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Talk to the animals (and they'll talk back)

Sara Gruen interviews an ape.

Elephants in Water for Elephants . Bonobos in Ape House . Why do your novels centre around animals?

I've always loved them, I think it's in my genes. But Ape House began when my mother sent me an e-mail about the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, where language acquisition and cognition in great apes was being studied.. I'd never even heard of bonobos as a separate species before, but was fascinated. I'm always interested in the ways humans so often underestimate the intelligence and feelings of animals.

Given the detail in the novel about bonobo language and behaviour, it seems you clearly plunged into their world. How did you research it?

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When I knew I was writing it, and would need to deal with ape language, I applied to visit the Great Ape Trust, which is about not just understanding the culture of the great apes, but about preserving them as well. My extensive homework included coming up to York University in Toronto for a crash course in linguistics. It's not that easy to visit the apes; not only does the trust have to approve you, but the bonobos do as well.

How does that happen?

Like the character John in the novel, who visits the fictional Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas, I brought gifts: backpacks loaded with their favourite foods and toys: Mr. Potato Heads, bouncy balls, fleece blankets. And M&Ms. All the bonobos love M&Ms, though they have very different tastes; one loves green onions, another hard-boiled eggs. One loves to watch horror films, while another can't look at them. The scientists tell the bonobos who wants to come and then it's up to them.

What was it like meeting them?

There were five of them and they welcomed me. I get goose bumps just thinking about it. A conversation with a great ape, or even just looking one in the eye, is a life-changing experience. My book is dedicated to all great apes, but especially a bonobo named Panbanisha, with whom I had amazing communications. The day after I left, I was told, she asked one of the scientists: "Where's Sara? Build her nest. When's she coming back?"

What surprised you the most?

The level of their language skills. They understand and can use tenses, They have a concept of past and future. In fact, most of the bonobo-human conversations in the novel are based on actual conversations with great apes.

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There's a strong satirical element in the novel, partly about the decline in newspapers and the culture, but also about the terrible way people behave toward one another no matter how close their ties. Did you mean to contrast this with the bonobos' famously unabashed sexuality?

Yes. For instance, there's a scene in which John's wife, Amanda, finds that the couple's sex toys have been tampered with by her constantly disapproving mother, whereas the bonobos have sex, indiscriminately, frequently and guiltlessly.

You've said that the bonobos now feel like friends, or even family to you, and it seems to me that in the novel you're calling into question the whole notion of family and identity as we've understood them.

I'm interested in the question of what a family is, its functions and dysfunctions, and in how we humans torture one another. I think it's become worse with social media like Facebook and Twitter, where we can hide behind anonymity and be especially bad to people we've never met. One of the great differences between humans and apes is that apes have no artifice.

What do you hope to accomplish with the this novel?

Well, first of all, I wanted to tell a good story, one that will draw readers in. But I also want to raise awareness about bonobos (and other great apes), their declining numbers and how we treat them. In their native Democratic Republic of Congo, it's impossible to get an accurate count of their numbers because of political turmoil. Estimates run from 4,000 to 100,000, but babies are being captured and sold as pets; adults are poached and sold as bush meat

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Finally, switching topics briefly, I understand that filming on Water for Elephants (with Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz) has just wrapped. Are you happy with the result?

Very happy. The studio consulted me more than they contractually obligated to do, and the screenwriter did a brilliant job in compressing the novel into a two-hour film by combining a few characters and incidents in ways I couldn't have begun to.

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