A love unlike any other...a story of sacrifice and the unspoken connections that bring us together.
For the last eight years, Glee Granger has centered her life around Sema--they live together, play together, eat together, and talk together. Though Sema isn't the first gorilla to use sign language, Glee has pushed their interaction to breakthrough levels. Technically, however, Sema isn't hers. She belongs to the zoo where she was born--and the zoo wants its gorilla back. Glee's only option for continuing her work is to join the zoo staff. At first reluctant, Glee begins to see real possibilites in their new arrangement...until the unthinkable happens. One event overturns everything Glee thought she knew about humans and animals, the seen and the unseen, the spoken...and the unspoken.
She taught a gorilla to talk. Now can Glee learn to listen?
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May 02, 2005
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Excerpt from Unspoken by Angela Hunt
I am writing this under duress.
My brother the lawyer says duress is the wrong word, because it implies threats or illegal coercion, and he hasn't exactly put a gun to my head and forced me to sit at the computer. He has, however, suggested that the act of recording the events of the last few months might help them form a cohesive whole and make sense. I'm not sure they can ever be understood in terms of human reason.
I am certain of one thing-after reading this, my academic colleagues will have a riotous laugh at my expense and consign these pages to the recycle bin. Some will fly to their computers and fire off scathing rebuttals to Scientific American and Anthropology; others will send snide e-mails to researchers on the other side of the globe, complete with smirky emoticons and flocks of exclamation points. People I have spent years hoping to impress will spread vicious gossip about me for a few weeks, then wipe my work from their conversations with the same disdain with which they wipe their soiled shoes.
Crackpot. Pretender. Glorified zookeeper-they'll call me those names plus a few unprintable variations. They'll accuse me of anthropomorphism, hypocrisy, and religious zealotry. They'll petition the university to deny me the PhD for which I've sacrificed every semblance of a normal life over the last several years.
As I said, I'm writing under duress.
Psychologists claim that the act of dressing events, feelings, and realizations in words can prove therapeutic-perhaps it will. I may be different by the time I complete this memoir . . . I know I am greatly changed from the woman I was a few months ago.
All I can ask of you, skeptical reader, is a measure of trust. I would not lie about a story guaranteed to ruin my reputation. I'm a strong believer in objectivity, empirical facts, and pragmatic systems. I've been trained to record demonstrable data, not whim, fancies, or fleeting thoughts. I am, above all, a scientist.
Those are only a few of the reasons why I've resisted the urge to record this story. I'm not sure I can put the experience into words . . .
My brother Rob says I have found my starting point-words. Sema, the western lowland gorilla entrusted to my care eight years ago, was fascinated by words. Like Helen Keller, whose intellect caught fire when she connected the water flowing over her right palm with the sign Annie Sullivan was pressing onto her left, Sema fell in love with words the day I taught her to ask for more by bringing the fingertips of her hands together. Do you want more oatmeal? Ask for more. Do you want more juice? Sign more. Yes, the watermelon is delicious. And you can have more if you ask with the sign.
Critics of animal language studies often claim that primates are merely engaged in mimicry when they speak with whatever means we've taught them, but I saw a spark of comprehension in Sema's button brown eyes that afternoon. She began signing more for every desire-more food, more drink, more hugs and kisses.
At the beginning of my study, she was a five-month-old bundle of black fur, an uncoordinated but playful infant. By the time of our first language lesson, she had mastered a teetering version of a knuckle-walk, but she did not walk bipedally unless she could follow in my footsteps and grip the hem of my lab coat. Just like free-living gorilla infants who follow their mothers and hold tight to their rump hairs, Sema tottered behind me and grinned in self-congratulation.
Even after the passing of eight years, she still enjoyed clinging to the back of my lab coat-though by then she did it not out of necessity but affection.
And she continued to love words.
Four months ago, on a cool January afternoon, Sema sat at the computer working on her reading. The program, designed for human preschoolers, flashed a picture on the screen, then offered a series of words. By tapping the appropriate arrow on the keyboard, Sema could match a word to the picture. By clicking the space bar, she could instruct the computer to speak the word she'd highlighted.
When I looked up to check on her, she was grinning at a photo of a golden retriever. The computer offered three word choices: dog, cat, or fish.
Delighted by the photograph, Sema clapped her hands, content to celebrate the puppy without doing the work. I turned and placed my hand over hers, directing her smooth, thick fingers toward the arrow keys.
"I know you like the puppy," I said, using my no-nonsense voice, "but you can look at pictures when you're done with your work."
She pulled her hand free of mine. Gorilla finished, she signed in American Sign Language.
"Oh no, you're not." Laughing, I reestablished the pressure of my hand on hers. "Which word matches the picture?"
As Sema studied me, I knew she was debating the wisdom of defiance. Because gorillas are social animals, an individual's status in the group is of crucial importance. I had established my dominance when Sema passed through the equivalent of a human child's "terrible twos." I had been firm but loving, using time-outs, redirection, and playtime deprivation to discipline my charge's willful urges. Sema still occasionally tested me, but not often, and her maturity was a good thing. At five-six, I stood seven inches taller than my girl, but my 120-pound frame could not have withstood a purposeful pounding from a muscular 250- pound gorilla.
After deciding to be a good girl, Sema pressed the proper keys, then grinned at me. Dog. The computer's monotone voice filled the trailer. The dog is sleeping in the sun.
"You'd like to be sleeping now, wouldn't you?" I gave her shoulder an affectionate squeeze. "I think we're almost finished. Are you ready for your nap?"
Sema opened her mouth in a wide smile that revealed her pretty pink tongue, and then lifted her hands from the keyboard. Sema play outside?
"Oh, sweetie." I pointed toward the window, where raindrops streaked the glass behind the protective chain-link mesh. "You don't want to play in the rain, do you?"
Sema spread her thumbs and pinkie fingers into the Y sign and shook both hands. Play play play.
I laughed. "Okay, you've worked hard today, but let's play inside. Why don't you get something from your toy box?"
Pleased to be released from the computer, Sema dropped from her stool and knuckle-walked to the big wooden crate that held her toys. I moved to the counter where my notebooks waited-I needed to record her new sentence constructions while they were still fresh in my mind. Dian Fossey, the courageous anthropologist who gave her life to protect the endangered mountain gorillas living near Africa's Virunga volcanoes, had always typed up her research notes at each day's end. Since her brutal murder in 1985, she had become a legend . . . and an inspiration to me and thousands of other researchers who adore gorillas.
I had just reached the bottom of the page when I heard the clang of the mailbox. I opened the trailer door and leaned into the rain long enough to wave at the mailman and pull a stack of damp letters from the box.
Sema looked up when I closed the door. Letter for Sema?
I flipped through the envelopes, then shook my head. "Don't think so. All for Glee."
Sema looked out the window, probably hoping the mailman would return with a treat for her; then she picked up her human baby and stood the doll in an empty plastic basin. She was pretending to give the baby a bath, an activity she had witnessed on television.
Knowing the doll would keep her busy for a while, I glanced through the letters-by some quirk of technology, two were addressed to "Sema Granger" and contained offers for credit cards. Another company offered Sema a free medium pizza with the purchase of a large. I considered giving those letters to my girl, but she'd only shred and eat them. Like most people, she had the good sense to prefer meaningful correspondence.
I paused as a familiar return address caught my eye-The Thousand Oaks Zoo, Clearwater, Florida. For an instant my stomach tightened, then I tossed the letter into a basket on top of the refrigerator. Let it collect dust with the other Thousand Oaks letters.
One other envelope caught my attention. Addressed to me, it had come from the University of South Florida-a friendly reminder that all doctoral candidates had a limited time to complete their dissertations. "According to our records, you have already been granted two extensions. We will therefore expect your dissertation within twelve months of the date on this correspondence . . ."
Twelve months. How was I supposed to postulate, research, and document an earthshaking discovery in only twelve months? To date I had been playing catch-up; Sema and I had yet to cover new ground.
I tossed the letter onto the counter, then pitched the rest of the mail into the trash and returned to my journal. My pen scratched across the blank surface of a new page, automatically inserting the date, then my thoughts slowed. In some dim recess of my mind, a group of neurons not occupied with journal writing wondered if I should open the letter from Thousand Oaks. After all, my former employer still technically owned Sema . . . but I had asked my brother to handle the zoo. When a girl had a crack lawyer at her disposal, she didn't have to worry about letters, no matter how many might collect atop the fridge.