Mama’s Last Hug

Frans de Waal / W. W. Norton & Company / 336 pages

Elderly captive chimpanzee Mama is in her last days. She is visited by an old human friend. She greets and embraces him with gestures and faces that chimpanzees and humans share. The viral video of this scene echoed deep familiarity and empathy in its millions of viewers. This is Mama’s last hug and the starting point of Frans de Waal’s latest book, in which de Waal has done it again: written another easy read that brilliantly illustrates the capacities of our fellow apes. In Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, de Waal illuminates the continuity of emotions between humans and other animals with perfect examples of grief, humor, empathy, guilt, shame, pride, gratitude, and disgust. He describes emotional intelligence, which includes fairness, planning, and metacognition (knowing what you know or don’t know). 

As he has in the past, de Waal describes the rich complexity of chimpanzee and bonobo power and politics. He claims bonobos are like humans on good days and chimpanzees are like humans on bad days. In arguing that certain characteristics of bonobos make them more like humans overall, however, he falls into the same problem that he accuses others of: value judgments and hierarchies of species with humans on top. 

He ends with a question of sentience in all living organisms, including plants, and examines how we treat other beings on this planet. Bravo to de Waal for raising objections about factory farming and pointing out the vast numbers of nonhuman animals that perish in this industry. He pushes for social housing for monkeys in labs. He raises issues in conservation but uses problems in wildlife protection to argue for holding animals in zoos—going so far as to say that if he were an orangutan, he would opt for living in a zoo rather than the wild. He misses some topics that he could speak about, like what to do about retiring research chimpanzees—the ones outside his office window, for example. But a partial scientist advocate is better than none, and de Waal calls others to the cause. This book is a vital resource in helping us to understand our next of kin and our place in nature.

Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold, AWI Board of Directors

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