble while the bookstore had declining sales and was pruning its sales staff over the years in a corporate reflex action. The book business in general has declining sales of hard copy books and a surge of sales of ebooks that doesn't compensate for the difference. Which means that a book author like me is a species under pressure.

Graham, who studied literature in university and not the more relevant subject of corporate greed, also said that the mall wants to chop up the Barnes and Noble space into smaller stores to make more money, the same way land is subdivided for smaller house lots to make it worth more. The responsibility to literacy in a devoted community of readers around the university, in a city with one of the highest rates of book consumption  per capita in the United States, doesn't matter as much as making a buck. No surprise. That we know.

At the same time, in a mirror universe, the local University Village bookstore was also in the clutches of its corporate office in New York, which wouldn't let the local store support local writers, such as me as the author of a book about orangutans living several blocks away. When corporate headquarters decided it had sold enough of an orangutan book in Seattle, maybe less than a dozen copies, it was no longer interested in stocking them on the shelves. The importance of the cause underlying an orangutan book does not matter to the corporation. The fate of the orangutan does not matter to the palm oil plantation.

One of the issues I discussed with Graham was how often you discover by chance a new interest by browsing in a bookstore. An old statistic from ancient pre-web days said that 60 per cent of purchases in bookstores came from people who bought on impulse in a bookstore. With fewer bookstores, we will lose that. If a book chain does not take the responsibility to stock its shelves with books worth stumbling over, then that opportunity vanishes.

I bought several books on impulse after talking to Graham, although I regretted that it would be no benefit to him personally. I found a book by Jacques Derrida called The Animal That I Therefore Am, which I didn't know existed until I saw it on the shelf. Before that moment, I would not have known if it disappeared. The back of the book says, "The book is at once an affectionate look back over the multiple roles played by animals in Derrida's work and a profound philosophical investigation and critique of the relegation of animal life that takes place as a result of the distinction -- dating from Descartes -- between man as thinking animal and every other living species." The affectionate and the profound are what I want, plus relationships with unincorporated animals.

I also bought a cheap abridged paperback copy of Alexander Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo, thinking it was somehow relevant to the experience of life and would help.

When I took the books to the checkout counter, the butch, overly tall woman at the cash register was being cheerful and said, "Would you like to purchase a Barnes and Noble membership?" I responded by reflex, in solidarity, by saying, "Why would I want to buy a membership in a company that is closing this bookstore and laying off people like you?"


The psychology of all this is similar to the rain forest and orangutans. The rain forest is like the space of the bookstore and the orangutan the individual literacy that inhabits it. Orangutans, after all, discover things, create their own culture and share what they learn with the group. That is basic rain forest literacy. Losing just one orangutan is like losing the information in a book. And it can't be replicated by a printing press.

Part of the genius of Jane Goodall is to recognize the importance of an individual ape in this way. She says in a collection called The Great Ape Project, "Each chimpanzee has a unique personality and each has his or her own individual life history ... And we find that individual chimpanzees can make a difference to the course of chimpanzee history, as is the case with humans."

That reminds me of what the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury called "the butterfly effect." Change one tiny element and it has a huge ripple effect accumulating and amplifying over a long period of time. The loss of the effect of the individual could be great over time.

So when we talk about the extinction of a species of ape we are talking about an abstraction and not the effect of the loss to the whole of the individual. Extinction is bad enough, but the loss of an individual can have a ripple effect. And you are never aware of what you have lost.

So the printed book is doomed. The rain forest is doomed. The orangutan is doomed.

How would an orangutan feel about a shrinking forest? Photo by Shawn Thompson

What does extinction feel like? Can we imagine something so big and terrible? 

I wonder if an orangutan would feel like me wandering around the shrinking space in my local bookstore habitat and feeling the palpable way that the absence is expanding, like a big godly thumb pressing down on my small squishy soul. It makes me feel the personal presence of it all. Maybe the Count of Monte Cristo could deal with the experience, but not me.

I was curious what sections of books would disappear first and what kind of strategy there was, probably mapped out by consultants for the corporation, to lessen the sense that books are disappearing. The westerns were gone first and a selection of  Science Fiction and children's books. Book shelves were removed to eliminate the traces that something was missing on the shelves.

I tried to imagine what this would be like for an orangutan. Every morning you wake up and a few more trees are gone. The sunlight is breaking through the edges of your forest more. The annoying mechanical and human sounds from outside are growing closer and muffled less by the buffer of trees.

In the bookstore, I felt myself herded to the sections of books that remained, a kind of unconscious adaptive strategy. The variety is shrinking. Some pleasures and interests are vanishing. I try to compensate by other pleasures and interests so that I won't notice and feel bad.

For an orangutan in the forest, the variety of fruit trees is shrinking. Maybe during the day you retreat more to the higher parts of a tree or to the shifting centre of the forest. At night, maybe you don't sleep as deeply. You dream of vague vanished pleasures and interests and when you wake up try to enjoy the fruit that remains. How conscious are you of missing fruit?

In the bookstore, as the number of books diminishes, so do the fellow book lovers. I am feeling more and more solitary. I am more aware of myself in an emptiness that is growing larger. I feel smaller but more important too.

For the orangutan, already solitary, the orangutans out in the trees that you once heard and saw from time to time are diminishing. There are more human beings invading the jungle. There are fewer social pleasures. Fewer dating opportunities. More compromises.

I think my mind had drifted a bit in the bookstore and then I felt that Graham had exhausted what he wanted to say. Maybe he felt embarrassed that he had revealled too much about his private pain.

I could see that Graham the crushed and introverted former idealist felt powerless, his world, his dreams, his ambitions, his small role in literacy, devastated. He had trouble looking me in the eye, but thanked me for listening patiently to his long tale and then shook my hand with the iron power one expects from a dock worker, not a distracted dispenser of books.


I went home to tell my partner Wendy the disaster. The best thing about our location in Seattle is being close to a huge literacy space and the abundance of urban trees. Our street is noisy with traffic, which I don't like.

Wendy understood right away and gave me a big hug and then told me the other disastrous news. Our 14-year-old dog Emo had consumed five chocolate bars he found cached in a bedroom, which could send his already fluttery heart into death throes. It's what I call the chocolate "flush." Very healthy. No need to go into details.

So it was not a good moment as I sat down in a white heat to write this account.

Maybe this is akin to what it is like to feel the green and fluid wave of corporate greed sweep over a forest and a species.

In losing orangutans, we are losing a kind of literacy, a kind of literate space. I feel another dimension of that now. I feel the handshake from an individual orangutan saying goodbye.

On December 31, 2011, at the arbitrary afternoon hour of 1 p.m., I will spend an hour by myself in the Barnes and Noble bookstore in the University Village mall in Seattle meditating in one of their upholstered chairs on the death of species and literate spaces and how powerless we feel. Orangutans and the rain forest will be in my mind. Then I will go home to Wendy and the dog and eat Chinese vegetarian dumplings. 


Background information: The University Village mall in Seattle is owned by Sloan Capital, which is owned by Seattle sixty-something businessman Stuart M. Sloan, who has dabbled in grocery stores and a vineyard in California.

The Christmas card I sent this year to mall owner Stuart Sloan with a Christmas wish.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

orangutans in crisis: a worldwide interactive video forum on the web for Nov. 12, 2011

Orangutans in Crisis

Alive, open, worldwide interactive video forum on the Internet for one hour

Come join us for an exciting new initiative that lets an audience on the Internet interact live with speakers.

Questions for consideration: What is the situation inside Indonesia now politically and socially in terms of protecting orangutans and the rain forest? What is being done to spread the word? What could we be doing? What is the current status of orangutans?

Listen to speakers, ask questions, give your own point of view by voice or instant messaging.
Saturday, Nov 12, 2011 for one hour only (for those in North America, Europe and Africa; Sunday, Nov. 13 in Australia and Southeast Asia)

Starting times around the world: 5 p.m. Saturday eastern time (U.S.); 4 p.m. Saturday central time (U.S.); 3 p.m. Saturday mountain time (U.S.); 2 p.m. Saturday Pacific time (U.S.); 6 p.m. Saturday Brasilia, Brazil;10 p.m. Saturday London, England; 11 p.m. Saturday Barcelona, Spain; 11 p.m. Saturday Berlin, Germany; 11 p.m. Saturday Cape Town, South Africa; 12 a.m. Sunday Helsinki, Finland; 2 a.m. Sunday New Delhi, India; 4 a.m. Sunday Jakarta, Indonesia; 5 a.m. Sunday Perth, Australia; 5 a.m. Sunday Singapore; 5 a.m. Sunday Shanghai, China; 5 a.m. Sunday Beijing, China; 5 a.m. Sunday Singapore; 8 a.m. Sunday Sydney, Australia. 

Join the speakers, Gary Shapiro, an orangutan scientist and the president of the Orang Utan Republik, just back from Indonesia; Leif Cocks, head of the Australian Orangutan Project; and Hardi Baktiantoro, an orangutan campaigner and the head of Centre for Orangutan Protection in Indonesia.

moderator: Shawn Thompson, author of The Intimate Ape: Orangutans and the Secret Life of an Endangered Species

Part of the purpose of this forum is to foster a community of people communicating with each around the world to work together to save orangutans. This will be the first interactive video web forum in this series at Ideas for future broadcasts include hearing from leading ape scientists, conservationists and campaigners, like Marc Ancrenaz in Borneo, live video tours of different ape sanctuaries around the world, and a special session on musicians, music and apes. Other forums can be organized on topics of your choice.

You can reach the moderator and organizer Shawn Thompson at or

The Orang Utan Republik is a non-profit organization working at the grass-roots level in Indonesia to create an awareness within the country about orangutans. 

The Australian Orangutan Project is a non-profit organization headed by Leif Cocks that raises money for its own projects and many other projects such as: Nyaru Menteng, Orangutan Care and Quarantine Centre, PanEco, Sumatran Orangutan Society, Frankfurt Zoological Society, Orang Utan Republik, Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Program, International Animal Rescue, and Centre for Orangutan Protection. For more information on these projects visit

The Centre for Orangutan Protection is "a direct-action group of Indonesian people who campaign to bring an urgent end to the destruction of our rain forests and the killing of orangutans." For information see

To join the video forum, go to and create an account to log in. The conference is at Please use your real name and location when you log in so that the moderator and the audience can identify you. Unidentified speakers can listen, but will not be allowed to speak, in the interests of transparency and accountability. Those who log in will be also be able to comment and ask questions through instant messaging visible to the whole group. Once you have logged in, find "Orangutans in Crisis." The controls are easy. If you want to ask a question or speak during the forum, click the hand button for the moderator to see and manage the speakers from the audience in order. You will need a web cam and a microphone on your computer to speak. You can also send a private text message to the moderator during the discussion. If you wish, you can join the Orangutan Club International at to help with these interactive web forums and with publicity for orangutans and other apes.