Endangered: A Novel of When Things Get Hairy

Ritvik Prabhu

Recently I had the privilege of interviewing author Eliot Schrefer about his book Endangered, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Endangered illustrates the life of fourteen year old Sophie Biyoya-Ciardulli—a slightly naïve, yet intelligent girl from America, who flies back to her birthplace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to visit her mother’s bonobo sanctuary. On her first day in the Congo, she rescues a bonobo; an action that has a strong effect on her morals and responsibilities throughout the book. She names this bonobo Otto. Sophie and Otto are soon forced to flee into the jungle, when the Congo erupts into a civil war.

Sophie and Otto’s relationship is an extremely thought provoking one. Although at the very beginning, it can be difficult for the reader to come to terms with Sophie’s sudden shift from apathy to selflessness for a baby bonobo, the plot irons out any inconsistencies into a very real experience. In fact, when asked about this beginning, Mr. Schrefer said that the impulsiveness seemed to fit more into a young adult novel, in which the protagonist is a spontaneous teenager. Sophie’s actions cause her to feel a responsibility to protect Otto, and this moral dilemma will have readers questioning the ethics that humans set on protecting the environment and each other.

Given the nature of being a bildungsroman style survival novel, the book allows readers to participate in a version of a ‘choose their own destiny story’. That is not to say that readers will in fact be able to influence what happens in the novel, or that the novel offers definitive paths and choices. However, throughout the book readers can observe several locations where Sophie is confronted with a major dilemma. At that time they can pick which path they believe they would choose. Now readers will never see where this choice would lead them. Instead they will see the outcome of Sophie’s decision, and can intuitively judge their own decision’s consequences through that outcome. They may not be fully aware that these choices are subconsciously being made, but if these decisions are recognized this book offers a potential for readers to learn about themselves; especially about how they would act in a time of emergency.

The following are some excerpts from my interview with Mr. Schrefer about Endangered. I have tried to keep Mr. Schrefer’s answers as accurate as possible, but have edited or abridged sentences when necessary for the sake of the flow of the excerpts.

Q: I understand that you have spent a good deal of time studying bonobos in the Congo, and a number of incidents in the book were influenced by your personal experiences. Can you discuss why you chose to write this book?

A: Before I wrote Endangered, I did not write about animals or conservation. I wrote two young adult novels, The School for Dangerous Girls– about a boarding school for criminal young ladies-, and The Deadly Sister-a murder mystery set in suburban Florida, which is where I went to high school. Endangered is totally out of left field.

What happened was I bought a pair of pants that were a Bonobos brand. I thought it was a nonsense word. I looked the word up online, and lost the afternoon to YouTube videos of bonobos. And they were doing some crazy stuff; there were bonobos who played Pac-Man and who were taught sign language in a language institute. In their down time they would play video games. Anyway, I got really fascinated by that, and I didn’t think I was going to write a book about it.

I decided I wanted to read more about bonobos, and got a book called Bonobo Handshake, by a primatologist named Vanessa Woods. She spent time at the same sanctuary where I did my research for Endangered. She was talking about how she went once on this ride along with sanctuary employees to pick up an orphaned bonobo that was being held at a bar as a way to attract guests in the capital. They went to confiscate it, and the bar owner said, “I won’t give you the ape, and you must spend 50 dollars if you want it”, and she couldn’t spend money on an Endangered animal, because she would encourage the trade in those animals. So she made the very heartbreaking, but adult choice of saying, “I can’t save this animal”.

My favorite thing in fiction is this dilemma; that moment when you don’t know which way is the right way, and what you would do in this situation, because both options seem equally valid. I just started thinking about what would happen if someone else made the opposite choice. And that is basically what Sophie did with Otto.

Q: A major theme in the book was the idea of whether the sentiment in the statement, “People first Sophie, then you can help Otto” is flawed or correct. Can you discuss this?

A: I struggled with it a lot in writing the book, because the Congo is the only home of the bonobo, but it’s also the worst human conflict since World War II. By UN estimates about 1000 people are dying every day in the East. I was wrestling with whether it was moral to write about animals suffering in a place where humans were also suffering.

I also gave that to Sophie to explore too, both in terms of saving herself versus saving Otto, but also her mom’s work to save this animal in a country where humans are being killed pretty frequently.

While researching the book, I talked to a Muslim women’s organization in New Jersey. I gave a talk about my books, and while at lunch with the organizers, I asked them about this question I was struggling over, and they said, “Often the same systems that put humans in jeopardy are the same systems that put animals in jeopardy in a country like Congo”. So the poverty in the East, the automatic weapons, the ability of the corrupt bureaucrats to mine the country and not look after the welfare of both humans and animals is all related.

There’s something uncomfortable writing about animals in the Congo and not making the focus on the human suffering. So I think the solution to that is to not think there is some hierarchy of suffering and that the greatest injustice is the one we can talk about, because I think that’s really paralyzing.

And the sheer truth of it is that we are more likely to pick up a book about the cute bonobo on the front than a book that promises to be about human suffering in Congo. So I think by the end of the book, the human side is much bigger than it was in the beginning parts of the book, and so it’s kind of a sideways way in. This charismatic animal becomes a way of getting into the material and making it approachable to people who might not pick up a book that was just about politics in Congo.

Q: There are many ties between the bonobos and humans in a number of ways. The first is between bonobos and all humans such as the Congolese, the second the matriarchal Pink Ladies and strong human females, and the third is Otto and Sophie. How close do you believe these ties really are and were they purposeful?

A: Yeah it was purposeful. One of the theories about the bonobos versus chimp dichotomy- that chimps are so violent and bonobos have a relatively peaceful society- is that bonobos evolved in a region with many food sources, while chimps had fewer food sources in their chimpanzee territory when the two populations divided about 4 million years ago.

On a practical level, a chimp female would have to forage by herself to get food for herself and her infant, which made them very vulnerable to aggression and bonobo females-with more food available- could always be in each other’s company and so were able to defend each other and develop this kind of police force. It wound up pushing the physically stronger [bonobo] males to the outside of their society. It’s only a theory, but it’s a compelling one to think about in a thought experiment, just looking at the conflict being about resources at its root.

When you have enough to survive, then you can afford kindness, and when you don’t it’s much harder to be kind. I always think about that; even when you look at bullies in a school situation. Kids coming from places where they’re not really getting much at home, and they can’t afford empathy at school. I don’t think it’s a direct, totally concrete parallel between the two, but it’s a way of sort of getting deeper into why violence exists.

Q: What did you learn or observe while studying the bonobos in the Congo; specifically about their intellectual curiosity?

A: One of the cool things when I went to the sanctuary was that when you read about apes in a biology or environmental textbook, they often focus on the intelligence [of apes], and you know they are remarkable in the way they use tools and interact with their environment that way, but as an author, I was going over there to look at the curiosity of the apes and their emotional states. I see curiosity as emotions playing with intellect.

They did a lot of behaviors that were just so specific to individual bonobos, that it really established their personalities, and their internal states. There was a plastic water bottle that had blown into the enclosure, and there was one bonobo that would just sit on a rock in the middle of the stream, lay on his back in the sunshine, hold the bottle in one hand, and would fill it from the stream with water. He would take sips from his water bottle while he was lying on his back, staring up at the clouds. It was the most human looking thing you had ever seen. I wonder what he was thinking about when he looked at the clouds. It wasn’t about his survival, and it was more through playing around in his world and he wanted to see what he could do.

Another one who—actually it’s on YouTube called Kipolo Tying a Shoe—and there was one of the bonobos who untied my shoe while I was in the nursery, and I was thinking, “Oh it’s going to run off with my shoelaces”, but what happened was Kipolo untied it—so he caused the problem—but then he tried to tie it again. He didn’t really get to a fully tied shoe, but he made two loops, and kept trying to fit them together again. He was really trying to put the shoe back to its original state. I mean it was an act of intelligence, but it struck me also as not quite tool use, because it wasn’t useful to him for my shoelace to be tied, like he was getting some advantage by doing it. It was more the most primitive artistic act you can imagine; like he imagined a state of being and tried to make it happen even though there wasn’t a purpose to it.

 Q: Do you believe that animals, especially apes, truly display all the human characteristics we attach to them, or do you think we are more inclined to try to attach these characteristics to animals?

A: It’s something that haunts scientists who study apes very frequently, the threat of anthropomorphism; that you are assigning human characteristics to a non-human animal, because that’s what humans do, it’s in our nature. It is a very real threat. I felt liberated from it, partly because I am not a scientist. It was not like I was risking my position at a university biology department by dabbling with what could be considered anthropomorphism.

Frans de Waal just published a book called Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and it’s actually kind of rolling back all those accusations of anthropomorphism and introduces the idea of anthro-denial; which is the opposite tendency to think that emotions and consciousness are sacred to humans and one needs overwhelming proof to assign it to an animal. One can establish cases in which you really do see proof of emotional feeling in animals.

We’ve had a vested interest for a very long time in feeling that humans are special. It goes right down to the roots of our main religious documents; that man is created separately in a dominion over the animals. That is really deep in our culture, including our scientific culture. I feel to only have our vigilance towards mistaking putting emotions into animals and not having the influence of the other side of overlooking the emotional states of animals is… I think the needle can tick too far in one direction.

Certainly Sophie over-assigns and maybe the narrative as a whole could over-assign emotional states to Otto the bonobo, but if so it’s a corrective towards the general tendency to privilege human existence and overlook the existence of animals.

Q: How did you choose what survival situations and animals encounters Sophie would experience?

A: I just read a lot of books about Congo and a lot of books about bonobos, and when something jumped out at me as being something that captured my imagination or was a really interesting fact or moment, I wrote it in its own Word document, so I ultimately had this list of interesting facts and details that I then recast in the same order as the manuscript. The research was leading the charge rather than needing to research something my brain came up with.

 Endangered is the first book in a quartet of different ape stories. Threatened is the second about a chimpanzee. Rescued was recently published at the end of April and is the third book about an orangutan. The final book will be about a gorilla. Eliot Schrefer will be visiting Radnor High School this October.