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Kenneth Oppel

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Writing Half Brother: Love, Control, And Talking Animals

Posted: 09/10/10 04:40 PM ET

I only recently realized how fitting (and possibly ironic) it was that, after writing four bestselling "talking animal" fantasies featuring bats (the Silverwing series), I'd go on to write a realistic novel about an animal who truly did talk.

The seed for my novel Half Brother was planted in my mind over twenty years ago, but didn't germinate until late 2007 when I came across the obituary for Washoe, an extraordinary chimpanzee who had learned over 250 words of American Sign Language.

It wasn't the first time I'd heard about Washoe, or the radical language experiments performed on chimps in the 1960s and 70's. As a first year undergrad at the University of Toronto, I'd read with fascination about Project Nim, in which a baby chimp was raised as a human child to determine whether chimps were capable of learning human language. Nim was dressed in diapers and clothes, he ate at a high chair, had books and toys -- and a very large surrogate human family.

At first blush, the experiment had a beguiling Doctor Dolittle charm to it -- an attempt to communicate with another species in a truly meaningful way. Not nearly so charming was what happened when the experiment ended two years later -- after being deemed a failure. Nim was abruptly stripped of his human identity, his clothes and toys and favorite foods, separated from the people he'd come to think of as mothers and fathers and siblings, and shipped off to another primate research institute. I found the image of Nim, looking out through the bars of a cage, incredibly sad -- and I'd never considered myself someone who was sentimental about animals.

When, years later, I read Washoe's obituary, I wondered what it would be like to write a story from a chimpanzee's perspective. When I'd written my Silverwing series -- I'd imbued the bats with full human awareness and vocabulary. But what would it be like to try to tell a story with only the words Nim or Washoe had learned? The idea had a powerful appeal, but I decided that limiting myself to a two-hundred-and-fifty-word vocabulary -- heavy on nouns, and light on verbs -- would probably create something that might generously be called brave and avant-garde; or ungenerously, an unreadable mess.

Any attempt to write from an animal's perspective inevitably involves anthropomorphization, and with Half Brother I wanted to steer clear of that. In the end I chose to tell the story through human eyes -- those of Ben, a teenager whose father is a hotshot behavioural psychologist conducting a language study with a baby chimpanzee called Zan, in the family home.

Certainly I was interested in the controversial animal rights issues inherent in the story -- chimps have been used and abused by humans in the entertainment industry, the U.S. space program, and, perhaps most upsetting, the biomedical research industry. But equally fascinating to me were the human dynamics of the story. Imagine, as a teenager, being told to treat a chimp like a baby brother, while never forgetting that it was also a lab specimen. Imagine watching your mother and father indulge in a bizarre form of parenting - one in which the baby was nurtured, but also emotionally manipulated, and ultimately coerced into performing. To the father, the baby is only of value as long as it gives him what he needs.

But is human parenting -- or human relationships in general -- so very different? The more I worked on Half Brother, the more it seemed to me the story was really about love in all its possible forms -- how and why we decide to bestow it, or withdraw it; how we decide what is more worthy of being loved, and what is less. We are masters of conditional love.

During my research for Half Brother I read numerous accounts of people who had worked with chimps and many of them, I believe, truly did love the animals, and were heart-broken when they were separated from them. One of the most moving experiences I had was visiting the Fauna Foundation, a chimp sanctuary outside Montreal, which is home to thirteen chimpanzees who have been "retired" from zoos, the entertainment industry, and biomedical research facilities. These chimps, no longer deemed "useful" by their previous owners, now have a wonderful home where they are cared for by director Gloria Grow and her staff. Some are old and ill, some are HIV positive as the result of medical research. But they no longer have to perform or deliver, and it was clear to me that they were truly and unconditionally loved.

Kenneth Oppel is the author of numerous books for young readers, including Silverwing, Airborn, and most recently "Half Brother" (Scholastic Press).