Thursday, December 13, 2012

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

Quick science quiz:  who is the closest living relative to homo sapiens?

Did you guess chimpanzees?  Until recently scientists would have told you that chimps and humans share between 94% to 99% of their DNA, with lower estimates being more current.  It makes sense, then, that studying chimps will teach us about human behavior as well, and we've known for some time now that chimps are smart.  They can learn rudimentary sign language, use tools, and evolve unique behaviors within their communities to adapt to their particular circumstances.  But anyone studying chimps to find out more about human behavior will also find lots of bad news:  despite their intelligence they're a violent bunch, not just towards predators but also amongst themselves.  Rape, infanticide and murder are behaviors which have been observed in chimp communities, although there is debate over how common these behaviors are.  Nevertheless, observation of chimps has led to the argument  that violent behaviors are hard-wired into humanity, bred into our genes and waiting only for the right situations to bring them forth.

Well, surprise!  It turns out that chimps, while genetically close to us, aren't necessarily our only close relatives after all.  That distinction is now shared by the Bonobo, a cousin of the chimp who has  98.7 percent of its genetic material in common with ours, and has a vastly different behavioral repertoire from chimpanzees.   Bonobos, unlike chimps, are matriarchal and infants receive close and excellent care from their mothers and from the community.  Rape is virtually unknown; Bonobos are non-monogamous and use sex to cement social ties and group cohesion.  Although bonded, affectionate and cooperative within their group, they are shy of strangers.   Like the chimp, they are an endangered species and rapidly losing habitat.  And they live only in the Congo, one of the most violent and conflicted areas on earth.  It is this irony, of peaceful primates co-existing with warlike humans, which inspired Eliot Schrefer's new novel Endangered.  This is a book which I can picture appealing to a few different audiences--teens interested in science and animal behavior, teens interested in issues around development and social justice, and teens just wanting to read a great adventure novel.   

The plot is simple--Sophie, a teen of mixed race and nationality, flies from her home in America to spend the summer in the Congo with her mother, who runs a Bonobo sanctuary close to the capital city Kinshasa. On her way to the sanctuary, Sophie sees a young Bonobo who is close to death and being hawked by a poacher on the street.  She insists on stopping and buying the Bonobo, which puts her into immediate conflict with the rules of the sanctuary and her mother (who has been working hard to stop the trade in wild animals).  Unfazed, Sophie nurses the Bonobo back to health, becoming his surrogate mother, giving him 24 hour care and developing a strong mutual bond with the animal she has named Otto.    

The real trouble starts when Sophie's mother leaves for several weeks to facilitate the release of some of her rehabilitated Bonobos into the wild.  While she is gone, the government topples and an unruly band of militia attack the sanctuary, killing most of the women who work there.  Sophie and Otto manage to flee and hide inside the sanctuary forest, which is protected by an electric fence.  For a few weeks they live with a band of Bonobos there, but when the fence breaks down Sophie knows the soldiers will come into the forest looking for Bonobo meat.  She flees with Otto and together they make a long and very risky trek to find Sophie's mother, over the course of which they face both natural and human dangers.

There are a few things, I think, that make Endangered particularly good.  It's easy in adventure stories to let plot and suspense take over the book, but Endangered features wonderful characterization both of its humans and animals.  Each Bonobo is individually drawn, and their group dynamics are complex.   Sophie is a relentless spirit, refusing at several points to save herself when it means leaving Otto behind.  She won't prioritize her own human life over Otto's animal one, even under the most extreme circumstances. Her sense of responsibility is very personal, and is about honouring the relationship that she has developed with Otto;  whether, as a reader, you agree or disagree with her choices, you can really feel the emotion behind them.  Endangered could be a used to start deep conversations about important issues.  I think would be a great choice for teen book clubs.

Here are some videos of Eliot Schrefer a) promoting Endangered, b) giving an interview about Endangered, and c) playing with some friends in a Bonobo sanctuary:

And here's a picture of Eliot and his own Bonobo friend:

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