I think this is possibly my most poignant photograph ever. It speaks volumes to me—on many different levels. I was doing a photo assignment in 2013 for The Yucatan Times newspaper (in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico) about Merida’s small community zoo. I came across this ageing Chimpanzee who appeared to have been in captivity for many years; he was looking at me curiously through the bars of a small window in a heavily padlocked door. What I saw was indescribable sadness.
We lay (non-scientific) humans are often accused of anthropomorphizing the wild things around us. I have my own feelings about this subject, but suffice it to say I think we share many emotional traits with our wilder cousins: pain, sorrow, anger, joy (and even humor) to name a few. I know that many scientists would disagree with that notion, but I’ve seen so much empirical evidence to the contrary, that I firmly believe we have much more in common than not.
This image haunts me to this day. This Chimpanzee did not seem to be mistreated in any way—his enclosure was very big (this was a side door only), he seemed to be well fed, but he was alone. And, like humans, Apes are social creatures. The Chimpanzee genome makes it the closest living relative of the modern human—given that information how can we not view our distant cousins through more compassionate eyes? When I looked into the eyes of this creature I saw intelligence looking back, how about you?
“The DNA sequence that can be directly compared between the two genomes is almost 99 percent identical. When DNA insertions and deletions are taken into account, humans and chimps still share 96 percent of their sequence. At the protein level, 29 percent of genes code for the same amino sequences in chimps and humans.”
The subject of zoos is a flash point issue, but regardless of what side you come down on I think we can all agree that a more humane approach to our interaction with other life forms is warranted. As scientific knowledge increases we are finding fewer and fewer differences between other high-level life forms and ourselves. Whales, Dolphins, Elephants and Great Apes share uncanny similarities with us—and even lower life forms display a level of intelligence and emotional range far beyond what we once thought possible.