On this particular day, a surprise awaited me: a trainer had a baby chimpanzee named Geraldine, and was offering visitors the chance to hold her. I eagerly volunteered, and when the little creature wrapped her furry arms around my neck and rested her head on my cheek, I felt something that Eliot Schrefer captures expertly in his book RESCUED:
"It was the first time I'd held something so delicately alive, something it was in my power to drop or save. I went silent with responsibility."
In Schrefer's book, it's a baby orangutan that the narrator, John, is holding, a present from John's irresponsible and eager-to-please father. But the feeling is almost entirely the same. It's from the moment I held Geraldine that I date not only my love for great apes but, far more importantly, my sense of responsibility to them.
RESCUED is the third book in Schrefer's planned four-book YA series about the great apes: bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas. Each book, though entirely different from the others in setting and character, features a young person's relationship with one of the four species of ape. In the first two, ENDANGERED (bonobos) and THREATENED (chimpanzees), the settings are African and the apes living in a wild or, at least, semi-wild condition. In RESCUED, by contrast, the setting is the U.S., and the orangutan, Raja, grows up as a captive house pet. The book's action revolves around John's growing realization that Raja is not rightfully his and the teen's subsequent efforts to return him to Sumatra, from which he was stolen as a baby.
I'm going to put it out there right now: Schrefer's books are my favorite YA series of all time. That's partly because of their subject matter, but it's also because of their beautiful writing, vivid characters (human and ape), lush descriptions of ape behavior and human-ape interaction, and keen moral sensibility. Schrefer doesn't preach, but he doesn't pull punches either: John comes to learn that it's wrong, plain and simple, to keep wild things captive, and he takes enormous risks to rectify a crime to which, as a child, he was a willing if unknowing accomplice. Late in the book, the following moment of intimacy between ape and human clinches John's determination to set his childhood friend free:
"Raja kept probing me. When his golden eyes met mine directly I felt more fully seen by him than by any human in my life. It was like he was navigating back and forth in my heart, sifting and sorting every little feeling he found. Neither of us had a self while our eyes were linked: John and Raja were shared between us."
Apes are as close to human as non-human animals can be. But they're also utterly unique creatures, with lives and needs and agendas distinct from ours. That we've come close to extinguishing all of our nearest relatives on Earth (orangutans, along with mountain gorillas, being the most critically endangered of the great apes) speaks very poorly for our humanity. But in a book such as RESCUED, we glimpse what our relationship to these creatures could and should be: one of mutual interest, love, and respect, starting with respect for their right to live their lives without our interference. Maybe, if we can learn this about the apes, we can learn it about the rest of the world's inhabitants as well.