The Surprisingly Social Gray Whale Journalist Charles Siebert and wildlife biologist Dr. Toni Frohoff explain the uncharacteristically friendly behavior of gray whales off the coast of California.
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The Surprisingly Social Gray Whale

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The Surprisingly Social Gray Whale

The Surprisingly Social Gray Whale

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The most massive creatures on earth, gray whales, are doing something very unusual. They're seeking contact with people, at least that's what's happening in a lagoon off the western coast of Baja, California, in Mexico. Toni Frohoff has been investigating this phenomenon. She's a behavioral and wildlife biologist who specializes in studying stress and well-being in dolphins and whales. She's the co-author of the book "Dolphin Mysteries" and the research director for TerraMar Research. She's joining us by phone from Bath, England.

Journalist Charles Siebert went to Baja to report on Frohoff and the gray whales she's studying, as well as some other recent developments in the whale world. Seibert wrote the cover story of Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "What are the Whales Trying to Tell us?" Seibert is also the author of a new book about a retirement home for chimps who worked in movies, TV shows and circuses. We'll talk about the chimps later.

Welcome to FRESH AIR. Charles, you went to Baja, California, for research for your piece on whale and human interactions. What is the mystery in Baja?

Mr. CHARLES SIEBERT (Journalist; Author, "What are the Whales Trying to Tell us?"): The mystery specifically in Baja is that at a time when gray whales migrate up and down the west coast of the Pacific, in the early winter going in towards spring, mother whales come down to give birth and nurse their calves in the lagoons, these sort of protected lagoons along the coast. And at precisely a time when any other mammalian species, a mother, would be so guarded and protective and aloof during that nursing stage, these whales were actually approaching boats, mothers - not all of them, but some - shepherding their young up to boats for encounters.

And hearing it in the abstract, I thought it's not possible, and then there I found myself that first day in a boat - we were there for four days - with Toni Frohoff and a bunch of other people, about three or four others. And sure enough, the typically elusive whale was, in fact, going out of its way to find, search us out. And first the mother approached and then sort of, like, sussed us out, I guess, to make sure everything was okay and then actually shepherded a baby whale right up to our side. And this whale, this baby whale, popped up out of the water no more than arm's length away from me and just stared at me, these eyes, this big, ovoid eye, taking me in. And Toni had spoke often about there are ways in which that was even more profound than the actual touching. The idea of this sentient, highly intelligence creature rising up out of its inherently remote medium just for a stare at you, I - you know, I don't stop short of saying I just was kind of changed by the whole encounter.

GROSS: So wasn't there a moment, too, when I think it was the mother actually got under your boat and lifted it?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yes, that was day four. And that, as I explained in the piece, is a kind of a recurring trope in literature - you know, throughout literature of fishermen and whalers and finding themselves suddenly on the back of a whale being born up, sometimes the whale having angry intent, depending on what's happening. But in this instance, just to be lifted up sort of playfully as, like, we were being given a ride.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: It feels like - when something that big picks up a small - these boats are about 18-feet long - and picks you up on its back and sets you down, you feel like a toy in a bathtub, you know, except you're a human being in this boat, and you're just being playfully, you know, well, toyed with I guess is what you'd say, with no malicious intent at all, just this kind of - just here, let's give you a sweet little ride, and then the mother took off. So it was rather incredible.

GROSS: You talk about an 18-foot boat. How big is the whale?

Mr. SIEBERT: Gray whales get to be about 40-feet long, 30 tons. It's quite a massive - I mean, this is a creature who, with one flick of its tail, could just send you skyward. And there is that feeling of - that edgeless fear of pure acquiescence when it first, the mother first came by because the whole of her slid right under the boat. And for something that long and wide, everywhere you looked into the water was whale. And I say that moving land, to quote Milton, that's what he said of whales, the moving land, and just to feel that alone, to see that, you know, the whale passing underneath, but then for it to come around and have this close encounter, which believe me, that's what it was like, an encounter with an extraterrestrial or something. It's pretty incredible.

GROSS: Toni Frohoff, let me bring you into this conversation. You are experienced at working with whales and dolphins. You study them. You study their stress. You study human-whale interactions. What was that experience like for you being lifted in the boat by the whale? Is that something you're used to now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TONI FROHOFF (Behavioral and Wildlife Biologist; Co-author, "Dolphin Mysteries"; Research Director, TerraMar Research): Well, it doesn't happen every day for me, and even I spend a good deal of my work in the water or on the water with dolphins and whales. And I do focus on the interactions we have with them.

I have to say I've been studying dolphins primarily for almost 20 years, and then I started studying gray whales more. And even now, after these decades of being around all these wonderful marine mammals, there's something so uniquely poignant and collaborative about the interactions that occur down in these lagoons, specifically in San Ignacio…

GROSS: What do you mean by collaborative? I don't think I've ever heard that word used to describe a whale before.

Dr. FROHOFF: Well, I use it to describe the whale-human interaction that Charles and I were able to experience because I wanted to make sure, to the best that I could, that it wasn't just us as humans taking advantage of the whales and going after them, maybe not to hunt or kill them but because we wanted to gain something from them. I wanted, as Charles said, for us to be able to be in their presence, but for it to be collaborative, in a sense, so that it could be on their terms, as well.

For example, you know, when the whale came up to Charles and looked at him very directly in the eye, that was on the whale's terms. And I say collaborative being important because it's not often done that way. Too often, whales and dolphins are chased by boats and by obsessed passengers who want to put something on their scorecard instead of really being able to just gaze at them as you can here and sometimes have the pleasure of touching them or, even better, being touched by them on their terms.

GROSS: So how unusual is it that these mother whales and their calves are swimming out to boats, choosing to have interactions with human?

Dr. FROHOFF: Well, it's unusual in terms of what we're used to as people. And it is unusual in terms of we really don't know of other species who do this.

GROSS: Does this indicate a change in whale behavior?

Dr. FROHOFF: Well, it's been happening that we know of for several decades. And Charles can tell you about some conversations he had with some of the local people there who had started, initiated to some degree, this wonderful interaction.

Mr. SIEBERT: You know, I did ask about, you know, what's the history? When did this start? I mean, was there a starting date for whale friendliness, for example, in Baja? And while this sort of thing is really difficult to precisely pinpoint, there is certain undeniable facts, which is, for example that, you know, in the last 19th century, early 20th, there was a lot of hunting going on there. And those waters ran red with whale blood in that same time period that we were there. And you'd have orphaned baby whales just circling the whaling ships for days in search of their slain mothers, and then the babies themselves would die of starvation. And they were nearly hunted to extinction, the gray whales.

So it's a pretty tumultuous and dark history that you're looking at. These thing - you know, it's hard to pinpoint exactly when the onset of friendliness happened, but there is one story that has been passed around a lot, and it involved the father of the boat driver, who took Toni and I every day. His name is Pachiko Mieral(ph), and after a period of sort of standoffishness or distance between whales and humans after the imposition of a hunting ban in the 1930s, there were just years where fishermen would avoid whales, and whales usually the boats.

And this one day in February of 1972, Pachiko Mieral was out on the water fishing with a partner and this mother whale approached the boat and just wouldn't go away, just kept circling the boat for up to, like, 45 minutes. And Pachiko kept trying to maneuver away, and finally, this whale, well, we were talking earlier about being born up on the back, actually lifted their boat up out of the water, and they were thinking the worst, given the history of the hunting in the area, thinking this is a sort of delayed revenge. And the boat was gently then set back down, and then the same mother whale popped up right beside Pachiko, and he just reached out and touched it. And that was, like, the first close encounter.

I mean, the news of that spread like wildfire. I mean, no one believed Pachiko for a while, that that could have happened. And really that is cited often as the onset of this phenomena of the friendlies, as they're called.

GROSS: My guests are Journalist Charles Siebert and marine mammal behavioralist Toni Frohoff. We'll talk more about whales after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is journalist Charles Siebert, who wrote yesterday's New York Times Magazine cover story about whales, and Toni Frohoff, who studies stress and well-being in whales and dolphins. She's studying a lagoon where whales are seeking out people. What's it like to touch a whale?

Dr. FROHOFF: I would say that rather giving you a tactile sensation, you know, describing that as a response, I would give you more of an emotional response, in that I can feel the sensitivity of the whale. You know, we're talking about a 40, perhaps more than 40-foot animal, and yet, you know, you just touch your fingertips on this whale and feel her shudder. And that's really profound.

GROSS: And Charles, what was your experience of touching a whale?

Mr. SIEBERT: You know, I heard all these descriptions. It feels like, you know, a hard-boiled egg. It felt to me like, I mean, just strictly tactilely, it felt sort of like a firm melon. It's hard to put into words.

You know, okay, you hear the naysayers' theories, and you're trying to be objective about this. And some say, oh, don't get carried away, they're just attracted to sound of the motors, they're just trying to scratch the lice and barnacles off their backs, and the people are just, as one scientist down there put it, they're just little parasites in the boat that have nothing to do with the whales.

But I have to tell you when you have the experience, when you see what they do, when you see how far out of their way they go to both I, us and to be touched by us, you know that that - the naysayers are entirely wrong, that something else is going on.

But in our boat one day, and Toni will attest to this, everyone - it's so funny. You should see people in the boat. Everyone is just going out of their minds. People start spontaneously singing Broadway show tunes and screeching. And everyone is trying to find the right position in the boat for where the whale might come up next, and you usually think that the lowest point, where the boat sits lowest in the water, would be best. And one time, we had - one of the people in our boat was up in the prow, which rose up high out of the water, and this baby came so high up and stayed there so long that this woman, who also is a nature writer, and she is very reserved about not abusing the whales' rights and space, she just spontaneously reached out and gave this whale a big smooch right on its face, and it was unbelievable.

I mean, just - you know, that's not about coming up to rub your lice off. That's sheer, what seemed to me, curiosity about us and the desire to have fun with us and interact with us. So it's pretty incredible.

GROSS: Toni, has anybody gotten hurt in their interactions with whales in Baja?

Dr. FROHOFF: You know, as far as I know, most of the - injuries are most likely when people are trampling over each other in little boats to try to gain access to the whales and take a better photograph. The whales are surprisingly tolerant, and I say that with the huge caveat that this species used to be referred to by whalers as the devil fish. And first of all, I mentioned that people only interact with the whales from these specific boats who are licensed. So these boat operators know how to allow the whales to get close to the boat without disturbing the whales.

So I note that because I would not say that these whales would be so tolerant with people, let alone so friendly, should the boats not be as respectful.

GROSS: Toni, one of the things you're studying is whale and dolphin language. And can you tell us some of the things that you're learning about how whales communicate?

Dr. FROHOFF: Well, I would love to be able to tell you more, but there are so many more mysteries and questions than there are answers. I will say that some people find the gray whale to be not as glamorous, charismatic, as some of the more, you know, aesthetically beautiful species by some people's standards.

They do look somewhat primitive, but in another way, they can be the most exquisite. And the same with their vocalizations. They have very strange vocalizations. I mean, it really sounds like clicking and pinging and the sound of drums. And I think that, quite honestly, I would say that if anything, the science of studying whales is a lot more primitive than anything having to do with their language.

I can tell you that in my opinion, my observations have indicated that their communications systems are much more sophisticated, not just with us but with each other, than most people have ever given them credit for.

GROSS: Charles, one of the things you wrote about in your New York Times Magazine cover story about whales is how noisy the ocean has become and how that might be affecting the health of whales. And by noise, I mean things like sonar. Would you talk a little bit about the impact of sonar and other noises in the ocean on the health of whales?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah, it's been documented for some time. There's been these coincidences with strandings dating back to the 1970s and even earlier, in the '60s, strandings of whales coincidental to often naval exercises going on in the area. And these were sort of recorded anecdotally and over time, you know, the coincidences just were too frequent to be denied. And these whales, often beaked whales, which are very deep-diving whales, but also other species, as well, were found to be not, you know, beached and bleeding around their ears and their brains, and further necropsies done showed that many of these whales had actual nitrogen bubbles in their tissue and organs, and these are classic signs of the bends.

And the deduction drawn from that is that the sound of this sonar was so disturbing to the whales and their communication patterns and their migratory patterns that it was literally driving them too fast to the surface, and thus the onset of bends.

Other activities, like seismic activities from air guns are used to do seismic testing of the ocean floor. Those have the same sort of effect on whales and will cause them to beach themselves, noise pollution from just boats. And you know, when you look back at the history, you understand that it wasn't very long ago, prior to the onset of the gas-powered motor, the oceans were relatively the whales' room, you know, their communicative space and a very sound-conductive one.

I mean, sounds and whale calls and clicks travel for miles. And so this is - you know, for the longest time on this earth, the oceans were just this sort of chorus of different whales' and dolphins' songs, and then the onset of our motors and all these other sounds has actually, I say in the piece, rendered whole limitless oceans sort of madness-inducing echo chambers for whales.

GROSS: Toni, are you seeing signs of a human-created noise having bad effects on whales' health and behavior?

Dr. FROHOFF: Most definitely. I was living in the Pacific Northwest, where the military noise affected orcas and porpoise. And I have since moved to Santa Barbara, where our office is, and now we're finding unusual numbers of strandings of dolphins. And a lot of these seem to coincide so directly with the military acoustic, what they call exercises. And so it's really so subtle because often we don't know when these are happening.

It's not like the Navy will put out a notice all the time, but I can say that the scope is, right now it's immense. And we're talking about living in a world with depleted fisheries, and you can only imagine what that's doing to the fish. I mean, these sounds can cause physical damage. They're pressure waves. They can blow out the internal organs of fish. So we really need to be careful and very soon of what we're doing to the oceans before we just ruin what we've got acoustically. I call it a silent killer.

GROSS: Charles, there was a recent Supreme Court decision that relates to the sonar and its effects on whales, and the majority decision was written by Chief Justice John Roberts. Tell us about the decision and what Roberts had to say.

Mr. SIEBERT: Prior to the decision, there were two victories for environmental groups, the National Resources Defense Council, in concert with a number of other environmental groups and people had won two cases in California, where the judges ruled to heavily restrict the use of the Navy sonar in their training exercises off the coast of Southern California.

The Navy appealed, and it went to the Supreme Court, and Roberts ruled in favor of the Navy and reversed the two appellate court judges' decisions, saying that they - those judges didn't adequately consider the Navy's interest and concerns and the higher concern of our, you know, our safety. But in a way, it was already a tacit victory just to have such a case heard in the Supreme Court. In other words, the idea of considering the well-being of whales and weighing that against, you know, our national safety.

Roberts was a little dismissive in his opinion. You know, he just sort of cursorily said oh, yes, some harm would be done to some marine mammals. And you know, Justice Ginsburg, in a dissenting opinion, quoted the Navy's own environmental assessment, in which they said that vast damages would be - they admitted to it - vast damages would be done to whales and other species and then went on to say that, you know, we do have to take something like this very, very seriously and weigh it in the future. And the Navy agreed with the NRDC to do future environmental assessments of their own before they proceed. So it was really, I feel, a tacit victory because the case got even considered.

GROSS: Charles Siebert wrote yesterday's New York Times cover story about - New York Times Magazine cover story about whales. Toni Frohoff is the co-author of "Dolphin Mysteries." She works with TerraMar Research and co-founded the Trans-Species Institute. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Think of all the chimpanzee performers in circuses, TV shows, movies, commercials. Where do they go when it's time to retire? Well, a lot of them go to a retirement home called the Center for Great Apes on the outskirts of Wauchula in south-Central Florida. Journalist Charles Siebert, who was just talking with us about his New York Times Magazine piece on whales, also wrote a new book about the retired chimps and what they have to tell us about the connections between humans and primates. It's called "The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals."

Let's start with just a roll call of famous chimps living in retirement now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Well, given present circumstances, I guess we'd have to start with Bubbles, Michael Jackson's chimp, who lived in the very retirement home for chimp entertainers where I lived for a time. There's Cheetah, of course, of the Tarzan movies. He's out on a West Coast retirement home in Palm Springs, of course. There are all the chimps -do you know the commercials that were so popular during the Super Bowl where one of the chimps - the chimps run amok in an office. They're all dressed in suits, and one of them pulls down his pants and sits on the office copy machine. All those chimps were at the Center for Great Apes, where Roger and Bubbles are. There's the orangutan from a movie called "Dunston Checks In," something with Jason Alexander, which I've never seen. Roger, my - star of my book, he was a cellist in an all-chimp orchestra…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …at Ringling Brothers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: So it goes on and on. And when you visit this place, it's just so - it's so ridiculous because you walk in and, you know, Patty Reagan, who owns it, will just introduce you to each of them and it's -you know, you're just looking at these stars with their dossiers. And, of course, the sadness involved is that, as people don't realize, they have viability as actors for about five or six years, and then they get too big and strong and end up living 50 more years in captivity. So…

GROSS: Well - let me - we'll get back to that in a second. But let me just…

Mr. SIEBERT: Okay.

GROSS: …ask you: Does Roger, the former circus cellist, still played cello? Do the circus stars still do the things that they were trained to do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: It's funny you should say. Just the moment prior to meeting Roger and locking eyes with him for the first time, Patty was introducing me to these chimps in an enclosure opposite Roger's. And one of the chimps there is named Butch. And Butch came walking out of his back quarters towards the front of the enclosure in an eerily upright sort of position. And he came right up to the front, and Patty went, and that's Butch. And I went, hi, Butch. And Patty put her hand over mouth like, oh, no, you shouldn't have done that. And Butch immediately went into…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …a classic stand-up ta-dah pose with his hands straight in the air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: And this with his old shtick, which was prompted that - whenever anyone said hello to him.

GROSS: As I said, you know, chimpanzees can only work till a certain age - what, about five or six? And then what happens?

Mr. SIEBERT: Well, as we sometimes see in horrible circumstances with pet chimps, they get big and strong. An adult chimp is about five times stronger than the strongest human and very rambunctious in their teenage years especially, just like human beings. So they become willful and very aggressive. And they are, after all, wild animals - all of our, you know, distortions of them notwithstanding. And because a lot of them have gone through traumas of captivity, being separated too early from their mothers, not growing up with other chimps, they have pathologies. They have neurosis. They have trauma. And sometimes, the littlest thing, as with humans, can upset the scar tissue, the trauma in their brain and set them off, as we saw with this incident in Stamford, Connecticut, not too long ago, where Travis mauled that woman so horribly.

GROSS: You know, when Michael Jackson gave away his chimp, Bubbles, gave him to a sanctuary, he said that Bubbles had become too aggressive. But apparently that's the typical problem after a certain age where people or circuses or…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …TV, trainers with chimps.

Mr. SIEBERT: Absolutely. I mean, when that Travis incident happened, I wrote a piece - an op-ed piece for The Times about it. I mean, it was literally a chapter out of my book, because there are about - any number of similar stories. People just - you know, we've this cartoonish notion of chimps. We know them in their baby-stage, when they - we dress them up in cute little suits and they pedal around on bicycles.

And yet time and again, once they get too old, we hear these stories of - Quincy Jones, as I read the other day, was remembering Bubbles and how Bubbles bit his own kid's hand when he visited Michael. I mean, these chimps can be very willful and aggressive.

GROSS: Well, some of these chimps are research chimps, too. I mean, isn't there one facility you visited where there's all the NASA chimps, all the chimps who - where the chimps in the space research are retired?

Mr. SIEBERT: Most of them were research lab chimps for medical purposes like finding cures for malaria or hepatitis, or - they thought - HIV. So we - the country bred an unbelievable number of chimps when AIDS first broke out, thinking that they would be an obvious model for finding a vaccine. And it proved to be not true because it looks like AIDS morphed originally from a chimp - a simian virus. So that did - so we had all these surplus chimps.

But yes, also, the chimps who were used in the space program way back and went through all those flight tests. And they ended up at this facility in Shreveport, outside a Shreveport, Louisiana, and this was the result of the Bill Clinton's last act in his presidency called a CHIMP Act, where the government, rather than - you know, had all these surplus chimps and they thought geez, for, you know, for all the effort they've - and sacrifice they've made for us, we can't just put down all these chimps. So we built a retirement home for them. And I must tell you, when I visited it, I was thinking…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: I don't think I'm going to do as well in retirement out here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: We're talking very nice rooms with skylights and television sets and…

GROSS: No - television sets.

Mr. SIEBERT: Television sets. Chimps love TV. They love very dramatic, violent shows. It should be no surprise. Nature shows…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: They - this one really got to me. One of their - they love soap operas, and their favorite is - the research lab chimps' favorite is "General Hospital…"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …because they're so used to people in white coats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: So it's just remarkable of their level of sentience and awareness.

GROSS: When you talk about chimps in retirement homes, I'm also picturing like chimps on walkers. But I guess not. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Well, it's getting pretty close. I mean, you know, the - this is what I - why I was so envious. Right down the hall, they had their house dentist. They had a doctor. You know, I mean, they have their patios outside that then gives on to a fenced-in patch of forest where they swing. I mean, you know, it's the best we can do to extend the paradox of trying to dignify an animal in captivity. But it is pretty well done. I mean, they're still in captivity, but it's the best life we can afford them after all they've been through.

GROSS: Well, particularly, I - gosh, I mean, like, the research chimps, like we've used them for our own good. We've put them in harm's way for our own good. So we owe them a good - a good retirement, which is going to be a lot longer than the life they spent doing the research.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Exactly. And a lot longer than the chimp would live in the wild, because, you know, in the wild, there are so many more threats to a chimp. Whereas in captivity, you know, they're protected. So they live. Some of them live up to 60, 70 years old.

GROSS: Well, you ask a really, kind of profound question in the book, which is what does it mean - now that we've this whole population of chimps who were raised in captivity, who lived around humans more than around other chimpanzees. They were taught to perform for humans or to do research for humans. And you can't return them to the wild because they never lived in the wild in the first place. They wouldn't know what to do there. It's kind of like me when I go camping, but worse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so you can't return them to the wild. And so who are they? Are they humans, or are they chimpanzees? Or as you put it, are they humanzees? Like, what are they now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah. Yeah, they're stranded. They're being stranded between their former selves and what we've tried to coax them into being, or what we've been suggesting to them. And a lot of them stay stranded. They can't go back. I mean, Roger so captivated me among the chimps at that retirement home in Wauchula because, at least when I met him - things have changed - but he was the only chimp there who lived alone because whereas others began to learn to socialize with other chimps - by the way, zoos refuse to take these actor chimps because they're so asocial and clumsy and don't get along with other chimps at the beginning.

GROSS: They get along with people, but not with other chimps.

Mr. SIEBERT: Exactly. But Patty has been very successful in sort of re-socializing a lot of these chimps. So they make friends and at least have the company. But Roger was so adamant about his - sort of his loneliness. He wanted to be with people. And it seemed to me that he wanted to be with me when I first got there. He had - there was this reaction that he had, as almost as though he recognized me from some prior encounter. But no, you're right. These beings can't be wild chimps again. And there's a tragic story of a chimp that was raised as human being and then the owners tried to make it a wild chimp, and that ended horribly. So they're just caught. They're forever stranded between what they were and what we suggest to them.

So I call them humanzees or chewmans or manpanzees, all these words for these hybrids that we've made. But it's so poignant to be around chimps like this. I realized at one point with Roger that not long before meeting him, I had been in Uganda doing the story about elephants. And I took some days to myself to go through the - the various jungles there in hopes of having an encounter with a wild chimpanzee. And I was fortunate enough, my last day in the jungle, to have that very encounter. And it was quite moving, and when I got home and met Roger and stayed with Roger, I realized, you know, he'd never had a like experience. I met with his wild kin. And here was Roger, a chimp with a name, and yet no recollection of trees. So, it's a very - it's a very strange phenomenon.

GROSS: My guest is Charles Siebert. His new book about the retirement home for chimps is called the "The Wauchula Woods Accord." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Charles Siebert. He's written a new book about a retirement home for chimps from the entertainment world called "The Wauchula Woods Accord." He bonded with a chimp named Roger who had been a cellist in an all-chimp circus band.

How did you communicate with Roger in addition to staring? Did you try to talk to him? Did he vocalize with you?

Mr. SIEBERT: No. It's a good question. I often wished Roger, like some other chimps, could sign.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: But he never was taught signing. So it would be through stares, through various gestures. Roger really would get impatient with me if he detected any impatience from me - like that I was getting restless, or certainly if I was getting ready to leave. He'd get all offended and - at least my sense of it was - and he'd get up and walk off and sulk in a corner for a while. Or, you know, he would do mysterious things, like the last night that I was there, when after the chimps woke each other up with nightmares or whatever and screams, after the place settled down, I went out to be with Roger to - you know, finally get to the bottom of this. And at one point, as we were sitting there, he got up and he did that sulk where he went to the back of his enclosure. I guess I'd fallen asleep…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …and he got mad at me. And then, instead of coming all the way back, he plopped down in the middle of his room and proceeded to do this mysterious - it looked like he was a child in a sandbox picking up a handful of air on one side of him and then carefully putting it over to his other side and putting it down. And Patty Reagan had told me about a number of Roger's little nervous, neurotic ticks and behaviors, but she had never mentioned that one to me.

And he would do that for quite some time in the course of that night together. And I could only speculate as to what it was. But so - yeah. These were all the ways in which, you know, we would sort of have a to and fro with one another, I guess.

GROSS: You know, your new book is about chimps in retirement. Your New York Times Magazine cover story is about whales who choose to interact with humans. How do you think your encounters with whales and chimpanzees and other animals that you've written about over the years have affected your sense of what it means to be human?

Mr. SIEBERT: I think it underscores my, I guess, my humanness. And it seems like a contradiction, but I love being reminded of my animality and don't feel, as I think a lot of humans do, debased by that. But I feel deeply liberated by and ennobled by the reminders of my connectivity with all other biology and biological life forms. And, you know, and I'm going past even the ones that shock us with their incredible humanness, like the chimps or the elephants.

I mean, I was so moved by that experience because, I mean, elephants -like whales, and we now know chimps - I mean, they have culture. We can now use that word. They have self-reflection. They have tool use. They wound. They have trauma. To know that there are, you know, it used to be - science told us we couldn't anthropomorphize. Now, of all things, science allows - or at least obviates the scene of anthropomorphism because the question isn't anymore, you know, oh, we can't know what a whale day is or a chimp day or a dolphin.

You know, now we know through science that they have days, parallel days that are equally as intricate and woundable as our own days. And - I don't know. There comes - it's wonderful to know that one. It's the sense of - you know how we often ask that question: Are we alone? And we ask that about extraterrestrials. Well, you know, when you meet a whale or an elephant eye to eye like that, you feel like you're making contact with another being - a foreign being, but another being. And you don't feel alone anymore.

So the very encounter we seek, mythically and through fiction, you know, is available to us through these other very sophisticated animals.

GROSS: Do you have pets?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …two dogs. And I have had dogs all along. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And, and…

Mr. SIEBERT: Spent a lot of my days talking nonsensical to my dogs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, do you feel a different sense of connection with your dogs, than you do say with chimpanzees or with whales? Do the chimpanzees and whales seem more different from you, more far away than your dogs do or…?

Mr. SIEBERT: Hmm. I guess the encounter with the chimps and the elephants and the whales are more fraught because of the clear complexity going on behind those eyes. Whereas…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: …you can be, as I was just alluding to you, you can be sort of shameless with your dogs in terms of what you'll say and to and project upon them, not that they're blank by any means, but clearly one knows that there is not as much going on the sort of, neuronal level that there is with some of these other creatures. I mean these brain studies that have been done now that's what I meant about science liberating us to make conjectures about these creatures.

I mean, when you look at a whale brain, as a scientist up at the Mount Sinai School Of Medicine has done in a chimpanzee brain and the dolphin, their finding the exact same structures that the - in the neocortex that we evolved in our own brain and the very neurons that we use to say, the cells that make us human. Well now we found for example, whales not only have more of those cells than we do, they develop them millions of years before we did in a whole different environment. So stuff like that just, I don't know, just makes my head spin. It's just amazing.

GROSS: In the acknowledgments to your book about chimpanzees, you thanked a few doctors for saving your heart, when sudden illness struck. May I ask, what happened?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah, about a year and half ago, in the midst of trying to get this book finished I was walking to a restaurant one night with my wife and I found myself short of breath. And for no particular reason, I couldn't explain it. And I was sitting up at night sort of, you know, wheezing and I just didn't know what was going on. And I went to a doctor and thought that it might be pneumonia and it turned out that a virus had attacked my heart and reduced it's function to a critically low level. So I was just really knocked for a loop there and I also had no health insurance. Um…


Mr. SIEBERT: …so the whole picture was not a pretty one. I was saved by - literally by a guardian angel that I mentioned - guardian angels -that I mentioned in my acknowledgment. Neil Epstein a heart - cardiologist, who I wrote about in my previous book "A Man After His Own Heart." I have long been obsessed with the heart because my father had an incurable kind of heart failure. Thus the deep irony of someone who has been, you know, as obsessed with the heart and sometimes paranoid about the heart as myself, to be felled by this virus.

And I was given thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars of care because I was put in part of a research protocol with the NIH. And it literally saved my life and my heart's rebounded since. And I'm on medication to help that process along. But it was that kind of nip and tuck there for a while. So…

GROSS: You know, how in some hospitals they have therapy animals…


GROSS: …that they bring for the patients, so patients can pet them and it's supposed to kind of relieve stress and just be up generally all around pleasant experience to spend a few minutes with an animal.


GROSS: Did you have animals, in addition to your dogs to help you during your time of recovery, or were you supposed to stay away from animals because of possible infection?

Mr. SIEBERT: Huh, interesting I - yeah, that's one of the things I want to find out about in this - in my pursuit of knowing that what happened with this virus. Was I infectious to other people, how… But to answer your question in the immediate, no. No, I didn't have when I was at the NIH, I had no contact with animals. But, you know, funny you should say, to help me get passed this, I also became suddenly diabetic out of nowhere, which is, there's no history for it in my family. So, this, whatever this virus was, it knocked me - everything in my system for a loop. And I was having to inject myself with insulin, having to take these pills. And at one point, I looked at my wife and, you know, I needed to finish this book. And I said, you know what, I just can't be here. I just can't be around you and be injecting myself.

I almost - I needed to be alone, so I took my two dogs - and this same heart doctor, who saved my life, offered me his cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And I went and lived there in this remote cabin by myself with the two dogs. And it just helped me to overcome the whole setback, physically, and helped me to focus on the book and get it all done. But, I've to say those two dogs saved, you know, also saved my life because, you know, I had that companionship, which is, you know, invaluable.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SIEBERT: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Charles Siebert's new book about retired chimps from the entertainment world is called "The Wauchula Woods Accord." Coming up Maureen Corrigan reviews the new restored edition of Ernest Hemingway's classic memoir, "A Movable Feast." This is FRESH AIR.

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