The Story of How I Realized that for Me, Primates are People

(Written in a workshop with Deena Metzger at Rowe in May 2010)

It was when my mother broke her hip, and we all went home in turns to help her get from the hospital to the house we grew up in.  By the time I got there, a hospital bed had been placed in the living room. And a commode as well.  I remember insisting on emptying the commode so that Mama Greene wouldn’t have to.  Mama Greene, who was older than Mother, who mothered us all since I was three and named her.  Mom said it was because I couldn’t say “Mrs”, but I knew a “mama” when I saw one.  My biological mother was a “wire mother.” I remember Mama Greene down on her knees cleaning the brass plate at the threshold of the living room.  When I told her daughter Catherine that I was worried about her doing so much physical work, Catherine said “Taking care of that house is what keeps her going.”

Mother had broken her hip on a trip to India, with other wealthy women.  She broke it on the first day and had to be flown back.  I could sympathize with her disappointment because I had fallen from a ladder on the first day of an eagerly awaited summer as a volunteer at a theater.  There were some postcards from her friends who had continued the trip.  They spoke of all the wonderful things they were buying.  I remember one in particular.  My mother’s friend said “The poverty in Calcutta was not so bad as we had been led to believe.” There were also complaints about the beggars.

Mother had a friend who came and helped her with her insurance and paying bills.  I was there when she came and she & Mom were talking.  She told Mom that she had a daughter who worked at a medical research facility.  They had gorillas in cages, and she brought in plants and mirrors to give the gorillas the illusion of more comfortable quarters.  The daughter was of course very sad when the gorillas had to be “sacrificed,” but wasn’t it wonderful that medicine could find out all these new ways for healing people.

I sat there feeling sick to my stomach.  I felt as you would feel on hearing that doctors were experimenting on children of maybe black people or asians, or some racial group that they didn’t consider “human.” Like the Nazis experimenting on Jews during the Holocaust.  I was surprised to find that I considered the gorillas human (perhaps I had read Diane Fossey by then) and realized that I considered all primates human, and the whales and the dolphins and the elephants too.  My “we” encompasses all of them.

I was reminded of this story when two YouTube videos came to me on Facebook:
Gorillas groom human
Valentina, the Grateful Whale

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