Companion Species

In my memory, I hear my mother’s voice. My littlest monkey, she croons, appearing from around the corner, lifting me into her arms. I press my face into her neck, consume the deep smell of her perfume, her green eyes like pebbles washed by rain.

Mommy, I ask, why I am your monkey? She laughs. Because you are cuddly, and curious, and intelligent. I smile with delight. You can also be very silly, she adds, and tickles me under one arm.

When I turn five, my grandmother buys me a subscription to National Geographic. She is not wealthy and I cherish the magazine each month when it arrives in the mail. Perhaps because of my mother’s pet name for me, I am drawn most to the monkeys in the photographs, creatures that exist only in the Technicolor corners of my imagination, dangling from vines, eyes deep and wonderful.

Its in this magazine that I first discover Jane Goodall, holding a monkey the way my mother holds me. I don’t yet know that there are different names for monkeys. That this one is a chimpanzee. I don’t know that there’s any difference between my mother & I and Jane & this chimp. I’m young– all love still looks the same, and the world is full with it.

I am a happy child, with dreams of saving the world, but somewhere along the way to adulthood, I fall out of love with it. During my worst depressions, I refuse affection from everyone except my family’s dog, Dudley, who gazes at me with a devotion so pure and total that I can’t deny (as I often do in those days) that I, too, am worthy of love. Dudley’s gaze makes me feel forgiven, though for what, I am not always entirely sure.

An adult, I return home to them, and to Dudley, as often as I can. Each time I leave, I long for him, his wet nose like a blackberry after a rainstorm, his soft lower lip, the gentle kisses as he eats a clover from my hand. His facial expressions are so human they make me laugh out loud.

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Over the years, Dudley becomes like something more than human to me. I am able to empathize and love him in ways I can’t always love the humans I have known. I love him without judgment, without pain.

In her essay ‘When Species Meet,’ literary critic Donna Haraway argues for the importance of the “intersecting gaze” to combat human exceptionalism — a look into the eyes of animals, rather than at them. Human exceptionalism is the cause of many of the great ecological and environmental disasters of our Anthropocene age: that we believe ourselves better than other species–and thus separate from, or somehow immune to, the damaged environment we’ve created.

Haraway talks about her own dog in loving detail, describing him as one type of companion species, an animal (or organism) with whom humans are interconnected and thus reliant on. She underlines the importance of physical touch in order to accomplish a transference of sympathies between humans and companion species.  “Touch,” she explains, “make[s] us responsible in unpredictable ways for [how] worlds take shape.” A companion species can be any animal that makes or “remakes” themselves or us, through repeated interactions. Attachment sites (aka the places where we touch) are “needed” because “species interdependence is the name of the worlding game on earth, and that game must be one of response and respect.”

I’d be hard-pressed to think of a human more invested in her companion species than Jane Goodall. She was a source of fascination for me in childhood, and I identified with her, fancying myself the type of girl who would grow up to live independently of civilization, immersed in the beauty of the natural world.

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By the time I enter second grade, I’ve announced my intentions to become a primatologist. My best friend Anna is in on it too: we spend months “conducting research” on the Great Apes, subjecting our parents to extensive presentations (including one hilarious lecture on the “reproductive lives of orangutans” — we are nothing if not thorough).

Jane Goodall’s example invades our imaginative life as well: each day after school, we swing from a fifty-foot rope in Anna’s backyard, floating high over the tops of the pecan trees. Callouses harden over our hands like the firm tops of cupcakes.

We court other obsessions in the years following, but none permeates our imaginations quite like Jane and her chimps. Then, one October, Anna’s brother dies of an overdose, and we forget all about monkeys. As I grow older, Jane Goodall becomes a name that conjures nostalgia for me, nothing more. The real world has come in, dazzling and painful, and death is no longer an abstraction.

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As I enter my teens, I find it impossible to extract myself from the world around me. My anxiety revolves, then as now, around external factors–terrorism, political turmoil, climate change. And although when I express my concerns (via many psychosomatic breakdowns) my parents repeatedly tell me “its not the end of the world,” it turns out that, in fact, it is. I spend my twenties bouncing between major American cities, living in claustrophobic apartments. I develop a fear of flying and never make it to Gombe Stream National Park. Donation requests from the World Wildlife Fund go unanswered.

Years later, I am living in Los Angeles when I learn that director Brett Morgen has collaborated with National Geographic to make a documentary about Goodall (succinctly titled Jane). I’m positively giddy. What is it about her, I wonder, steering down Hollywood Boulevard towards the theater, that I still find so compelling? 

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Bret Morgen’s Jane opens on a shot of Gombe. Culled from 140 hours of footage shot by Goodall’s ex-husband, photographer Hugo van Lawick, the movie captures Jane in her mid-twenties, lithe and excitable, her movements set to a lush Phillip Glass soundtrack.

Morgen’s film suggests a dual love story: that of Jane as she falls in love with Hugo, and that of Jane as she falls in love with the chimps around Lake Tanganyika. The love affair with Hugo ends after they have a child together: he wants to be on the Serengeti; Jane can’t tear herself away from Gombe. But her love for the chimps endures.

Though it seems obvious to us now, the movie highlights the novelty of Jane’s experiences: she is the first, ever, to live among the chimpanzees and record their behavior. After witnessing their great empathy, their ability to nurture and sympathize with each other, and their communal lifestyle, Jane believes the chimpanzees not only to be human, but to be better than human — not our companion species, but our superior species. Humans, she reasons, have war, and bloodshed, and an endless need to inflict pain and conflict on themselves.

Goodall is primarily concerned, in the early years captured by the movie, with a community of chimps centered around alpha male David Greybeard. The lone female of the group, Flo, captures Jane’s interest as well. For a while, Jane observes, interacts, and records the individual personalities of these spectacular primates. In the second half of the footage, though, tragedy strikes: Flo dies, leaving her children and the male chimpanzees bereft. And Jane witnesses something that undoes her prior understanding of the species: the male chimps devolve into violence.

By the end of their warring, one-third of the male chimps in the community lie dead in the river, limbs sprawled, as Goodall looks on with eyes the color of milk: glossy, tear-filled, she turns away from the camera. Her disappointment is far greater than if she had never assumed the goodness of the chimps in the first place: it is, in fact, not disappointment at all, but deep grief.

I do not know what it was, for Jane, that restored her faith in the chimpanzees. I do not know how, after that blow, she regained her respect for them, but she did. Her love, though challenged, did not waver, despite witnessing for the first time the violence they were capable of, how in this way, too, they were like the humans she’d sought to avoid.

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I didn’t encounter chimpanzees again until I was in a political novel class in college. We were assigned Russell Banks’s novel The Darling, which details the political upheaval in Liberia in the late 20th century, and also features a subplot about the relationship between the protagonist and a group of captive chimpanzees (dubbed The Dreamers). In Banks’s book are some of the most tender passages on human-primate relationships I’d ever read:

Number 34 was a large adult male, and I kept coming back to his cage and lingering in front of it, perhaps because after my first few visits, he, more than the rest, was able to return my gaze with the same mixture and degree of apparent curiosity and fear that I was feeling towards him.

Banks’s novel echoes the language used by anthropologist Barbara Smuts in Haraway’s essay “When Species Meet.” Smuts worked for a time at Gombe Stream National Park, the chimpanzee refuge in Tanzania that Goodall founded in the late 1960s, and says of her experience: “I…in the process of gaining their trust, changed almost everything about me.”  According to Haraway, “Smuts began adjusting what she did–and who she was–according to the baboons” social semiotics…We would see that the baboons…were redone too, in baboon ways, by having entangled their gaze with that of this young…human female.”

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After my long stretch of disenchantment, I fell back in love with the world through literature. Poetry, specifically. Not surprisingly, the writers I loved most were hugely invested in the interior lives of animals. My best friend Anna also became a poet, and poetry became, for us, the endangered breed we sought to preserve and protect. The animal in us that we nurtured, and fed, and slept beside at night. The wild beating heart inextricably bound up in our own wild beating heart. It saw us and we saw it. It represented the bars behind which we hid or were hidden. And when we broke down the bars, the world belonged to us in its most pure and original form. I’m surprised I didn’t make the correlation a long time ago between what the chimps represented to us and what poetry has come to represent. As Maria Mazziotti Gillan writes in her poem ‘In Our House Nobody Ever Said’: I ‘found in books the life I wasn’t brave enough to live…found in language the beauty that lifted me out of the constraints of my world.’

I would be lying if I said it was just Jane Goodall’s do-gooder-ness that inspired and compelled me. I was also excited by the notion of living a life without a partner: a life without the constraints of a love-relationship. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Jane was married not once, but twice, and has a son (now an adult). I could almost hear the record scratch in my head, and wondered if it was possible, after all, to have both. Not only possible — but necessary.

When I fell in love with someone wonderful, who was ostensibly ‘good for me,’ some of the old fears of my childhood re-emerged. I’d spent several years in various states of self-destruction, but suddenly I had something good that I wanted to protect. Now I had something to lose.

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In an excerpt from the 2015 New York Times article ‘Jane Goodall is Still Wild at Heart,’ author Paul Tullis describes Goodall’s realization in the early 90s that “there would be no…habitat” for her chimps “if poverty continued to force a growing human population to chop down trees for farmland and firewood. [It] convinced her that the chimps’ lot could not improve until that of the people living near them did.” Thus began “an abrupt career shift, from scientist to conservationist.” Suddenly, Jane’s work bridged an interesting gap.

Her example is an important one: through ‘touch’ and engagement, we can learn to love not only our companion species, but also our fellow humans. “Caring,” writes Donna Haraway, “means becoming subject to the unsettling obligation of curiosity, which requires knowing more at the end of the day than at the beginning.”

Your companion species can be a golden retriever or a chimpanzee. It can be a lilac, or a sunflower bent towards the light. It can be a poem, or a person. In my version, a companion species is whatever gives you the will to live, whatever reminds you of your collective existence.

Jane Goodall is a scientist and an empath, and thus represents an unusual dichotomy. In Morgen’s documentary, Jane is also (to steal a line from Anne Carson) “the soft master of every scene.” As I sit in the dark theater, watching the last scenes play out, I feel my pessimism dissipate. Although there are “no easy epiphanies” (as April Wolfe puts it in Westword) to be gleaned from this movie, or this essay, when Jane enters the frame I feel hope.

Goodall is wry in interviews, drinks a glass of whiskey at night, and rolls her eyes when asked how it feels to be dubbed a saint. But whether she’s twenty-seven in the cloud forests of Tanzania or seventy years old in her living room in Dar es Salaam, when she enters the screen I see a woman who not only still loves the world, but still thinks she can save it.

Catherine Pond lives in Los Angeles where she is a ​PhD student in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Her poems and essays have appeared in many magazines, including NarrativeBoston Review, and the LA Review of Books. She is Assistant Director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute.