A tale of simian sorrow and salvation
Andrew Westoll’s second book, "The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary," is the winner of one of Canada’s most lucrative literary prizes.
If you want to be a successful writer, you need a good story to tell. Andrew Westoll, Artsci’00, is not the only writer who knows that, but this year it seems he knew it better than anyone else. When he began his education at Queen’s his interest was in biology – specifically primatology – not writing. It just so happens that primatology led him to great stories, and one of his professors, Carolyn Smart, led him into the world of writing. The result: the highly acclaimed book – The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, the 2012 winner of the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.
That the honour comes from a foundation established by another distinguished Queen’s non-fiction writer, the late Charles P. Taylor, BA’55, makes the prize all that much more special.
Westoll’s first book, The Riverbones (2009), had originally been inspired by his stint researching monkeys in the South American country of Suriname when he was 23. That story, which is a travel memoir about Westoll’s experiences in the country’s jungles, was so intriguing it received critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the 2009 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.
If this book hadn’t succeeded i would be the worst writer on the planet because I was presented with stories that were so compelling it was my job to get out of the way and just tell them.
So when Westoll was looking for the subject of his next book, his thoughts again turned to primates, this time chimpanzees. He’d heard of a group of chimps that been smuggled out of a biomedical research lab when it shut down 15 years ago and had gone to live on a hobby farm called Fauna Sanctuary on the south shore of Montreal. When Westoll contacted sanctuary co-founder Gloria Grow, she invited him to move in for 10 weeks and to work as a volunteer caregiver with the chimps.
That is how Westoll had occasion to meet Tom, the father figure of the 19-member group, Binky, the resident practical joker, and Sue Ellen who loved wearing a beaded necklace, to name a few. Westoll admits he developed a soft spot for several of the chimps, especially a female named Rachel who was raised as a human child for the first three years of her life wore frilly dresses, took bubble baths, and ate with a knife and fork. Westoll writes, “At three, she was abandoned in a laboratory, subjected to invasive surgeries and knocked down with a dart gun.”
Rachel subsequently suffered a meltdown in the laboratory and was taken out of the protocol because she was so psychologically distraught. She now takes anti-psychotic medication and suffers from dramatic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, Rachel is the subject of the first study that makes a case for the notion that ex-laboratory chimps suffer from many of the same PTSD symptoms prisoners of war do. Westoll tells how she loved human contact and spent time as close as possible to her caregivers at Fauna Sanctuary. She has a special area where she hangs out,” he says, “and I’d groom her through the bars with a little back scratcher.”
After working with Rachel and the other chimpanzees, Westoll knew he had a great story to tell. “If this book hadn’t succeeded at all I would be the worst writer on the planet because I was presented with stories that were so compelling it was my job to get out of the way and just tell them.”
He has done that, so well that not only has his book won the Taylor Prize’s $25,000, but also kudos from the likes of world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall who has praised Westoll as “a born storyteller.” As well, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary was shortlisted for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and was hailed as a “Book of the Year” by The Globe and Mail, Amazon.ca, Quill and Quire, and CTV’s Canada AM.
Westoll has also enjoyed great success in the magazine world where his work has been published in The Walrus, Utne Reader and The Guardian, among others, and he is also a Gold National Magazine Award winner. After completing his Queen’s degree, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Right now he’s employed as Assistant Director of Communications at the U of T Scarborough.
Westoll isn’t discussing his next project yet, but whatever it is you can be sure he will have a great story to tell. “I want to develop a beat of writing about our relationship with the natural world - specifically the animal kingdom,” he says. “I think animal behaviour research is having a renaissance, and I think our culture is three decades behind what science knows about animal cognition, emotion, intelligence and society, so it’s exciting to write about as well as satisfying my need for adventure.”