Charles Taylor Prize: Andrew Westoll on living in a chimp house


With past recipients including Richard Gwyn, Carol Shields, Ian Brown and Charles Foran, the annual Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction is one of the country's most prestigious awards. The winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize will be announced on March 5. 

From February 27 to March 2, each of the five 2012 nominees are sharing part of their writing experience with CBC Books. We are publishing one essay each day. Today, we hear from Andrew Westoll, author of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary.


Andrew Westoll is a biologist and primatologist turned author and journalist. His first book, The Riverbones, is a travel memoir set in the jungles of Suriname. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is his second book and was published by HarperCollins Canada in April 2011.

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is about my adventures working as a volunteer caregiver for a family of ex-laboratory chimpanzees, who are living out their retirement on a hobby farm on the south shore of Montreal. It is also about our complicated relationship with our closest evolutionary cousins, and how we might be on the verge of a breakthrough in the way we view our membership in the animal kingdom.

But the one thing I didn't include in the book, and the one thing readers routinely ask me about through email and social media, is what my life at Fauna was like when I wasn't toiling away and building relationships in the chimp house. I'll try to answer that here.

When I first showed up at Fauna, Gloria Grow -- the incredible woman who founded the sanctuary in 1997 with her partner, Richard Allen -- handed me the keys to the bachelor apartment located beneath the Fauna offices and welcome centre. This cozy little dwelling -- complete with a kitchen, double bed and a pair of swan security guards named Jeckyll and Hyde -- would be my home for the next 10 weeks.


The chimp house at Fauna Sanctuary. Image courtesy the author.

Gloria, ever generous, didn't even charge me rent. Instead, the only stipulation was that I had to cook dinner for her and Richard once a week. I am no gourmand, but I can cook a fair spaghetti sauce from scratch and a pretty nice piece of fish, and I soon began to look forward to those evenings with Gloria and Richard as a respite of sorts from the difficult things I was witnessing in the chimp house. I like to think they did, too. They would come over, crack open a bottle of wine, and pour their hearts out to me about the chimps, about the trials of the early years and about the many nameless people who have helped them keep Fauna going. The two of them would get so caught up in their stories that they would hardly notice when the pasta was served a little too al dente, or when the fish was baked to a blackened crisp.

I shared that little apartment with an elderly dog named Mr. Puppy. He spent every night with me, snoring like a chainsaw at the foot of my bed, and every morning he would whine to get out at 6:00 a.m., so he would be ready to greet the army of staff and volunteers who begin arriving at the farm around sun-up. Mr. Puppy was one of the first animals Gloria and Richard ever rescued, and he was the unofficial mascot of Fauna until he passed away not long after I left the sanctuary.

So when I wasn't in the chimp house, I was usually locked up in my little basement apartment (with Mr. Puppy at my feet) collating my copious notes from the day, backing up and transcribing the audio and video I'd recorded, and just generally trying to recover, physically and emotionally, so that I'd be ready to go to work the next morning. The most important thing that happened in that apartment were the video chats with my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, back in Toronto. Those chats, filled with laughter and not a few tears, kept me sane, and reminded me that unlike the chimps, I would be able to leave Fauna at the end of 10 weeks and rejoin my "real" life.

I ended up writing more than 150,000 words in that apartment at Fauna. I have no idea how many of those words made it into the final book, but I do know that without that special space in which to record and unpack my experiences, the book may never have been completed. A writer needs space, and time, and a bit of loneliness (but not too much) in which to get down to work. Gloria, Richard and Mr. Puppy gave me exactly that.

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