Sunday, July 28, 2002

SHEILA SIDDLE'S "FAMILY TREE"

A love affair with chimpanzees
07/28/2002
BY FAITH McNULTY
Special to The Journal
British couple has saved scores of chimps destined for slaughter
IN MY FAMILY TREE: A Life with Chimpanzees, by Sheila Siddle with Doug Cress. Grove Press. 284 pages. $25.

Books about living with animals are a well-loved genre, not necessarily because of their literary qualities, but for the vicarious experience of being close to a wild creature.

For 20 years, Sheila Siddle and her husband, David, Britishers who have spent most of their adult lives in Africa, centered their activities and their emotions on orphaned chimpanzees, raising them from infancy to adulthood. They give us a view of chimps that is both fascinatingly intimate and disturbingly poignant. With chimpanzees, the human-animal boundary shifts and slides in an unsettling way....

Much has been written about chimpanzees. Scientists have raised them, taught them sign language and tried to assess their intellect. Siddle's book is different. It tells us what scientific writers leave out. She writes about the humanity of chimps; their feelings and perceptions, their ability to cope and their inherent limitations; all the things that make them so like us and so different, so near to us and yet so far.

The emotions of chimps eerily mirror our own. They laugh and cry. They hurt each other and comfort each other. They hug and kiss. They are selfish, but can be generous. They can be crafty and know how to bargain. One clever chimp was expert at stealing some small object from Siddle and holding it for ransom until the price was right. The currency was cookies....