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The Language of Kin Behind The Scenes

Writing The Language of Kin meant spending time mentally and emotionally in the world of chimpanzees, learning how they live in the wild and in captivity, what they need, how they communicate with us and each other. It meant facing what many endured as many laboratory test subjects, and what has followed legislation in the United States to stop the medical testing on chimps. Captured, often as nursing babies, drugged, flown here, isolated in cramped, barren cages, subjected to painful experiments, often expressing their distress in self-harming ways: lab chimps spent years suffering. Legislation contained within the endangered species act put a halt to it—and left the labs scrambling with the question of what to do with the now traumatized and scarred chimps they’d experimented on for years.

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And then there are zoo chimps. I have always been very interested in animal well-being and personally bothered by seeing them—most especially the primates, with whom we share over 98% of the same DNA--in cages in zoos. But I am also aware that conservation of species is a role that zoos increasingly play and that zookeepers focus intently on the well-being of the animals. Several primatologists were incredibly generous with research help, sharing their knowledge and resources, educating me. Relentless climate change and deforestation are enormous concerns with regard to wildlife habitat and there are those who credibly argue that the only hope for the survival of certain species (chimpanzees included) is to breed them in zoos as their natural habitat is being inexorably destroyed. Zoos also can play an important role in educating people about animal needs. But it’s not how they live in the wild. They live in social and family groups, share parenting, learn from each other, fashion and use tools. I understand that there’s not an easy answer, and in The Language of Kin I did my best to avoid beating a political drum.

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I don’t want animals suffering. It’s really that simple. If you’ve read my work before, you know how I am about my dogs, all rescues. And I have a great interest in the human/animal connection, the meaningful bond between species. (Where The Trail Grows Faint: A Year In the Life Of A Therapy Dog Team is all about this.) But I also want to honor and respect the bonds other animals have within their own species that we humans often seem to disregard. This is how the book started. I was looking at communication, and that brought me to sign language and when/if/how words are necessary. 

My background as a therapist licensed to diagnose and treat mental disorders has given me an abiding interest in human relationships, and I always try to depict them with sensitivity and awareness. Being trained to listen closely has helped me develop a good ear for dialog and I use multiple points of view to both to reveal character and how differently people even people who love each other often perceive themselves, each other, or a situation. I have worked in a nursing home as an animal-assisted therapist and this contributed to my interest in interspecies communication, both verbal and signed. Learning to use hand signals with my dog and researching how some chimps have been taught to use American Sign Language also led me to seek consultation about the perceptions and experience of members of the deaf community in order to include a deaf character in this novel.

 

In the end, I hope my concern and love for the animals is clear. Still, although I did a great deal of research and had invaluable consultation with experts, The Language of Kin  is very much about the human characters living their human story, the various ways they communicate and fail to communicate, and what they ultimately come to understand and forgive in themselves and each other.

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