Dual Book Review: The Tiger / Bonobo Handshake

In the part of suburban New Jersey I grew up in, almost every other school took the cougar for its sports team mascot. There were the Carl H. Kumpf Middle School Cougars, the Cranford High School Cougars, and the Kean University Cougars, among others. Nevermind that cougars were extirpated from the state long ago – they were a top choice as symbols of the agility, cunning, and ferocity sports teams like to believe they channel. The use of such totems extends beyond sports. Exxon tells us we can “put a tiger in the tank” by using their fuel, and many people adorn themselves with clothing or jewelry depicting their favorite animals, all of which ever so slightly blurs the boundaries between us and the creatures we wish to emulate (in whole or in part). The two books that are the subject of this review, John Vailiant’s The Tiger and Vanessa Woods’ Bonobo Handshake, also tap into this theme, but from reversed perspectives which hinge upon the place where “human” and “bestial” meet

The Tiger

For Vailiant, the tale is one of role reversal in which the truce between man and tiger is broken by both parties. Set in Russia’s eastern Primorye Territory during the winter of 1997, Vailiant begins his account of that winter’s terrifying events with the recovery of hunter Vladmir Markov’s body by the Operation Tiger conservation team – bloody snow, a few pieces of shattered bone, an arm still in its sleeve, and a few other pieces were all that was left of him. There was no doubt that a large Amur tiger had killed Markov, but why? Vailiant circles back, covering Markov’s tracks through the tangled history of people and tigers during Russia’s period of perestroika following the fall of communism. In such a place, where the refuges of the last Amur tigers span a harsh landscape inhabited by small, poverty-stricken settlements, the tiger is either a commodity for the traditional Chinese medicine market or something more akin to a spirit who will leave you alone if you mind your own business while in the frozen woods.

Unfortunately for the people of Primorye, Markov broke the unspoken accord between tiger and human. Through his own foolishness, Vailiant intimates, he gave the tiger a reason for revenge, and the members of Operation Tiger found themselves caught in the middle. Less a conservation science group than a wildlife police force, the group had confiscated the weapons of many of the local people and enforced the restrictions on trapping and poaching. Just as the tiger had been flipped from (supposed) ambivalence towards humans into violence, however, Operation Tiger was forced to hunt down one of the rare animals it was established to protect, inciting both blame and praise from the local people who were all but helpless to stop the tiger. (Although Vailiant’s descriptions of the tiger’s powers sometimes border on hyperbole, the odds do not favor someone who comes across an injured, enraged tiger with only an old shotgun loaded with homemade buckshot. Markov found this out the hard way.)

The story of this particular tiger, previously captured in the documentary Conflict Tiger, is compelling in its own right, but at times Vailiant makes you feel like you, too, have been dropped in the middle of the woods without a clear heading. During the first one hundred pages, especially, Vailiant circles back again and again to similar points in time, making it easy for a reader to lose their bearing. Even though Vailiant begins with the discovery of Markov’s remains, for example, the body had actually been found earlier in a more intact state by some of Markov’s friends. This fact does not come out until far into the book, and when it did I initially thought I was reading a description of a different victim or that the author had made some kind of mistake. Likewise, while the author’s discussion of perestroika and Russian politics is important to the background of the story, he is given to going off on long tangents – the opening scene of carnage is the hook, but it takes over one hundred pages for Vailiant to get back to that point and move forward. The approach to the relationship between people, politics, and predators taken in David Quammen’s Monster of God and David Baron’s The Beast in the Garden, I think, is superior to Vailiant’s meandering storytelling style.

Two other annoyances hindered my appreciation of The Tiger. The first was the fact that, even though Vailiant had traveled to the region himself to conduct interviews, the author never appears in the book. Quotes and reminisces from key figures are given, but the reader has no clue how these quotes or descriptions were obtained. Some authors may prefer not to appear in their own work, but The Tiger is written in such a way that the reader never sees Vailiant even though his shadow can clearly be seen. More importantly, however, Vailiant often sabotages the sense of suspense he attempts to build. Towards the end of the book Vailiant repeatedly assures the reader of the imminent death of one of the story’s central figures, only we know that the man must survive because of the quotes obtained by Vailiant about the events in the book. Likewise, in an earlier part of the story, Vailiant gives away the death of another person before it actually occurs, robbing the narrative of whatever tension it may have held. Between the circuitous storytelling, odd choice of perspective, and spoilers dropped by the author, I sometimes wanted to throw down the book and cry “Where the hell was the editor?”

Bonobo Handshake

I occasionally had the same reaction to Vanessa Woods’ Bonobo Handshake, but for different reasons. It was a book that made me conflicted about whether I should write a review at all. Much like Vailiant, Woods starts things off about a third of the way through her story’s timeline, but with a splash of effusive, purple prose describing her terror and intense resentment about following her primatologist husband, Brian Hare, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to study bonobos. While the history of the place she is visiting, the trials of the local people, and the biology of the titular animal are all central to the story, Woods’ book is also a memoir, and this fact is both a hindrance and a help.

The difficulty in reviewing a memoir – especially one in which the author shares so much deeply personal information as Woods does – is that it is tempting to start judging the person and not the book itself. During the time I read Bonobo Handshake I had to constantly ask myself “Am I having these reactions because of what I think of Woods, or because of the way the book is written?” It was not always easy to obtain a clear answer, especially since Bonobo Handshake has problems with both undersharing and oversharing. In one especially disturbing part of the book, Woods describes a frightening instance of spousal abuse which erupted out of nowhere. There is no context for it other than the hot-and-cold nature of Woods’ relationship to her husband she had laid out starting on page one, and no resolution is given. Woods walks out, and suddenly Woods and Hare are back together on their way to study bonobos again. I read those few pages over and over, looking for some kind of explanation or background which would help me understand what had happened, but there was nothing. Sharing the event served to highlight the “chimpanzee side” of our nature (more on that in a moment) and little else. Some readers may feel like they know Woods better after reading the book, but I honestly came away baffled after reading the collection of relational highs and lows with little to connect them.

But the sparse details of Woods’ intense relationship with her husband only occupy the corners of the story – the centerpieces are the recent, bloody history of the Congo region and the lives of the rescued bonobos at Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary (and not a wild population in the jungle as might be initially assumed). I am glad Woods brought the stories together. Wildlife lovers in affluent nations often bemoan the loss of endangered, charismatic species, yet give little thought to the people who live alongside those animals. The fate of the animals is heavily influenced by the political and cultural situation of the country in which they exist, and we can scarcely help save species threatened with extinction unless aid is given to the people, as well. The stories Woods collects in the book from survivors of war and tyranny are graphic and horrifying, but given the atrocities committed in the region Bonobo Handshake would be a lot poorer if Woods focused only on the apes themselves.

So what about the bonobos? The book is called Bonobo Handshake, after all, but readers looking for a balanced, in-depth summary of bonobo behavior may be disappointed. Numerous individual bonobos are presented in the book, but, as is the fashion in many documentaries and popular articles, they are presented as peaceful bohemians who stand in stark contrast to the violent, vile chimpanzees. The dividing line Woods create is very stark – chimpanzees are proxies for our dark side while bonobos are the better angels (apes?) of our nature, with the implication being that if we can tap into the bonobo part of our being we could live in peace with one another.

I could not accept Woods’ portrayal of chimps and bonobos, and as I read Bonobo Handshake I tried to peel back the layers of what I feel is an invented dichotomy that has more to do with the way we would like to see nature than how it truly is. The top layer is the chimpanzee-bonobo dichotomy. The two species are different, most certainly, but it is a gross oversimplification to portray chimpanzees as barbarians and bonobos as hippies (a division which tracks classic hawk/dove, conservative/liberal, etc. political splits). Bonobos fight and maul each other occasionally, too, but how their aggressive behavior differs from chimpanzees (in both degree and kind) is still not entirely known. Studying wild bonobos – not captives in zoos or disparate individuals raised in sanctuaries – is extremely difficult and has often been broken up by the kind of political chaos Woods describes in her book. In fact, the modern myth of the bonobo closely resembles the image of chimpanzees scientists had before Jane Goodall began her work at Gombe. Prior to many of Goodall’s discoveries, chimpanzees were portrayed as primates that never ate meat and lived in a peaceable kingdom in which ape did not kill ape unless there was something mentally wrong with that individual. While I do not expect bonobos to be just like chimpanzees, I think we should take care not to jump to conclusions about them before extended, continuous field studies across multiple populations can be carried out.

But there is another layer beneath the superficial imagery of our closest living relatives which I believe could be insidious. In his review of the same book, my ScienceBlogs neighbor Jason Goldman wrote:

And the other thing that becomes painfully clear [after reading Woods’ book] is how important it is that we learn as much as we can from the bonobos, and that we work as hard as we can to protect the few remaining bonobos left in the world. Because somewhere in the 1.3% genetic difference between us and them are some pretty important clues as to how they maintain such a violence-free society.

This is not just his personal interpretation. It is effectively a paraphrase of a passage from a blog entry by Woods cited earlier in Goldman’s review:

[B]onobos hold the key to a world without war. Their physiology, biochemistry, and psychology is set up to avoid violence. … We need to study the hell out of bonobos and use our big fat brains to find our own mechanism so we can live peacefully.

Such statements appear to be edging up to the fallacy that whatever is “natural” is good. We are not chimpanzees, nor are we bonobos, but are the last remaining species of a lineage which has been evolving independently of theirs for five million years or more. The way in which chimps and bonobos behave can tell us much about ourselves by providing context for many aspects of our biology, but I think it is ridiculous that we will find some kind of natural “bonobo way” which will end conflict and violence. That is the naive flip-side of the killer-ape hypothesis which Robert Ardrey, Raymond Dart, and Konrad Lorenz popularized in the mid-20th century, a view tinged by reaction to the atrocities of World War II in which an urge to kill had placed the mark of Cain on all of us. Replacing one caricature with another does us no good, and it aggravates me to see bonobos touted as our hope for a world at peace when studying them can only tell us what is, not what ought to be.

In places like the suburban New Jersey town in which I reside, there is a yawning gap in nature. Here, my relationship with animals is restricted to the dead squirrels I see while riding my bike to work and the numerous LBJs (little brown jobbies) I see chirping and hopping about on the asphalt below my apartment window. Yet, in places as different as eastern Siberia and the Congo, such dividing lines are blurred. Humans can still be prey, and tigers can be seen as wraiths of the forest which have an almost supernatural gift at exacting revenge on humans who have defied the “natural order.” In other places, apes can cause us to reflect upon ourselves and where we have come from. They can’t provide us with answers, but perhaps they can direct us to the right questions if we recognize ourselves in proper context to them. Both The Tiger and Bonobo Handshake explore these themes, and while they were both intensely frustrating to read at times, they still made me think about our ever-changing relationship to what remains of the wild.

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