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The Surprisingly Social Gray Whale

Journalist Charles Siebert and wildlife biologist Dr. Toni Frohoff explain the uncharacteristically friendly behavior of gray whales off the coast of California.

44:10

Other segments from the episode on July 13, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 13, 2009: Interview with Charles Siebert and Toni Frohoff; Review of Hemingway's book on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Transcript

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The Surprisingly Social Gray Whale

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. The most massive creatures on earth,
gray whales, are doing something very unusual. They’re seeking contact
with people, at least that’s what’s happening in a lagoon off the
western coast of Baja, California, in Mexico. Toni Frohoff has been
investigating this phenomenon. She’s a behavioral and wildlife biologist
who specializes in studying stress and well-being in dolphins and
whales. She’s the co-author of the book “Dolphin Mysteries” and the
research director for TerraMar Research. She’s joining us by phone from
Bath, England.

Journalist Charles Siebert went to Baja to report on Frohoff and the
gray whales she’s studying, as well as some other recent developments in
the whale world. Seibert wrote the cover story of Sunday’s New York
Times Magazine, “What are the Whales Trying to Tell us?” Seibert is also
the author of a new book about a retirement home for chimps who worked
in movies, TV shows and circuses. We’ll talk about the chimps later.

Welcome to FRESH AIR. Charles, you went to Baja, California, for
research for your piece on whale and human interactions. What is the
mystery in Baja?

Mr. CHARLES SIEBERT (Journalist; Author, “What are the Whales Trying to
Tell us?”): The mystery specifically in Baja is that at a time when gray
whales migrate up and down the west coast of the Pacific, in the early
winter going in towards spring, mother whales come down to give birth
and nurse their calves in the lagoons, these sort of protected lagoons
along the coast. And at precisely a time when any other mammalian
species, a mother, would be so guarded and protective and aloof during
that nursing stage, these whales were actually approaching boats,
mothers – not all of them, but some – shepherding their young up to
boats for encounters.

And hearing it in the abstract, I thought it’s not possible, and then
there I found myself that first day in a boat - we were there for four
days – with Toni Frohoff and a bunch of other people, about three or
four others. And sure enough, the typically elusive whale was, in fact,
going out of its way to find, search us out. And first the mother
approached and then sort of, like, sussed us out, I guess, to make sure
everything was okay and then actually shepherded a baby whale right up
to our side. And this whale, this baby whale, popped up out of the water
no more than arm’s length away from me and just stared at me, these
eyes, this big, ovoid eye, taking me in. And Toni had spoke often about
there are ways in which that was even more profound than the actual
touching. The idea of this sentient, highly intelligence creature rising
up out of its inherently remote medium just for a stare at you, I – you
know, I don’t stop short of saying I just was kind of changed by the
whole encounter.

GROSS: So wasn’t there a moment, too, when I think it was the mother
actually got under your boat and lifted it?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yes, that was day four. And that, as I explained in the
piece, is a kind of a recurring trope in literature - you know,
throughout literature of fishermen and whalers and finding themselves
suddenly on the back of a whale being born up, sometimes the whale
having angry intent, depending on what’s happening. But in this
instance, just to be lifted up sort of playfully as, like, we were being
given a ride.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: It feels like – when something that big picks up a small –
these boats are about 18-feet long – and picks you up on its back and

sets you down, you feel like a toy in a bathtub, you know, except you’re
a human being in this boat, and you’re just being playfully, you know,
well, toyed with I guess is what you’d say, with no malicious intent at
all, just this kind of - just here, let’s give you a sweet little ride,
and then the mother took off. So it was rather incredible.

GROSS: You talk about an 18-foot boat. How big is the whale?

Mr. SIEBERT: Gray whales get to be about 40-feet long, 30 tons. It’s
quite a massive – I mean, this is a creature who, with one flick of its
tail, could just send you skyward. And there is that feeling of - that
edgeless fear of pure acquiescence when it first, the mother first came
by because the whole of her slid right under the boat. And for something
that long and wide, everywhere you looked into the water was whale. And
I say that moving land, to quote Milton, that’s what he said of whales,
the moving land, and just to feel that alone, to see that, you know, the
whale passing underneath, but then for it to come around and have this
close encounter, which believe me, that’s what it was like, an encounter
with an extraterrestrial or something. It’s pretty incredible.

GROSS: Toni Frohoff, let me bring you into this conversation. You are
experienced at working with whales and dolphins. You study them. You
study their stress. You study human-whale interactions. What was that
experience like for you being lifted in the boat by the whale? Is that
something you’re used to now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TONI FROHOFF (Behavioral and Wildlife Biologist; Co-author, “Dolphin
Mysteries”; Research Director, TerraMar Research): Well, it doesn’t
happen every day for me, and even I spend a good deal of my work in the
water or on the water with dolphins and whales. And I do focus on the
interactions we have with them.

I have to say I’ve been studying dolphins primarily for almost 20 years,
and then I started studying gray whales more. And even now, after these
decades of being around all these wonderful marine mammals, there’s
something so uniquely poignant and collaborative about the interactions
that occur down in these lagoons, specifically in San Ignacio…

GROSS: What do you mean by collaborative? I don’t think I’ve ever heard
that word used to describe a whale before.

Dr. FROHOFF: Well, I use it to describe the whale-human interaction that
Charles and I were able to experience because I wanted to make sure, to
the best that I could, that it wasn’t just us as humans taking advantage
of the whales and going after them, maybe not to hunt or kill them but
because we wanted to gain something from them. I wanted, as Charles
said, for us to be able to be in their presence, but for it to be
collaborative, in a sense, so that it could be on their terms, as well.

For example, you know, when the whale came up to Charles and looked at
him very directly in the eye, that was on the whale’s terms. And I say
collaborative being important because it’s not often done that way. Too
often, whales and dolphins are chased by boats and by obsessed
passengers who want to put something on their scorecard instead of
really being able to just gaze at them as you can here and sometimes
have the pleasure of touching them or, even better, being touched by
them on their terms.

GROSS: So how unusual is it that these mother whales and their calves
are swimming out to boats, choosing to have interactions with human?

Dr. FROHOFF: Well, it’s unusual in terms of what we’re used to as
people. And it is unusual in terms of we really don’t know of other
species who do this.

GROSS: Does this indicate a change in whale behavior?

Dr. FROHOFF: Well, it’s been happening that we know of for several
decades. And Charles can tell you about some conversations he had with
some of the local people there who had started, initiated to some
degree, this wonderful interaction.

Mr. SIEBERT: You know, I did ask about, you know, what’s the history?
When did this start? I mean, was there a starting date for whale
friendliness, for example, in Baja? And while this sort of thing is
really difficult to precisely pinpoint, there is certain undeniable
facts, which is, for example that, you know, in the last 19th century,
early 20th, there was a lot of hunting going on there. And those waters
ran red with whale blood in that same time period that we were there.
And you’d have orphaned baby whales just circling the whaling ships for
days in search of their slain mothers, and then the babies themselves
would die of starvation. And they were nearly hunted to extinction, the
gray whales.

So it’s a pretty tumultuous and dark history that you’re looking at.
These thing – you know, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the onset of
friendliness happened, but there is one story that has been passed
around a lot, and it involved the father of the boat driver, who took
Toni and I every day. His name is Pachiko Mieral(ph), and after a period
of sort of standoffishness or distance between whales and humans after
the imposition of a hunting ban in the 1930s, there were just years
where fishermen would avoid whales, and whales usually the boats.

And this one day in February of 1972, Pachiko Mieral was out on the
water fishing with a partner and this mother whale approached the boat
and just wouldn’t go away, just kept circling the boat for up to, like,
45 minutes. And Pachiko kept trying to maneuver away, and finally, this
whale, well, we were talking earlier about being born up on the back,
actually lifted their boat up out of the water, and they were thinking
the worst, given the history of the hunting in the area, thinking this
is a sort of delayed revenge. And the boat was gently then set back
down, and then the same mother whale popped up right beside Pachiko, and
he just reached out and touched it. And that was, like, the first close
encounter.

I mean, the news of that spread like wildfire. I mean, no one believed
Pachiko for a while, that that could have happened. And really that is
cited often as the onset of this phenomena of the friendlies, as they’re
called.

GROSS: My guests are Journalist Charles Siebert and marine mammal
behavioralist Toni Frohoff. We’ll talk more about whales after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is journalist Charles Siebert, who wrote yesterday’s New
York Times Magazine cover story about whales, and Toni Frohoff, who
studies stress and well-being in whales and dolphins. She’s studying a
lagoon where whales are seeking out people. What’s it like to touch a
whale?

Dr. FROHOFF: I would say that rather giving you a tactile sensation, you
know, describing that as a response, I would give you more of an
emotional response, in that I can feel the sensitivity of the whale. You
know, we’re talking about a 40, perhaps more than 40-foot animal, and
yet, you know, you just touch your fingertips on this whale and feel her
shudder. And that’s really profound.

GROSS: And Charles, what was your experience of touching a whale?

Mr. SIEBERT: You know, I heard all these descriptions. It feels like,
you know, a hard-boiled egg. It felt to me like, I mean, just strictly
tactilely, it felt sort of like a firm melon. It’s hard to put into
words.

You know, okay, you hear the naysayers’ theories, and you’re trying to
be objective about this. And some say, oh, don’t get carried away,
they’re just attracted to sound of the motors, they’re just trying to
scratch the lice and barnacles off their backs, and the people are just,
as one scientist down there put it, they’re just little parasites in the
boat that have nothing to do with the whales.

But I have to tell you when you have the experience, when you see what
they do, when you see how far out of their way they go to both I, us and
to be touched by us, you know that that - the naysayers are entirely
wrong, that something else is going on.

But in our boat one day, and Toni will attest to this, everyone – it’s
so funny. You should see people in the boat. Everyone is just going out
of their minds. People start spontaneously singing Broadway show tunes
and screeching. And everyone is trying to find the right position in the
boat for where the whale might come up next, and you usually think that
the lowest point, where the boat sits lowest in the water, would be
best. And one time, we had – one of the people in our boat was up in the
prow, which rose up high out of the water, and this baby came so high up
and stayed there so long that this woman, who also is a nature writer,
and she is very reserved about not abusing the whales’ rights and space,
she just spontaneously reached out and gave this whale a big smooch
right on its face, and it was unbelievable.

I mean, just – you know, that’s not about coming up to rub your lice
off. That’s sheer, what seemed to me, curiosity about us and the desire
to have fun with us and interact with us. So it’s pretty incredible.

GROSS: Toni, has anybody gotten hurt in their interactions with whales
in Baja?

Dr. FROHOFF: You know, as far as I know, most of the - injuries are most
likely when people are trampling over each other in little boats to try
to gain access to the whales and take a better photograph. The whales
are surprisingly tolerant, and I say that with the huge caveat that this
species used to be referred to by whalers as the devil fish. And first
of all, I mentioned that people only interact with the whales from these
specific boats who are licensed. So these boat operators know how to
allow the whales to get close to the boat without disturbing the whales.

So I note that because I would not say that these whales would be so
tolerant with people, let alone so friendly, should the boats not be as
respectful.

GROSS: Toni, one of the things you’re studying is whale and dolphin
language. And can you tell us some of the things that you’re learning
about how whales communicate?

Dr. FROHOFF: Well, I would love to be able to tell you more, but there
are so many more mysteries and questions than there are answers. I will
say that some people find the gray whale to be not as glamorous,
charismatic, as some of the more, you know, aesthetically beautiful
species by some people’s standards.

They do look somewhat primitive, but in another way, they can be the
most exquisite. And the same with their vocalizations. They have very
strange vocalizations. I mean, it really sounds like clicking and
pinging and the sound of drums. And I think that, quite honestly, I
would say that if anything, the science of studying whales is a lot more
primitive than anything having to do with their language.

I can tell you that in my opinion, my observations have indicated that
their communications systems are much more sophisticated, not just with
us but with each other, than most people have ever given them credit
for.

GROSS: Charles, one of the things you wrote about in your New York Times
Magazine cover story about whales is how noisy the ocean has become and
how that might be affecting the health of whales. And by noise, I mean
things like sonar. Would you talk a little bit about the impact of sonar
and other noises in the ocean on the health of whales?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah, it’s been documented for some time. There’s been
these coincidences with strandings dating back to the 1970s and even
earlier, in the ‘60s, strandings of whales coincidental to often naval
exercises going on in the area. And these were sort of recorded
anecdotally and over time, you know, the coincidences just were too
frequent to be denied. And these whales, often beaked whales, which are
very deep-diving whales, but also other species, as well, were found to
be not, you know, beached and bleeding around their ears and their
brains, and further necropsies done showed that many of these whales had
actual nitrogen bubbles in their tissue and organs, and these are
classic signs of the bends.

And the deduction drawn from that is that the sound of this sonar was so
disturbing to the whales and their communication patterns and their
migratory patterns that it was literally driving them too fast to the
surface, and thus the onset of bends.

Other activities, like seismic activities from air guns are used to do
seismic testing of the ocean floor. Those have the same sort of effect
on whales and will cause them to beach themselves, noise pollution from
just boats. And you know, when you look back at the history, you
understand that it wasn’t very long ago, prior to the onset of the gas-
powered motor, the oceans were relatively the whales’ room, you know,
their communicative space and a very sound-conductive one.

I mean, sounds and whale calls and clicks travel for miles. And so this
is – you know, for the longest time on this earth, the oceans were just
this sort of chorus of different whales’ and dolphins’ songs, and then
the onset of our motors and all these other sounds has actually, I say
in the piece, rendered whole limitless oceans sort of madness-inducing
echo chambers for whales.

GROSS: Toni, are you seeing signs of a human-created noise having bad
effects on whales’ health and behavior?

Dr. FROHOFF: Most definitely. I was living in the Pacific Northwest,
where the military noise affected orcas and porpoise. And I have since
moved to Santa Barbara, where our office is, and now we’re finding
unusual numbers of strandings of dolphins. And a lot of these seem to
coincide so directly with the military acoustic, what they call
exercises. And so it’s really so subtle because often we don’t know when
these are happening.

It’s not like the Navy will put out a notice all the time, but I can say
that the scope is, right now it’s immense. And we’re talking about
living in a world with depleted fisheries, and you can only imagine what
that’s doing to the fish. I mean, these sounds can cause physical
damage. They’re pressure waves. They can blow out the internal organs of
fish. So we really need to be careful and very soon of what we’re doing
to the oceans before we just ruin what we’ve got acoustically. I call it
a silent killer.

GROSS: Charles, there was a recent Supreme Court decision that relates
to the sonar and its effects on whales, and the majority decision was
written by Chief Justice John Roberts. Tell us about the decision and
what Roberts had to say.

Mr. SIEBERT: Prior to the decision, there were two victories for
environmental groups, the National Resources Defense Council, in concert
with a number of other environmental groups and people had won two cases
in California, where the judges ruled to heavily restrict the use of the
Navy sonar in their training exercises off the coast of Southern
California.

The Navy appealed, and it went to the Supreme Court, and Roberts ruled
in favor of the Navy and reversed the two appellate court judges’
decisions, saying that they - those judges didn’t adequately consider
the Navy’s interest and concerns and the higher concern of our, you
know, our safety. But in a way, it was already a tacit victory just to
have such a case heard in the Supreme Court. In other words, the idea of
considering the well-being of whales and weighing that against, you
know, our national safety.

Roberts was a little dismissive in his opinion. You know, he just sort
of cursorily said oh, yes, some harm would be done to some marine
mammals. And you know, Justice Ginsburg, in a dissenting opinion, quoted
the Navy’s own environmental assessment, in which they said that vast
damages would be – they admitted to it – vast damages would be done to
whales and other species and then went on to say that, you know, we do
have to take something like this very, very seriously and weigh it in
the future. And the Navy agreed with the NRDC to do future environmental
assessments of their own before they proceed. So it was really, I feel,
a tacit victory because the case got even considered.

GROSS: Charles Siebert wrote yesterday’s New York Times cover story
about – New York Times Magazine cover story about whales. Toni Frohoff
is the co-author of “Dolphin Mysteries.” She works with TerraMar
Research and co-founded the Trans-Species Institute. I’m Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Think of all the chimpanzee
performers in circuses, TV shows, movies, commercials. Where do they go
when it's time to retire? Well, a lot of them go to a retirement home
called the Center for Great Apes on the outskirts of Wauchula in south-
Central Florida. Journalist Charles Siebert, who was just talking with
us about his New York Times Magazine piece on whales, also wrote a new
book about the retired chimps and what they have to tell us about the
connections between humans and primates. It's called "The Wauchula Woods
Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals."

Let's start with just a roll call of famous chimps living in retirement
now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Well, given present circumstances, I guess we'd have to
start with Bubbles, Michael Jackson's chimp, who lived in the very
retirement home for chimp entertainers where I lived for a time. There's
Cheetah, of course, of the Tarzan movies. He's out on a West Coast
retirement home in Palm Springs, of course. There are all the chimps -
do you know the careerbuilder.com commercials that were so popular
during the Super Bowl where one of the chimps – the chimps run amok in
an office. They're all dressed in suits, and one of them pulls down his
pants and sits on the office copy machine. All those chimps were at the
Center for Great Apes, where Roger and Bubbles are. There's the
orangutan from a movie called "Dunston Checks In," something with Jason
Alexander, which I've never seen. Roger, my - star of my book, he was a
cellist in an all-chimp orchestra…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …at Ringling Brothers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: So it goes on and on. And when you visit this place, it's
just so - it's so ridiculous because you walk in and, you know, Patty
Reagan, who owns it, will just introduce you to each of them and it’s -
you know, you're just looking at these stars with their dossiers. And,
of course, the sadness involved is that, as people don't realize, they
have viability as actors for about five or six years, and then they get
too big and strong and end up living 50 more years in captivity. So…

GROSS: Well – let me – we'll get back to that in a second. But let me
just…

Mr. SIEBERT: Okay.

GROSS: …ask you: Does Roger, the former circus cellist, still played
cello? Do the circus stars still do the things that they were trained to
do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: It's funny you should say. Just the moment prior to meeting
Roger and locking eyes with him for the first time, Patty was
introducing me to these chimps in an enclosure opposite Roger's. And one
of the chimps there is named Butch. And Butch came walking out of his
back quarters towards the front of the enclosure in an eerily upright
sort of position. And he came right up to the front, and Patty went, and
that's Butch. And I went, hi, Butch. And Patty put her hand over mouth
like, oh, no, you shouldn't have done that. And Butch immediately went
into…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …a classic stand-up ta-dah pose with his hands straight in
the air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: And this with his old shtick, which was prompted that –
whenever anyone said hello to him.

GROSS: As I said, you know, chimpanzees can only work till a certain age
– what, about five or six? And then what happens?

Mr. SIEBERT: Well, as we sometimes see in horrible circumstances with
pet chimps, they get big and strong. An adult chimp is about five times
stronger than the strongest human and very rambunctious in their teenage
years especially, just like human beings. So they become willful and
very aggressive. And they are, after all, wild animals - all of our, you
know, distortions of them notwithstanding. And because a lot of them
have gone through traumas of captivity, being separated too early from
their mothers, not growing up with other chimps, they have pathologies.
They have neurosis. They have trauma. And sometimes, the littlest thing,
as with humans, can upset the scar tissue, the trauma in their brain and
set them off, as we saw with this incident in Stamford, Connecticut, not
too long ago, where Travis mauled that woman so horribly.

GROSS: You know, when Michael Jackson gave away his chimp, Bubbles, gave
him to a sanctuary, he said that Bubbles had become too aggressive. But
apparently that's the typical problem after a certain age where people
or circuses or…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …TV, trainers with chimps.

Mr. SIEBERT: Absolutely. I mean, when that Travis incident happened, I
wrote a piece – an op-ed piece for The Times about it. I mean, it was
literally a chapter out of my book, because there are about - any number
of similar stories. People just - you know, we've this cartoonish notion
of chimps. We know them in their baby-stage, when they - we dress them
up in cute little suits and they pedal around on bicycles.

And yet time and again, once they get too old, we hear these stories of
- Quincy Jones, as I read the other day, was remembering Bubbles and how
Bubbles bit his own kid's hand when he visited Michael. I mean, these
chimps can be very willful and aggressive.

GROSS: Well, some of these chimps are research chimps, too. I mean,
isn't there one facility you visited where there's all the NASA chimps,
all the chimps who - where the chimps in the space research are retired?

Mr. SIEBERT: Most of them were research lab chimps for medical purposes
like finding cures for malaria or hepatitis, or - they thought - HIV. So
we - the country bred an unbelievable number of chimps when AIDS first
broke out, thinking that they would be an obvious model for finding a
vaccine. And it proved to be not true because it looks like AIDS morphed
originally from a chimp - a simian virus. So that did - so we had all
these surplus chimps.

But yes, also, the chimps who were used in the space program way back
and went through all those flight tests. And they ended up at this
facility in Shreveport, outside a Shreveport, Louisiana, and this was
the result of the Bill Clinton’s last act in his presidency called a
CHIMP Act, where the government, rather than - you know, had all these
surplus chimps and they thought geez, for, you know, for all the effort
they’ve - and sacrifice they’ve made for us, we can’t just put down all
these chimps. So we built a retirement home for them. And I must tell
you, when I visited it, I was thinking…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: I don’t think I’m going to do as well in retirement out
here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: We’re talking very nice rooms with skylights and television
sets and…

GROSS: No - television sets.

Mr. SIEBERT: Television sets. Chimps love TV. They love very dramatic,
violent shows. It should be no surprise. Nature shows…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: They - this one really got to me. One of their – they love
soap operas, and their favorite is - the research lab chimps’ favorite
is “General Hospital…”

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …because they’re so used to people in white coats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: So it’s just remarkable of their level of sentience and
awareness.

GROSS: When you talk about chimps in retirement homes, I'm also
picturing like chimps on walkers. But I guess not. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Well, it’s getting pretty close. I mean, you know, the –
this is what I - why I was so envious. Right down the hall, they had
their house dentist. They had a doctor. You know, I mean, they have
their patios outside that then gives on to a fenced-in patch of forest
where they swing. I mean, you know, it’s the best we can do to extend
the paradox of trying to dignify an animal in captivity. But it is
pretty well done. I mean, they’re still in captivity, but it’s the best
life we can afford them after all they’ve been through.

GROSS: Well, particularly, I – gosh, I mean, like, the research chimps,
like we’ve used them for our own good. We’ve put them in harm’s way for
our own good. So we owe them a good – a good retirement, which is going
to be a lot longer than the life they spent doing the research.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Exactly. And a lot longer than the chimp would live in the
wild, because, you know, in the wild, there are so many more threats to
a chimp. Whereas in captivity, you know, they’re protected. So they
live. Some of them live up to 60, 70 years old.

GROSS: Well, you ask a really, kind of profound question in the book,
which is what does it mean - now that we’ve this whole population of
chimps who were raised in captivity, who lived around humans more than
around other chimpanzees. They were taught to perform for humans or to
do research for humans. And you can’t return them to the wild because
they never lived in the wild in the first place. They wouldn’t know what
to do there. It’s kind of like me when I go camping, but worse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so you can’t return them to the wild. And so who are they?
Are they humans, or are they chimpanzees? Or as you put it, are they
humanzees? Like, what are they now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah. Yeah, they’re stranded. They’re being stranded
between their former selves and what we’ve tried to coax them into
being, or what we’ve been suggesting to them. And a lot of them stay
stranded. They can’t go back. I mean, Roger so captivated me among the
chimps at that retirement home in Wauchula because, at least when I met
him - things have changed - but he was the only chimp there who lived
alone because whereas others began to learn to socialize with other
chimps - by the way, zoos refuse to take these actor chimps because
they’re so asocial and clumsy and don’t get along with other chimps at
the beginning.

GROSS: They get along with people, but not with other chimps.

Mr. SIEBERT: Exactly. But Patty has been very successful in sort of re-
socializing a lot of these chimps. So they make friends and at least
have the company. But Roger was so adamant about his - sort of his
loneliness. He wanted to be with people. And it seemed to me that he
wanted to be with me when I first got there. He had – there was this
reaction that he had, as almost as though he recognized me from some
prior encounter. But no, you’re right. These beings can’t be wild chimps
again. And there's a tragic story of a chimp that was raised as human
being and then the owners tried to make it a wild chimp, and that ended
horribly. So they’re just caught. They’re forever stranded between what
they were and what we suggest to them.

So I call them humanzees or chewmans or manpanzees, all these words for
these hybrids that we’ve made. But it's so poignant to be around chimps
like this. I realized at one point with Roger that not long before
meeting him, I had been in Uganda doing the story about elephants. And I
took some days to myself to go through the – the various jungles there
in hopes of having an encounter with a wild chimpanzee. And I was
fortunate enough, my last day in the jungle, to have that very
encounter. And it was quite moving, and when I got home and met Roger
and stayed with Roger, I realized, you know, he’d never had a like
experience. I met with his wild kin. And here was Roger, a chimp with a
name, and yet no recollection of trees. So, it’s a very – it's a very
strange phenomenon.

GROSS: My guest is Charles Siebert. His new book about the retirement
home for chimps is called the “The Wauchula Woods Accord.” More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Charles Siebert. He's written a new book about a
retirement home for chimps from the entertainment world called “The
Wauchula Woods Accord.” He bonded with a chimp named Roger who had been
a cellist in an all-chimp circus band.

How did you communicate with Roger in addition to staring? Did you try
to talk to him? Did he vocalize with you?

Mr. SIEBERT: No. It’s a good question. I often wished Roger, like some
other chimps, could sign.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: But he never was taught signing. So it would be through
stares, through various gestures. Roger really would get impatient with
me if he detected any impatience from me - like that I was getting
restless, or certainly if I was getting ready to leave. He’d get all
offended and - at least my sense of it was – and he'd get up and walk
off and sulk in a corner for a while. Or, you know, he would do
mysterious things, like the last night that I was there, when after the
chimps woke each other up with nightmares or whatever and screams, after
the place settled down, I went out to be with Roger to - you know,
finally get to the bottom of this. And at one point, as we were sitting
there, he got up and he did that sulk where he went to the back of his
enclosure. I guess I’d fallen asleep…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …and he got mad at me. And then, instead of coming all the
way back, he plopped down in the middle of his room and proceeded to do
this mysterious - it looked like he was a child in a sandbox picking up
a handful of air on one side of him and then carefully putting it over
to his other side and putting it down. And Patty Reagan had told me
about a number of Roger's little nervous, neurotic ticks and behaviors,
but she had never mentioned that one to me.

And he would do that for quite some time in the course of that night
together. And I could only speculate as to what it was. But so - yeah.
These were all the ways in which, you know, we would sort of have a to
and fro with one another, I guess.

GROSS: You know, your new book is about chimps in retirement. Your New
York Times Magazine cover story is about whales who choose to interact
with humans. How do you think your encounters with whales and
chimpanzees and other animals that you’ve written about over the years
have affected your sense of what it means to be human?

Mr. SIEBERT: I think it underscores my, I guess, my humanness. And it
seems like a contradiction, but I love being reminded of my animality

and don’t feel, as I think a lot of humans do, debased by that. But I
feel deeply liberated by and ennobled by the reminders of my
connectivity with all other biology and biological life forms. And, you
know, and I’m going past even the ones that shock us with their
incredible humanness, like the chimps or the elephants.

I mean, I was so moved by that experience because, I mean, elephants -
like whales, and we now know chimps - I mean, they have culture. We can
now use that word. They have self-reflection. They have tool use. They
wound. They have trauma. To know that there are, you know, it used to be
- science told us we couldn’t anthropomorphize. Now, of all things,
science allows - or at least obviates the scene of anthropomorphism
because the question isn’t anymore, you know, oh, we can’t know what a
whale day is or a chimp day or a dolphin.

You know, now we know through science that they have days, parallel days
that are equally as intricate and woundable as our own days. And - I
don’t know. There comes – it’s wonderful to know that one. It’s the
sense of - you know how we often ask that question: Are we alone? And we
ask that about extraterrestrials. Well, you know, when you meet a whale
or an elephant eye to eye like that, you feel like you’re making contact
with another being - a foreign being, but another being. And you don’t
feel alone anymore.

So the very encounter we seek, mythically and through fiction, you know,
is available to us through these other very sophisticated animals.

GROSS: Do you have pets?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …two dogs. And I have had dogs all along. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And, and…

Mr. SIEBERT: Spent a lot of my days talking nonsensical to my dogs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, do you feel a different sense of connection with your dogs,
than you do say with chimpanzees or with whales? Do the chimpanzees and
whales seem more different from you, more far away than your dogs do
or…?

Mr. SIEBERT: Hmm. I guess the encounter with the chimps and the
elephants and the whales are more fraught because of the clear
complexity going on behind those eyes. Whereas…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …you can be, as I was just alluding to you, you can be sort
of shameless with your dogs in terms of what you’ll say and to and
project upon them, not that they're blank by any means, but clearly one
knows that there is not as much going on the sort of, neuronal level
that there is with some of these other creatures. I mean these brain
studies that have been done now that's what I meant about science
liberating us to make conjectures about these creatures.

I mean, when you look at a whale brain, as a scientist up at the Mount
Sinai School Of Medicine has done in a chimpanzee brain and the dolphin,
their finding the exact same structures that the - in the neocortex that
we evolved in our own brain and the very neurons that we use to say, the
cells that make us human. Well now we found for example, whales not only
have more of those cells than we do, they develop them millions of years
before we did in a whole different environment. So stuff like that just,
I don’t know, just makes my head spin. It’s just amazing.

GROSS: In the acknowledgments to your book about chimpanzees, you
thanked a few doctors for saving your heart, when sudden illness struck.

May I ask, what happened?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah, about a year and half ago, in the midst of trying to
get this book finished I was walking to a restaurant one night with my
wife and I found myself short of breath. And for no particular reason, I
couldn't explain it. And I was sitting up at night sort of, you know,
wheezing and I just didn’t know what was going on. And I went to a
doctor and thought that it might be pneumonia and it turned out that a
virus had attacked my heart and reduced it’s function to a critically
low level. So I was just really knocked for a loop there and I also had
no health insurance. Um…

GROSS: Hmm.

Mr. SIEBERT: …so the whole picture was not a pretty one. I was saved by
- literally by a guardian angel that I mentioned - guardian angels -
that I mentioned in my acknowledgment. Neil Epstein a heart –
cardiologist, who I wrote about in my previous book “A Man After His Own
Heart.” I have long been obsessed with the heart because my father had
an incurable kind of heart failure. Thus the deep irony of someone who
has been, you know, as obsessed with the heart and sometimes paranoid
about the heart as myself, to be felled by this virus.

And I was given thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars of care
because I was put in part of a research protocol with the NIH. And it
literally saved my life and my heart’s rebounded since. And I’m on
medication to help that process along. But it was that kind of nip and
tuck there for a while. So…

GROSS: You know, how in some hospitals they have therapy animals…

Mr. SIEBERT: Hmm.

GROSS: …that they bring for the patients, so patients can pet them and
it’s supposed to kind of relieve stress and just be up generally all
around pleasant experience to spend a few minutes with an animal.

Mr. SIEBERT: Hmm.

GROSS: Did you have animals, in addition to your dogs to help you during
your time of recovery, or were you supposed to stay away from animals
because of possible infection?

Mr. SIEBERT: Huh, interesting I – yeah, that’s one of the things I want
to find out about in this - in my pursuit of knowing that what happened
with this virus. Was I infectious to other people, how… But to answer
your question in the immediate, no. No, I didn’t have when I was at the
NIH, I had no contact with animals. But, you know, funny you should say,
to help me get passed this, I also became suddenly diabetic out of
nowhere, which is, there's no history for it in my family. So, this,
whatever this virus was, it knocked me - everything in my system for a
loop. And I was having to inject myself with insulin, having to take
these pills. And at one point, I looked at my wife and, you know, I
needed to finish this book. And I said, you know what, I just can't be
here. I just can't be around you and be injecting myself.

I almost - I needed to be alone, so I took my two dogs - and this same
heart doctor, who saved my life, offered me his cabin in the Blue Ridge
Mountains. And I went and lived there in this remote cabin by myself
with the two dogs. And it just helped me to overcome the whole setback,
physically, and helped me to focus on the book and get it all done. But,
I've to say those two dogs saved, you know, also saved my life because,
you know, I had that companionship, which is, you know, invaluable.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SIEBERT: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Charles Siebert’s new book about retired chimps from the
entertainment world is called "The Wauchula Woods Accord." Coming up
Maureen Corrigan reviews the new restored edition of Ernest Hemingway's
classic memoir, "A Movable Feast." This is FRESH AIR.
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Hemingway's 'Feast' On The Move Into New Edition

TERRY GROSS, host:

A new so called restored edition of Ernest Hemingway's memoir, "A
Movable Feast," edited by his grandson, will be published this week. In
it, Hemingway famously wrote that, there's never any ending to Paris.
Book critic Maureen Corrigan says, that this new version of the classic
memoir demonstrate that, there's never any ending to Hemingway either.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: The heavy musk of Hemingway is in the air this summer.
It has something to do with the fact that it's the 110th anniversary of
Papa's birth. Scribner, Hemingway's longtime publishers, is reissuing
all of his novels. They're also bringing out a mildly interesting new
book in August called "The Hemingway Patrols" about the writer's hunt
for U-boats off the coast of Cuba during World War II. The main event of
this Hemingway summer is the appearance of what's being called, the
restored edition of what might just be his greatest book, his memoir, "A
Moveable Feast.”

Remixed would be a more accurate word than restored. At the time of
Hemingway's suicide in 1961, the manuscript of his memoir-in-progress
didn't have a title, a finished introduction, or a final chapter.
Hemingway's fourth wife, Mary, and an editor worked together to shape
the memoir that was published in 1964. As anyone who's ever read it
knows, it's a vivid book, all about writing and being young in the Paris
of the 1920s, a place then green-gold with promise.

Hemingway writes generously about Ezra Pound and unkindly about Scott
Fitzgerald, and downright viciously about Gertrude Stein. Some of
Hemingway’s very harshest passages are reserved for Pauline Pfeiffer,
the rich woman who would be his second wife, whom he saw as deliberately
destroying what he’d come to idealize as a wonderful first marriage to
wife number one, Hadley. On the penultimate page of the original last
chapter of “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway wistfully writes of being
temporarily reunited with Hadley after a dalliance with Pauline: When I
saw my wife again, standing by the tracks as the train came in by the
piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved
anyone but her.

Understandably, Pauline’s descendants never liked how she lived on in
literary posterity, and so her grandson, Sean Hemingway, encouraged by
his uncle, Patrick Hemingway, Pauline’s son, edited this so-called
restored edition of “A Moveable Feast” in which the anti-Pauline
sections are muffled and shuffled and some new minor chapters have been
added. This new edition ends with this passage, papered with French, by
the aging Hemingway, who had, by then, it’s important to know, been
given electroshock treatments for depression: There are remise or
storage places where you may leave or store certain things such as a
locker trunk or duffel bag.

And this book contains material from the remise of my memory and of my
heart, even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not
exist. For that hollow voice of a shattered Hemingway alone, the new
edition of “A Moveable Feast” is worth taking note of. Otherwise, what
I’m calling the classic edition is the more coherent narrative. That’s
because an awareness of loss, and a foolhardy mission to try to stop
time, underlie “A Moveable Feast.” The Madonna of loss in “A Moveable
Feast” is Hadley. Almost every chapter in the memoir ends with an
offering to her, a premonition that the world she and Hemingway share is
going to evaporate.

Here, for instance, is a conversation at the end of the chapter that
reminisces about the famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. My,
Hadley said, we’re lucky that you found the place. We’re always lucky, I
said. And like a fool, I did not knock on wood. There was wood
everywhere in that apartment to knock on, too. Thematically, then, it’s
important to preserve that sense of foreboding in “A Moveable Feast,”
which means keeping Hadley’s innocence and Pauline’s predatory shadow,
front and center. Of course, “A Moveable Feast,” in whatever version you
choose to read, is highly fictionalized.

Hemingway was not as clueless, nor probably was Pauline quite the
barracuda that his version of things would have us believe. This
Hemingway summer allows me the opportunity to give a quick plug to a
great book on Hemingway that came out a few years ago. “The Breaking
Point” by Stephen Koch sheds light, not only on Papa’s tendency to blame
people and to idealize those whom he rejected, like Hadley, but also
tells an absorbing story about Hemingway’s political involvement and
betrayals during the Spanish Civil War. It’s a joy to be carried away by
the power of Hemingway’s writing in “A Moveable Feast,” but the
appearance of this latest version only reminds us readers that whatever
Papa wrote about the past needs to be taken with a pitcher of margaritas
and a shaker of salt.

Perhaps a better title for “A Moveable Feast,” might’ve been the words
spoken by Hemingway’s own Jake Barnes at the end of “The Sun Also
Rises”: Isn’t it pretty to think so?

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed a new edition of Hemingway’s memoir, “A Moveable Feast,” edited
by his grandson Sean Hemingway. You can download Podcasts of our show on
our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

I’m Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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