I am writing this under duress.
My brother the lawyer says duress is the wrong word, because it implies threats or illegal coercion, and he hasn’t exactly put a gun to my head and forced me to sit at the computer. He has, however, suggested that the act of recording the events of the last few months might help them form a cohesive whole and make sense. I’m not sure they can ever be understood in terms of human reason.
I am certain of one thing—after reading this, my academic colleagues will have a riotous laugh at my expense and consign these pages to the recycle bin. Some will fly to their computers and fire off scathing rebuttals to Scientific American and Anthropology; others will send snide e-mails to researchers on the other side of the globe, complete with smirky emoticons and flocks of exclamation points. People I have spent years hoping to impress will spread vicious gossip about me for a few weeks, then wipe my work from their conversations with the same disdain with which they wipe their soiled shoes.
Crackpot. Pretender. Glorified zookeeper—they’ll call me those names plus a few unprintable variations. They’ll accuse me of anthropomorphism, hypocrisy, and religious zealotry. They’ll petition the university to deny me the PhD for which I’ve sacrificed every semblance of a normal life over the last several years.
As I said, I’m writing under duress.
Psychologists claim that the act of dressing events, feelings, and realizations in words can prove therapeutic—perhaps it will. I may be different by the time I complete this memoir . . . I know I am greatly changed from the woman I was a few months ago.
All I can ask of you, skeptical reader, is a measure of trust. I would not lie about a story guaranteed to ruin my reputation. I’m a strong believer in objectivity, empirical facts, and pragmatic systems. I’ve been trained to record demonstrable data, not whim, fancies, or fleeting thoughts. I am, above all, a scientist.
Those are only a few of the reasons why I’ve resisted the urge to record this story. I’m not sure I can put the experience into words . . . My brother Rob says I have found my starting point—words. Sema, the western lowland gorilla entrusted to my care eight years ago, was fascinated by words. Like Helen Keller, whose intellect caught fire when she connected the water flowing over her right palm with the sign Annie Sullivan was pressing onto her left, Sema fell in love with words the day I taught her to ask for more by bringing the fingertips of her hands together. Do you want more oatmeal? Ask for more. Do you want more juice? Sign more. Yes, the watermelon is delicious. And you can have more if you ask with the sign.
Critics of animal language studies often claim that primates are merely engaged in mimicry when they speak with whatever means we’ve taught them, but I saw a spark of comprehension in Sema’s button brown eyes that afternoon. She began signing more for every desire—more food, more drink, more hugs and kisses.
At the beginning of my study, she was a five-month-old bundle of black fur, an uncoordinated but playful infant. By the time of our first language lesson, she had mastered a teetering version of a knucklewalk, but she did not walk bipedally unless she could follow in my footsteps and grip the hem of my lab coat. Just like free-living gorilla infants who follow their mothers and hold tight to their rump hairs, Sema tottered behind me and grinned in self-congratulation.
Even after the passing of eight years, she still enjoyed clinging to the back of my lab coat—though by then she did it not out of necessity but affection.
And she continued to love words.
Four months ago, on a cool January afternoon, Sema sat at the computer working on her reading. The program, designed for human preschoolers, flashed a picture on the screen, then offered a series of words. By tapping the appropriate arrow on the keyboard, Sema could match a word to the picture. By clicking the space bar, she could instruct the computer to speak the word she’d highlighted.
When I looked up to check on her, she was grinning at a photo of a golden retriever. The computer offered three word choices: dog, cat, or fish.
Delighted by the photograph, Sema clapped her hands, content to celebrate the puppy without doing the work. I turned and placed my hand over hers, directing her smooth, thick fingers toward the arrow keys.
“I know you like the puppy,” I said, using my no-nonsense voice, “but you can look at pictures when you’re done with your work.”
She pulled her hand free of mine. Gorilla finished, she signed in American Sign Language.
“Oh no, you’re not.” Laughing, I reestablished the pressure of my hand on hers. “Which word matches the picture?”
As Sema studied me, I knew she was debating the wisdom of defiance.
Because gorillas are social animals, an individual’s status in the group is of crucial importance. I had established my dominance when Sema passed through the equivalent of a human child’s “terrible twos.” I had been firm but loving, using time-outs, redirection, and playtime deprivation to discipline my charge’s willful urges. Sema still occasionally tested me, but not often, and her maturity was a good thing. At five-six, I stood seven inches taller than my girl, but my 120-pound frame could not have withstood a purposeful pounding from a muscular 250-pound gorilla.
After deciding to be a good girl, Sema pressed the proper keys, then grinned at me. Dog. The computer’s monotone voice filled the trailer.
The dog is sleeping in the sun.
“You’d like to be sleeping now, wouldn’t you?” I gave her shoulder an affectionate squeeze. “I think we’re almost finished. Are you ready for your nap?”
Sema opened her mouth in a wide smile that revealed her pretty pink tongue, and then lifted her hands from the keyboard. Sema play outside?
“Oh, sweetie.” I pointed toward the window, where raindrops streaked the glass behind the protective chain-link mesh. “You don’t want to play in the rain, do you?”
Sema spread her thumbs and pinkie fingers into the Y sign and shook both hands. Play play play.
I laughed. “Okay, you’ve worked hard today, but let’s play inside. Why don’t you get something from your toy box?”
Pleased to be released from the computer, Sema dropped from her stool and knuckle-walked to the big wooden crate that held her toys. I moved to the counter where my notebooks waited—I needed to record her new sentence constructions while they were still fresh in my mind.
Dian Fossey, the courageous anthropologist who gave her life to protect the endangered mountain gorillas living near Africa’s Virunga volcanoes, had always typed up her research notes at each day’s end. Since her brutal murder in 1985, she had become a legend . . . and an inspiration to me and thousands of other researchers who adore gorillas.
I had just reached the bottom of the page when I heard the clang of the mailbox. I opened the trailer door and leaned into the rain long enough to wave at the mailman and pull a stack of damp letters from the box.
Sema looked up when I closed the door. Letter for Sema?
I flipped through the envelopes, then shook my head. “Don’t think so. All for Glee.”
Sema looked out the window, probably hoping the mailman would return with a treat for her; then she picked up her human baby and stood the doll in an empty plastic basin. She was pretending to give the baby a bath, an activity she had witnessed on television.
Knowing the doll would keep her busy for a while, I glanced through the letters—by some quirk of technology, two were addressed to “Sema Granger” and contained offers for credit cards. Another company offered Sema a free medium pizza with the purchase of a large. I considered giving those letters to my girl, but she’d only shred and eat them. Like most people, she had the good sense to prefer meaningful correspondence.
I paused as a familiar return address caught my eye—The Thousand Oaks Zoo, Clearwater, Florida. For an instant my stomach tightened, then I tossed the letter into a basket on top of the refrigerator. Let it collect dust with the other Thousand Oaks letters.
One other envelope caught my attention. Addressed to me, it had come from the University of South Florida—a friendly reminder that all doctoral candidates had a limited time to complete their dissertations.
“According to our records, you have already been granted two extensions. We will therefore expect your dissertation within twelve months of the date on this correspondence . . .”
Twelve months. How was I supposed to postulate, research, and document an earthshaking discovery in only twelve months? To date I had been playing catch-up; Sema and I had yet to cover new ground.
I tossed the letter onto the counter, then pitched the rest of the mail into the trash and returned to my journal. My pen scratched across the blank surface of a new page, automatically inserting the date, then my thoughts slowed. In some dim recess of my mind, a group of neurons not occupied with journal writing wondered if I should open the letter from Thousand Oaks. After all, my former employer still technically owned Sema . . . but I had asked my brother to handle the zoo. When a girl had a crack lawyer at her disposal, she didn’t have to worry about letters, no matter how many might collect atop the fridge.
“Give gorilla hot cookies,” I wrote. Sema consistently demonstrates the proper use of adjectives as modifiers.
I glanced up as someone jiggled the doorknob. Sema looked up too, distracted from her play, and I lifted a restraining finger as I walked to the peephole. “Let me see who it is, sweetie.”
“Glee!” Through the door I heard my brother’s muffled voice. “For heaven’s sake, I’m drowning out here.”
“Oh, good—guess who’s come to visit?” Grinning at Sema, I unlocked the door and threw it open. My brother stood outside, a sheet of dripping newspaper over his head.
“About time,” he grumbled, stamping his way into the trailer. He paused to wink at Sema. “Hey, big girl. You got a hug for your Uncle Rob?”
“Wait a minute.” I eyed him with suspicion. “Are you healthy?”
“As a horse.”
“Anybody in your office sneezing?”
“Not a soul, Glee. You don’t think I’d come here bearing cold germs, do you?”
He advanced toward Sema with a lawyer’s ingrained confidence, but I couldn’t help but worry. Gorillas are notoriously prone to respiratory infections, and because they’ve not developed our level of resistance, captive animals succumb to human viruses and bacteria even more easily than people do. If I had to go out during cold and flu season, for the next several days I always wore a surgical mask when I worked with my girl.
Rob approached Sema, waited for her to give him an openmouthed gorilla smile, then knelt at her level. She wrapped her arms around him, nuzzled his cheek with her lips, then pulled away to show him her baby doll.
“That’s a nice baby.” He grinned. “But where are her clothes?”
“Sema doesn’t seem to see the need for clothes,” I told him. “Besides, I think those outfits are too tiny for her fingers to manipulate.”
When Rob stood, Sema lowered her head and sniffed his coat pocket.
“Uh-oh—are you looking for a treat?”
Sema’s eyes lit with anticipation. Good gorilla. Give candy.
I interpreted her signs, then leaned against the counter as Rob asked, “Have you really been a good gorilla?”
Good gorilla. Hurry, hurry, hurry.
“All right. Can’t keep a pretty gorilla waiting.”
Rob pulled a lollipop from his pocket and offered it to my girl.
I winced. “I’ve told you not to bring her c-a-n-d-y.”
“It’s sugar free, Sis, so don’t worry.”
“Worrying is what I do best.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
Rob stepped back, leaving Sema to unwrap the lollipop at her leisure. I understood why she loved my brother—to her, he represented fun and games and treats. I, on the other hand, was the disciplinarian, teacher, and the overseer of vitamins, health, and nutrition. In short, a mother.
I leaned against the counter and met my brother’s gaze. “What brings you out here on a day like this?”
“I’m glad you asked.” He shucked off his raincoat and hung it on a wall peg, then pulled something from his inner suit pocket. I grimaced at the sight of another envelope imprinted with the Thousand Oaks logo.
“Do we have to talk about that now?”
“It’s time, Glee.” He pulled out pages and unfolded them. “They’re ready to take you to court.”
“Let ’em.” I lifted my chin. “Sema’s been with me eight years, and not once during all that time did they ever mention wanting her back.”
“She’s still the zoo’s property.”
“I refuse to think of her as property. She’s a child, Rob, and she’s rightfully mine. I raised her, nursed her, taught her to speak—”
“Did you ever stop to think that your accomplishments might make Sema even more valuable to the zoo? They want her back, Glee, and I don’t think you’re going to be able to dodge this indefinitely. They’re tired of sending letters; their lawyer filed suit last week.” The corner of his mouth lifted. “You should know all this.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, they’ve probably tried to tell me. I haven’t opened a letter from those people since I asked you to step in.”
He scowled, his brows knitting together. “Don’t be foolish. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.”
“I’m not ignoring it, I’m giving it to you. You’re my lawyer, so do your thing and get those people off my back and out of my life.”
Rob sank into a chair. “Surrendering her wouldn’t be the end of the world, you know. You’re always saying she needs gorilla company.”
“A mate, sure. A baby would be wonderful. But if I give her back to the zoo, they’ll put her in a preexisting gorilla group. She’ll be at the bottom of the pecking order, and that won’t be good for her.”
Rob glanced at the ceiling as if appealing to a higher authority, then closed his eyes. “Are you afraid she’s forgotten how to be a gorilla?”
The question was ridiculous, but I swallowed hard before I answered. “Sema knows she’s a gorilla. She’d probably do fine if she was habituated to other animals gradually. But she’s been the queen bee around here for so long—”
“You mean she’s been treated like a person.” Rob’s voice dropped in volume. “She eats with a spoon from a plate, she uses a computer, she watches TV. You’re terrified she won’t know how to relate as an animal.”
“She is a person,” I snapped. “If personhood requires will and emotion and personality, then Sema is every bit as much a person as you and—”
“She’s not human, Glee. You can quote all the animal experts you like, but you’re never going to convince a Florida judge that Sema is human. She’s an animal, therefore she’s property.”
My voice broke as I acknowledged the sad truth. “Sometimes she talks about visiting other gorillas. I know she’d like to. But she would have no idea how to function in a gorilla family.”
“Wouldn’t instinct kick in?”
I shrugged. “Maybe . . . maybe not. We don’t know a lot about how much gorilla behavior is culturally transmitted and how much is instinctive. So there’s no certain way to know if she could function within the zoo’s gorilla family.”
Though we kept our voices low, Sema knew we were talking about her. She pretended to concentrate on her lollipop, but her eyes kept darting from Rob’s face to mine.
Correctly interpreting the lull in conversation as an opportunity to join us, she stuck the candy in her mouth and knuckle-walked to my side. Wearing an expression of pure innocence, she crouched at my feet and smiled. Sema want gorilla, she signed. Sema want gorilla baby.
Rob’s brows lifted. “What’d she say?”
“She wants to have a baby—a real one.”
“Okay . . . isn’t that a good reason to send her back to the zoo?”
I gave him what I hoped was a withering look. “I thought you were supposed to be on my side.”
“I am on your side. And when I took the case, you told me you wanted what was best for Sema. If she really wants a baby, she’s going to have to return to the zoo.”
“Not necessarily.” I picked up a clipboard and flashed it in Rob’s direction. “I’ve been looking at available captive males around the country. I think I might be able to arrange a transfer and get a male out here, perhaps permanently. Of course, we’d have to build an addition to the play yard and install another trailer at the back of the property—”
“And where are you going to get the money to do this?”
Stymied by the question, I averted my eyes. My inheritance had allowed me to go to college and live independently for years, but expenses and the declining value of mutual funds had nearly depleted my accounts. Rob had used his inheritance to put himself through law school and establish a practice. His investment was producing a healthy income; mine had resulted in a master’s degree in anthropology and a talking gorilla that might be taken from me.
“I could go public.” I spoke the dreaded words in a whisper. “I could publish the results of my work to date and establish a nonprofit organization. That’s what Penny Patterson did when the San Francisco Zoo came after Koko.”
My brother’s eyes flashed with interest. Even if he hadn’t had a gorilla niece, he would have been familiar with the story of Dr. Penny Patterson, who began teaching gorilla sign language in 1972. Koko, who’d been born in the San Francisco Zoo, remained the zoo’s property throughout the early years of Dr. Patterson’s work. When the zoo pressed their claim for ownership, Dr. Patterson founded The Gorilla Foundation and purchased Koko with donated funds.
Trouble was, I didn’t have time to establish a nonprofit organization, and I was reluctant to let people know about my work. I identified with Dian Fossey, who had resented outsiders because they often spoiled the natural interaction between her and the mountain gorillas. For my part, I knew I’d hate working with curious onlookers, reporters, or academic rivals breathing down my neck.
“What you need is publicity.” Rob nodded for emphasis. “You’ve kept yourself squirreled away too long.”
“I don’t want publicity—not yet, anyway. I’m close to a breakthrough, but we’re not quite there.”
“What are you waiting for? Sema is amazing.”
“She’s not Koko.”
Rob blinked at me. “What?”
I pulled the empty lollipop stick from Sema’s lips and tossed it in the trash, then gestured toward the toy box. As she lumbered away, I looked back at Rob. “I don’t want to reproduce Dr. Patterson’s work. If Sema can only do what Koko can do, the reaction to my dissertation will be one collective yawn.”
“They can’t expect you to cover as much ground. After all, you’ve only been working with Sema a few years; Koko’s been around forever.”
“We are going to cover more ground—and soon, I hope, because I’m supposed to hand in my paper within twelve months. Sema’s making good progress with her reading, but we haven’t achieved the goals I’d like to meet. She recognizes words, but sentences . . . well, she hasn’t learned that a string of words on a page represents a complete thought. That concept might take a while to master.”
Rob settled back in his chair and crossed his legs, resting his ankle on his knee. “You’d better fill me in, Sis. The more material I have to throw at the judge, the better your chance of keeping Magilla Gorilla.”
“You really want to hear this?”
“Let me have it.”
I shook my head. Despite his affection for Sema, Rob had never shown more than a passing interest in my research; sometimes I thought he considered Sema the world’s most exacting pet. His mind didn’t wonder about the origin of human life, the mysteries of interspecies communication, and the narrowing gap between humans and the higher primates—no billable hours involved in those thought processes.
Still, if he could convince a judge that my work held unique promise, maybe His Honor would tell the zoo to take a flying leap.
“Okay.” I pulled out a chair and sat at the low table. “Koko was a year old when Dr. Patterson began to work with her, but I started signing to Sema when she was only days old. She learned her first sign at seven months. And studies have shown that babies—primate and human—absorb the basics of language in those very early stages. Koko is amazing, but Sema has come just as far in half the time—undoubtedly because I spoke to her, read to her, and signed to her when she was still an infant.”
Rob pulled a leather-covered notepad from his coat pocket and clicked a silver pen. “And this is important because?”
“Because language is one of the things that has always separated humans from animals. Because animals don’t speak a language we can understand, we have assumed they don’t feel grief or longing. We’ve assumed they have little or no memory, can’t conceive of the future, or possess self-awareness. There are some people who still think animals don’t feel pain! I intend to prove there’s not such a great gulf between us.”
Rob stopped writing. “You’re not trying to teach Sema how to talk, are you?”
“Not verbally. Others have tried with chimpanzees and found them unable to pronounce most English sounds—one couple needed six years to teach a chimp four words. But gorillas have their own verbal language—screams of alarm, belches of contentment, grunts of rebuke, high-pitched barks that signify curiosity, aggressive roars, and playful chuckles. In time, as gorilla sign language combines with natural verbal sound and signing mothers teach their offspring, gorillas could develop a hybrid language nearly as complex as our own.”
Rob kept making notes, but from the sudden arch of his brow I knew he found my ideas far-fetched.
“The cultural transmission of language isn’t as far-out as you think, Rob.”
“No?” His voice cracked, then he let out a whoop that made Sema drop her beloved plush bear. “Your honor, I’d like you to meet my sister, Dr. Doolittle—I mean, Dr. Granger. She not only talks to the animals, she’s convinced they want to talk to us.”
I crossed my arms. “Animals already talk to each other. Dolphins, parrots, whales, and gorillas in the wild know how to communicate. Their methods vary in sophistication, but they have no trouble getting their message across—”
“Spare me—I think I’ve caught the gist of your argument.” He closed his notebook. “Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute, will you?” Reluctantly, I nodded.
“The lawyer for the zoo will make much of the fact that gorillas are social animals. He’ll say Sema would be happier living in a gorilla family than with you. How would you respond to that?”
I smiled. “Why, Rob—you’ve been reading.”
He snorted softly. “That’s the difference between us, kiddo—I read the mail that crosses my desk. The zoo’s lawyer has done a great job of spelling out their arguments.”
“Why would they tell you what they’re going to say?”
“They want to settle this out of court—they don’t need the publicity of a trial. So what’s your answer?”
I thought before replying. “Gorillas do establish firm family bonds. But Sema has never lived in her natal group. She was born in captivity, taken almost immediately from a mother who proved incapable of nurturing her, and placed in my care. Sema has emotionally bonded to me. I am her family.”
“And how do you know you are able to meet her needs?”
“That’s an idiotic question.”
“Answer it anyway. I know they’ll ask.”
I inhaled a deep breath. “All living creatures need safety, security, food, shelter, and affection. I’ve provided those things for Sema for over eight years.”
“And how do you know you’re providing the best possible care for this animal?”
I scowled. “Don’t call her an animal. She’s an individual.”
“Not according to the law. She was born to one of the zoo’s captive gorillas, so she’s an animal belonging to Thousand Oaks.”
“Slaveholders used that same argument to condone slavery, you know. Slaves weren’t considered human until after—”
“We’re not about to take up the cause of civil rights and slavery.”
The teasing light vanished from Rob’s eyes. “If you start harping on unrelated social issues, the judge will consider you a troublemaker. You’ll lose Sema before you can blink.”
“The issues are not unrelated.”
“Maybe not, but until science can prove a gorilla has the right to legal personhood, save your breath and help me win. If you go into the courtroom and try to mount a case for animal rights, you’re going to lose.” He drew a breath. “So—how do you know you’re providing the best possible care for this animal?”
I looked at Sema, who had spread her faded Care Bear comforter over the inflated inner tube on the floor. She sat in the center of the circle, arranging the fabric over the tube in a sort of rimmed nest—a truly instinctive habit observed in all gorilla species.
In a few moments, she’d be napping. Under my direction, her days consisted of a predictable, orderly routine: eat, learn, play, rest, and eat again. As her provider, playmate, teacher, and friend, I had become the focus of her world.
On the other hand . . . she had become the center of my world too.
“I know I’m giving Sema what she needs because she loves me.” I blinked away a sudden rush of tears. “I can’t lose her, Rob. I don’t care what you do, but you have to find a way I can keep her.”
My brother leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “I love you, Glee, and I know how much Sema means to you, but have you considered that maybe it’s time to give her up? Honestly, kiddo, sometimes I think you’re too involved with this animal. You have no social life, you don’t date, and you have yet to earn the respect you deserve for your work. Maybe you should let her go.”
I shook my head. “You can’t understand, but that’s okay. I didn’t realize how involved I’d become until after I’d been working with her a while.” I lowered my voice as Sema hugged her plush bear and curled up in her nest. “I don’t miss dating, I’ve never had much of a social life, and soon I will write my dissertation and earn my doctorate. Until then, all I can say is . . . Sema’s worth it.”
Sighing heavily, Rob stood. “Can I use your kitchen to make a phone call? Let me talk to this other attorney—maybe we can work out a compromise.”
“Thanks, big brother.” I stepped to his side, then rose on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. I caught a whiff of some expensive cologne and smiled—the only scent clinging to my skin and clothing was eau de gorilla.
“I’ll stick around until we know something,” he said, speaking in a lower tone because Sema’s eyes had closed. “Come on up when you’re done and I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.”
I took his raincoat from the peg on the wall and handed it to him, then stood back and watched him go.