This morning I awoke with the heaviness of loss. A dear friend passed away last night. She was one of the most remarkable individuals I’ve ever met.
Though I’d known her for less than a decade, she has left an indelible mark on who I am. She has awed me with her gentleness and generosity, with her ability to survive adversity and somehow elevate herself above it all.
There are some individuals who transform us. They inspire and reshape us. I am a better person for having known this amazing soul. As I continue my life, I will conjure up my dear friend, hoping to channel her goodness, her openness, her patience and wisdom.
When I got word that she was failing, I jumped behind the wheel and drove eight hours north and across the border so that I could see the light in her eyes one last time.
I was not alone. Friends came from all over -- by truck, by train, by plane -- to pay their respects to a remarkable being. Long distance truckers, housewives, artists, doctors, students, we all flocked to her side to bask in the special light that was fading from her eyes.
Her name was Pepper.
Life can be cruel – especially to a chimpanzee trapped in the biomedical world. Pepper was one of these unlucky souls.
I met Pepper in 2004 at a Sanctuary outside of Montreal. Pepper had been at the Fauna Foundation for seven years. When I met her, she had settled into a peaceful life where the food was varied and plentiful, where there were blankets and toys, and where her ‘keepers’ were compassionate. Still, it was almost a year before she trusted that the dart guns had not followed her from the laboratory. When Pepper first arrived, she would hide in the farthest corners of the big enclosures, trying to make herself invisible. Her caregivers were unable to clean the enclosure because Pepper was too terrified to move.
Soon after I met Pepper, I was combing through archival video from a laboratory called LEMSIP. I came across a clip of a terrified chimpanzee screaming & cowering at the back of a cage. The chimp was trying to escape a dart gun; it looked like she was pleading for her life. I paused the video to get a closer look at the face. It was reminiscent of the horrible photos from Auschwitz – the ones that are emotionally impossible to look at for long. It was an awful moment when I realized… the chimp on the screen was Pepper.
This grainy, old video allowed me a terrible glimpse into her thirty-year nightmare. The gun she cowered from she knew well… It meant only one thing: another invasive test – a bone marrow or cervical biopsy--or perhaps they would take a wedge from her liver this time. She’d had them all on a regular basis, with over 300 documented knock-downs. Have you ever awakened from surgery, shivering, aching and confused? Can you imagine waking with no pain medication, lying on steel bars with not even a blanket or a cup of water?
The history of Pepper’s earliest years has been lost, or possibly erased. She might have been caught in the wild, torn from her family and shipped to the US with dozens of other infant chimpanzees. Or she might have been born in a lab. Either way, she was almost certainly ripped from her mother’s breast and thrown into solitary confinement in a small, steel cage. The thought of surviving that alone makes my knees weak.
No one knows exactly how old Pepper was when she finally expired last night. Perhaps 40 – probably no more than 44. No matter which number is correct, she should have lived longer. Pepper’s life was cut short. Her liver was shot; she had an auto-immune disease. These were just two of the many gifts from her years in biomedical science.
Gloria, Pat, Dawna – all of the wonderful humans at Fauna gave Pepper a safe and loving refuge at the end of her unfortunate life. At Fauna, she had every kind of food imaginable, almost round-the-clock… she had blankets and soft words. No dart guns. No ketamine. No weekly surgeries. No 5x5x7 cage. She was able to develop friendships with other chimpanzees, though they too were damaged souls.
I will forever remember Pepper and her beautiful, deep voice. Her joyous pant-hoots. Her gentleness in grooming and her generosity in sharing food and drink. I will never forget how she held my foot in hers at the end.
When I sat with Pepper in her final days, I was looking at my grandmother again. Those tiny button eyes blinked in and out of consciousness… until they finally blinked out forever. My dear grandmother lived to 98; there were beautiful flowers and an obituary in the newspaper. For Pepper there will be no obituary. There will be no funeral. Her precious, little body will be sliced and inspected, so that we can better understand the horrors of biomedical research and the toll that it takes. I would wager that none of what is learned will come as a surprise.
Thank you, dear Pepper, for all you gave. Physically and emotionally, you were the most generous soul I have ever known. You will not be forgotten. Never.
In honor of Pepper, please visit http://www.janegoodall.org/support-great-ape-protection-act and do all you can to support the Great Ape Protection Act. The United States is the only nation in the industrialized world that still conducts invasive research on chimpanzees. If we can pass this Act, hundreds of chimpanzees will be spared the nightmare that Pepper endured.
To learn more about Pepper, please visit: http://www.faunafoundation.org/html/pepperprofile.html
Other links: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/21/great-ape-protection-act-endorsements_n_1291781.html http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/s810 http://www.opencongress.org/bill/112-h1513/show http://www.argofilms.com/film/chimpanzees-unnatural-history