Getting Real

Somewhere in Senegal, there is a chimpanzee hunting with a stick. There might be another one there sharpening a twig into a small spear. This is alarming news if, like me, the original “Planet of the Apes” movie from 1968 gave you serious nightmares when you were a child.
In all fairness, “Planet of the Apes” didn’t scare me the way “The Birds” did. After I saw “The Birds,” all my older brother had to do was sneak up behind me and yell, “caw-caw” like a crow and I would be in the fetal position under the kitchen table. Remember Otis Redding’s lovely ballad, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay?” It ends with the sound of seagulls, and I was always the little kid with the transistor radio spinning the dial frantically to talk radio the moment the song began.
Still, “Planet of the Apes” cost me some sleep, too, which is probably why I find the discovery that chimps might soon be shopping for camo clothes at Dick’s Sporting Goods a wee bit unnerving.
I first heard about the chimps with sticks the other day on the news. It seems that researchers Jill Pruetz and Paco Bertolani saw chimps designing wooden spears 22 separate times that the animals would then jab at smaller primates hiding in and around the trees. This is news because it is the first time that people have witnessed chimps hunting with tools.
Now, there is a chasm between a chimp sharpening a stick with his teeth and an ape putting Charlton Heston in a loin cloth in a cage.
But this might be only a small part of a much larger trend in the world involving a lot of animals. For instance, we now know that only the dumbest of lobsters get caught in lobster pots. The smarter ones? They stroll in, take the bait and wander back out. The result is that we are breeding a more savvy lobster as only the dimmer ones become dinner.
Other examples? Magpies seem to sing for their own pleasure. Elephants have been observed joining trunks to tails and moving single file so they can navigate safely in the dark.
Meanwhile, humans are — for lack of a better term — devolving. Britney Spears melted down completely and shaved her head. Here I spend an embarrassing preponderance of my waking hours wondering how to keep what little hair I have left, and Spears just lopped all that she had right off.
Likewise, it is very hard to respect a species that asks to be abused by Simon Cowell on national television, or will switch families for a reality TV show, or will eat all manner of insect on desert islands while the cameras are rolling.
It’s only a matter of time before the chimps and humans cross rungs on the evolutionary ladder, one group heading up and the other heading down.
Now, I could try and take the high road here and mention that I have never been on a reality TV show and thus might be spared the wrath of the soon-to-be-dominant chimps. But as readers have reminded me, I have never been shy about chronicling in this very space the more ridiculous and embarrassing moments in my life. To wit: Right now there isn’t a chimp in Senegal that couldn’t do a better job than me when it comes to using a stick to unclog a sink.
And so instead I am taking comfort in the reality that while there might come a time when my descendants are wearing loin clothes and trying to convince Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter in ape masks to cut them some slack, for the moment the biggest threats to humankind are global climate change and Paris Hilton behind the wheel of an SUV.
And while I can’t do much about Hilton, I think I’ll go turn down the thermostat right now.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 11, 2007.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.