Brother’s Keeper?

chimp-brothers-keeper-webThe keeper of the chimpanzee cage was a well-read man of culture who fancied himself a zoologist and humanitarian more than a mere animal custodian. He often found himself staring for long moments into the cage of his ward, wondering whether in some primal jungle he might truly have shared an ancestor with this creature.

Zoos, however, are set up largely for the entertainment and edification of their human patrons; so in fact, the keeper’s duties were evenly divided between the front and rear ends of his charge. In the morning the keeper brought food for the chimp and in the afternoon, after the patrons had left, he cleaned dung from the cage floor.

The chimpanzee himself, though, was no ordinary simian; he was a true student of human nature. Often in the afternoon he would lie back in his cage as if in a movie theater, munching a snack, watching through half-closed eyes, the curious passers- by. They would make strange faces, hooting or grunting at him, awaiting some response, then meeting his riveting gaze they would turn away uneasily as if unsure as to which side of the bars they were on and who really was the entertainment.

After the zoo had closed it was just the keeper and his charge. The two would find themselves staring through the bars into each other’s primate faces for long moments in search of common ground. Occasionally the keeper, finding himself racked with guilt over the chimp’s sad fate, would vilify his species in philosophic monologue regarding moral responsibility, fancying that through some unknown mechanism, a real psychic connection might be developing…

… Which, in reality, there was, since over the years the chimp had come to understand human language. Given vocal chords which had been selected millions of years earlier for snarls and grunts rather than how’s and thou’s, the chimp, of course had never found means to articulate his thoughts. But over time the symbolism of letters on signs posted on and about his cage had gradually become intelligible to him:



Small, highly intelligent anthropoid ape of Equatorial Africa.
More closely related to humans than to gorillas.



Written language had in fact, come to intrigue him, and so for long hours the chimp would practice imitating the letters in the sawdust litter on the cage floor. Discovering the confusion of etched letters exacerbated the keeper’s guilt. He excitedly embarked upon what he considered had become a moral duty–educating his semi-literate charge. Today word-salad, tomorrow perhaps Henry IV!

As the ape mastered symbolic syntax he became an avid and curious consumer of Western Literature. Each book the keeper brought him to read though, triggered questions which the chimp would scratch into the sawdust and feces on his cage floor. The questions inevitably suggested a new literary pursuit to the keeper, a process, which over time described the form and direction of the chimp’s continuing education.

For each of the ape’s questions, the keeper sought an appropriate and responsible answer from the body of human intellectual endeavor. But for every good answer the keeper supplied, the chimp had another question. And finally, with the inevitability of tides, the question of responsibility arose—the ontology of man and ape—a literary cul de sac for a true believer like the keeper.
But the keeper regarded the question seriously and in response to the chimp’s anxious questioning, brought him the only two authoritative books he could find with divergent views on the issue. One was The Holy Bible and the other was Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

In the morning he returned to find the chimp sitting cross-legged on the floor in the corner of his cage, drumming his fingers intently, staring curiously at the keeper. A new question was scratched into the litter on the concrete floor: