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The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

02/06/2012 12:09 EST | Updated 04/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Over the next few weeks, the Huffington Post will run excerpts from the five finalist books vying for the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. Each of the authors has personally chosen the excerpt for our readers, and in his or her intro, explains the choice. After all the excerpts have run, Huffpost readers will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite book in advance of the announcement of the 2012 prize winner on March 5.

Intro from the author:

The Fauna chimphouse is many things: a rollicking retirement home, a rehabilitation centre, a maximum security prison, and a Montreal deli at the lunchtime rush. One of my goals while writing this book was to bring the reader deep inside the chaos and cacophony of the chimphouse, to help them feel the constant surprise, anxiety, and helplessness Gloria Grow herself feels as she looks after 13 traumatized chimpanzees.

This excerpt begins in a lighthearted way, but soon the reader is drawn into the life-or-death struggles of Toby, an ex-zoo chimp who is still trying to adjust to life among the ex-lab chimps at Fauna. I lived and worked at Fauna for two-and-a-half months, and this scene was one of the most powerful things I witnessed there. It describes a violent struggle for political and social supremacy -- something every wild chimpanzee and every human on earth knows something about. But it also reveals one of the hopeful nuances of chimpanzee society, how these apes have developed ways to mitigate their own violence for the sake of their community -- a nuance us humans could perhaps do with a reminder of every now and then. Excerpt: Page 111-114, "Everybody Loves Jethro."

ONE DAY, ABOUT a week into Toby's most recent infatuation with Maya, Gloria and I take a walk to the islands. Quarreling ducks and the faint drone of Highland cattle are a welcome break from Toby's obsessive hammering. The chimphouse has been echoing with his banging for days now, and all the chimps are becoming noticeably frazzled. Chimpanzee and human ears alike have been ringing nonstop, and Spock and Maya have tried a number of times to grab Toby's fingers beneath the caging -- if not to punish him for being a nuisance then simply to scare him quiet.

Gloria recently had Plexiglas walls added to the upper balconies of the outdoor bandstands in hopes that the privacy and protection from the wind might make the structures more appealing to the chimps. Soon we spot Tom on Island One, loping slowly along the boardwalk toward the bandstand. He's already noticed the new feature. When he reaches the staircase, Tom climbs straight to the top and enters the room to investigate. Right away, as if wildly impressed, he runs to the back wall, pounds his fist into it three times, and lets loose an excited scream. Then, perhaps startled by his own enthusiasm, he slumps to the floor and disappears from view.

"Excellent," says Gloria. "He likes it."

Like a nervous schoolboy with an unrequited crush, I admit my fears to Gloria. "I'm not sure Tom likes me."

"Why?" she asks.

"Because he usually leaves his room when I come near. He never looks me in the eye."

Gloria laughs. "You gotta drop the ego."

"Huh?"

"Tom's been through more than you can imagine. For the first two years, he didn't look me in the eye once."

We watch for signs of the old guy. Nothing. Perhaps he's settled in for a nap.

"It's his choice," says Gloria. "Not yours."

Just then a series of panicked screams emanates from the chimphouse, followed by a crash of bodies against steel and a chorus of howls and banging. Tom's head pops up at the bandstand window. We run back inside, where chaos has broken out.

Two massive chimps are thrashing about on the walkway of the north playroom. They are a ball of flailing limbs, gnashing teeth, and high-pitched shrieks, and all the other chimps in the building are screaming and crashing in their rooms like manic cheerleaders, watching the battle play out. Everyone but Chance, that is. As usual, Chance has locked herself into one of the privacy rooms, where she is spinning in tight circles and punching herself in the gut, the rising tensions having driven her into a minor meltdown.

At first it's impossible to tell who is in the tangle of limbs above us. But then the fighters release for a split second, one of them escapes the other's clutches, and a panic-stricken Toby emerges from the fray, pursued by the enormous and surprisingly agile Jethro. It seems that Jethro has finally had enough of Toby's ceaseless banging. Toby leaps for the top walkway to escape, but at the last moment Jethro grabs him by the ankle and pulls him back down. Now the noise in the chimphouse becomes deafening. To those in the know, this scene is terribly ominous. Jethro now has Toby at his mercy.

Then, curiously, Jethro lets him go. Toby drops to the floor below, tantrum-screaming the whole way, a writhing black blur. He retreats to a dark corner not far from where I'm standing. His screams are sharp and piercing. I have to hold my hands over my ears.

Toby cowers and hugs himself in the half-light, a huge fear face spread wide. There is blood on his lips, and he has lost a tooth. He looks around in stuttering motions, his eyes darting, his chest heaving, his body rocking from side to side. He is searching for something, and I'm suddenly struck by an overwhelming urge to reach out to him. Before I've had time to consciously consider it, my fingers curl around the caging between us. Toby sidles closer but continues to scream. Now I understand what he's looking for. Consolation. Support. Some kind of solace. Unfortunately, in his current living situation, Toby has no one to give him reassurance. Except Rachel, who is up front in a privacy room, pounding her feet and shaking her head like a dervish, joining Chance in a soothing post-traumatic ritual.

Ten minutes pass. Toby has calmed down and stopped screaming. He emerges from his corner and climbs back up to the walkway, the scene of the battle. He sits down, his back to Jethro, who sits heaving in the opposite corner. The wall dividing the playrooms is lined with chimps. Binky, Regis, Petra, and Yoko are watching intently from one side, as are Pepper and Susie Goose from their perch in the opposite window. Everyone is waiting for something to happen, as if the fight we've just witnessed was the precursor to a much more important event.

Gloria and I are looking in from above the crossover walkway. I sneak a peek at Gloria as she grips the steel banister with both hands, watching the moment unfold. Her knuckles are turning white. She is desperate for this to turn out in a very specific way.

Jethro, on all fours, slowly makes his way toward Toby. When he comes within 10 feet of his adversary, he sits down. Then, whimpering quietly under his breath, Jethro reaches his arm out, palm up, toward Toby. This is the moment we've all been waiting for: the olive leaf has been extended. All Toby has to do now is take Jethro's hand in his own, perhaps bring it to his mouth, and return the whimpering gesture with one of his own. Then the two of them might come closer and press their lips together, which is the most eff ective way for two chimps to reconcile after a fight. If Toby can do this, he will have demonstrated to all the chimps that he is beginning to understand how this place works.

But he can't. Instead of reconciling with Jethro, Toby starts screaming again and drops back down to the ground floor. Jethro, his advances spurned, retreats to the sliding door that leads to the other playroom, where his Hoodlum friends await. Gloria slides the door up, Jethro walks through, and is immediately engulfed by a mob of concerned chimpanzees. They crawl all over him, inspecting every inch of his body for bumps and bruises, identifying the open wounds that will require special attention. Then, in a matter of minutes, they are all grooming him, calming him down, reminding him that they are all the friends he needs.

I find Toby downstairs sitting alone, whimpering to himself, his arms wrapped around his body the way a mother might embrace her son. And just when I think the scene can't get any more painful to watch, Rachel squeezes in from one of the privacy rooms. Shaking her head, and with her gorilla babies in one hand, she walks up to Toby and places her other hand on his shoulder. "When are you gonna learn, Toby?" she seems to be saying. "Everybody loves Jethro."

You can read the first excerpt, from Andrew Westoll's The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary here.

The next excerpt, from Charlotte Gill'sEating Dirt will be posted this Thursday.

Keep watching this spot for news of the others, and information on when it's time to vote!

Learn about the other nominees:

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