5 April 2015
My aunt likes to say that she's the reason I ended up in this field. My family used to joke and that my dad was a silverback because of his stature, facial expressions, and salt-and-pepper hair. In truth, the resemblance is uncanny. So she bought me a stuffed gorilla on the day I was born. It was my very first stuffed animal.
But when I actually decided to become a primatologist it seemed like a completely random left-hand turn from the path I had put myself on. I was in film school studying to be a documentary filmmaker. I was primarily interested in capturing interactions. My sophomoric film-school ethos was trying to distill the complex and convoluted into something pure and transcendent. I thought that I could use film as a mechanism for understanding people in a way that was aesthetically pleasing and comprised at least mildly entertaining storytelling. At that point I didn't realize how circular these notions were, and that I was going about it all the wrong way because my particular form of processing doesn't translate well into a time-linear two-dimensional medium.
I started moonlighting as an anthropologist as early as I started shooting 16mm on a Bolex. And really, I had always been an evolutionary biologist, an anthropologist, and a primatologist.
Clue 1: at least once a week from the time I was in kindergarten until it was inappropriate to force Mum to read to me every night, I demanded that she read me 1 to 3 Wildlife Fact Files from the World Wildlife Foundation. We had a whole binder of full-color, trifold, animal profiles. All of the basic info was in there- natural geographic ranges, home range size, conservation status, diet, social structure, and probably even more than I can possibly recall now, more than 20 years later. The ones that I remember most are the Bengal tiger because the picture was taken at night and was the most beautiful I had ever seen, the great white shark, and the orangutan who wound up in the conservation tab rather than with the other mammals.
Clue 2: My favorite field trips were zoo trips and I could sit for heaps longer than the other kids just watching the animals. My favorite section was the primate house.
Clue 3: My favorite TV shows were all the documentaries about animals, especially when they involved primates.
Clue 4: I first attempted to read a scientific journal article at the age of 14 as a freshman in high school. I was working on a project about the evolution of venom in snakes and other animals. The paper was about the molecular structure of a viper (I don’t remember which viper) haemotoxin. I was completely enthralled.
There was a single moment when I realized that I wanted to be a primatologist, specifically. I was with a gorilla who had just recently arrived at the London Zoo and she wasn’t fitting in well. When I first saw her she was sitting by the glass with one shoulder pressed against it and the other facing the rest of the enclosure so she could see all the gorillas and all the people. I watched her for a while as she people-watched and kept her other eye on her new gorilla family warily. Every so often she looked my way. Eventually, there was a lull in visitors leaving only me and my new gorilla friend. I approached and slid in right next to her, shoulder to shoulder but for the glass.
I wanted to photograph her so I opened my bag to retrieve my trusty 35mm. She peered through the glass and into my bag as I dug rifled through, finally pulling out the camera. She was took one look at the black object and was disappointed. She motioned with her lips and chin as her eyes darted back and forth from me to the bag. We continued in this fashion until my bag was empty and I was surrounded in its contents. I tilted it upside down to show her that I did not, in fact, have any other goodies hiding.
As I started to gather my belongings, a new set of visitors started trickling in. My outline against the glass was obviously eclipsed by my new friend’s and patrons quickly realized the opportunity for a photo-op. They crowed around, shoving their children up against the glass, their cameras flashing in bursts. The gorilla looked at me one last time before skirting away. As she hid behind a nearby wall, she periodically peeped back out at me, but she never came back.
There’s something to those moments that you share with another species that you can’t find elsewhere. Its like an exponential version of finally breaking through or transcending a language or a culture barrier. I wanted nothing more than to know her whole story and how she saw her world- where did she come from? What was her old group like? Was she happy in this new group? Why did she like to sit by the glass? What was she looking for in my bag? Did she have a prior experience with some sort of zoo enrichment where she used to live? Was she ever privately owned? And, more importantly, how can I approach these types of questions in a way that will yield representative and accurate answers?
I was already fond of gorillas, but they had just become my flagship species. And here I am, on the eve of meeting some in the wild. My skin tingling with the electricity on anticipation, my stomach full of butterflies for all the same reasons. Tomorrow I will finally find this hour that I have been waiting for my whole life.
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This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.