“…the degree to which we humans will finally stop abusing other creatures and, for that matter, one another will ultimately be measured by the degree to which we come to understand how integral a part of us all other creatures actually are.”3
I seldom read a book described by its publisher as “essential” reading and actually agree that we should all rush out and read it. Roger’s World, however, is a quaint, moving and thought provoking book that may just match its publisher’s claim. I recommend it to you all.
Siebert’s book Roger’s World does not have a plot as such. Rather, it records the series of reflections that flicker through the author’s mind as he spends time with Roger – a retired circus ape, now living in a retirement village in Florida, especially designed as a refuge for former primate stars.
Roger is different from the rest of this cohort – he seems at times aloof from them and more at home with human beings. (A “human-zee” more than a chimpanzee, perhaps?) Seibert’s vigil is, in part, about the cause of Roger’s apparent social dislocation but, as the ‘relationship’ unfolds, Siebert reflects on the many once-wild animals he has struck who have been adversely affected by man. Soon Seibert comes to realise that through understanding animals (and the “ruinous effect” many of us have had on many of them), man can come to better know himself. That by “(getting) past ourselves and our stories” and considering the stories of the animals, we might become “better animals” ourselves.4
Indeed, as Seibert notes, one is baffled by the lack of humanity many people have shown to the animals. We use them for medical experiments. We sometimes pluck them from the wild to which they were born and place them in carnivals for a few brief moments of our laughter. When we tire of them, sometimes, we simply dump them. We ruin their habitats and have driven a number of species to the point of extinction and beyond. Big game hunters, mercilessly, kill them as trophies. When people do dumb things, like jump into zoo cages with them, it is the animal that is often shot if the person is hurt. How often is thought ever given to the stupidity of the person?5
Most moving, to me, was the reflection of Seibert’s time with the elephants in Africa.6 If older elephants are culled, the young are sometimes chained to the dead body of the parent until they can be relocated. Elephants, like chimps, are very similar to humans. They form bonds with each other; look for leadership in their parents; mourn the loss of those they love; and become morose when all seems lost. The destruction of the traditional family structure of elephants has caused some to become anti-social – as if traumatised through desperate feelings of betrayal. Yet when those worst affected elephants have been taken to refuges, such as the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee or the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, they have again learned to be their steady selves, often openly having fun and showing friendship to other elephants and people – much like a human who has been healed after a similar loss.7
Roger now found himself in a similar facility for Apes (the Center for Great Apes retirement village in Florida). As Seibert ends his time with Roger by placing his hand on Roger’s, the ape does not kill the man but, rather, closes his eyes as if to say “there, there, my son” - allowing the man to atone for the sins of so many other men.
Ultimately, both Roger and Siebert are “freed.” For Roger, life begins again as he learns to trust, play and enjoy the simple pleasures of life (albeit remaining within the sanctuary). Seibert returns to his family, all the while knowing that a seemingly ‘free’ man can sometimes ‘imprison’ himself, by forgetting the essence of nature and the world of which we are a part.8