Last week, the New York Times editorial department published this short film, ‘Gorillas in the Crossfire’ about efforts to save orphaned mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This film, by Olando von Einsiedel, accompanies a feature-length film called Virunga, also by von Einsiedel, which has been released though I have not seen it yet. Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park, is itself under threat from the armed conflict that has plagued the DRC for over 20 years, from poachers, and, more recently, from Soco, a British petroleum company that would like to drill extensively in the park. These very important issues have been written about here, here, and elsewhere. Instead of covering these issues, in this blogpost I will focus on one theme in ‘Gorillas in the Crossfire,’ the humanity of the gorillas.
Why does it matter if these orphaned gorillas are saved or left to die?
One answer offered by Andre Bauma, a gorilla caretaker at Virunga and the film’s central human character, is that the gorilla population has the potential to support an eco-tourism industry that could bring considerable economic security and peace to the DRC. The hope of economic security and peace for such a vulnerable human population is enough reason to do everything possible to save the gorilla population at Virunga and the film could have made this point and no other.
But it didn’t. Time and again, through words and through images, the film acknowledges the subjectivity of the gorillas. In the opening sequence, Mr. Bauma speaks about the gorillas’ fear when they hear bombs exploding. Then the film shows footage of war as fearful apes and monkeys look on; we see our own feelings reflected in their faces. A few minutes further into the film, Mr. Bauma says: “Like humans, gorillas also have a personality…A gorilla really is half-human, half animal.”
This statement reminded me of another short documentary published by the New York Times, ‘Animals Are Persons Too,’ which is about attorney Steven Wise and his efforts to have chimpanzees recognized as legal persons in the U.S. legal system, beginning in New York state. Wise and his organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project, have a simple argument (with lots of complicated science and legal theory to back it up). The argument is that in legally relevant ways, chimpanzees are like humans and therefore courts should recognize that chimps have certain rights. Because we now know that chimps perform cognitive functions—among them self-identification and planning for the future—that judges have relied on to explain why humans have inherent rights to not be caged and to not be harmed bodily, chimps should also be recognized by the court as having these same rights. Mr. Wise has a chimpanzee client, Tommy, who is caged in a petting zoo in upstate New York and on whose behalf Mr. Wise has filed a writ of habeas corpus, asking the court to recognize Tommy as a bearer of rights—specifically the rights to appear in court and to not be caged. The appellate court’s decision is currently pending.
The Nonhuman Rights Project’s work represents an attempt to change the way American culture regards animals by changing the way our laws regard animals. (Importantly, because the Nonhuman Rights Project is using a common law strategy, progress made in the U.S. could have implications across the former British Empire.) In its own way, ‘Gorillas in the Crossfire’ is doing similar work. It is the work of bringing the subjectivity of other species to life for mainstream society in the U.S. and elsewhere. It is the first step to acknowledging that the other species with which we share this planet are just as entitled to its land, water, and other resources as we are.
In the long run, conservation requires this work. As long as we humans, the most powerful species on the planet, perceive and treat the Earth’s other species as objects with no meaningful claim on the places where they live, we will continue to destroy their habitats and their livelihoods and they will go extinct.
Thoughtful conservation, therefore, works, as ‘Gorillas in the Crossfire’ does, on multiple levels. It addresses immediate conservation needs by appealing to today’s most prevalent pro-conservation values, the sustainable-development value of ecotourism, in this case. At the same time, thoughtful conservation does the long-term work of cultivating empathy and respect for the other species on Earth. ‘Gorillas in the Crossfire’ does this by profiling Mr. Bauma, who speaks eloquently about his personal connection to animals, and by showing us the world through the eyes of the animals he loves.