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Celebrated Author Chooses Glendon for Background Research

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It is not every day that an internationally recognized author, whose latest book was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 10 weeks, comes to Glendon to do background research for her next book. But that is exactly what Sara Gruen has done at the end of November for Ape House, a book she is just starting to write.

Her third novel, which made such a stir and topped the bestseller list, was Water for Elephants. It was preceded by Riding Lessons, her 2004 fiction debut and its sequel, Flying Changes in 2005. Clearly, the thread that joins all her work is her great interest in animals, whether they are elephants, horses, or apes. But if the theme of animals is a constant in Gruen’s work, each of her books is also a profound and highly observant analysis of human behaviour and the relationship of humans with the animal world.

From left to right: William Greaves, Sara Gruen and James Benson

Gruen is an award-winning technical writer, who has only recently switched to fiction. But her deep interest in and love of animals is a life-long story. She lives in an environmentalist community north of Chicago, with her husband and three young sons, two dogs, three cats, two goats and a horse. Gruen describes herself as a transplanted Canadian who “moved to the States in 1999 for a technical writing job. Two years later I got laid off”, she explains. “Instead of looking for another job, I decided to take a gamble on writing fiction full-time.”

Gruen takes her background research very seriously. The idea of writing Water for Elephants was sparked by a newspaper article and an accompanying photograph of a travelling circus. Knowing very little about circuses or elephants, she immersed herself in a research effort which lasted close to a year. Absorbing all she could from books and magazines, she went on to pay several visits to the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida and the Kansas City Zoo, where she learned about elephant body language from a former elephant handler.

For her current project, Gruen started her research by contacting Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a lead scientist doing language research with bonobo chimpanzees at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa in Des Moines. Savage-Rumbaugh directed her to two members of Glendon’s linguistics faculty with whom she has been collaborating in bonobo language research for a number of years: emeritus professors James Benson and William Greaves. The two professors invited Gruen to spend some time with them at Glendon and learn about apes.

Left: Kanzi, a bonobo at Great Apes Trust in Des Moines, Iowa

Gruen is the most modest and unassuming celebrity you could ever meet. “I have learned so much in these two days about apes and what they can do” she confided. Greaves and Benson showed her photos, descriptions, research material and video clips about the ability of bonobos to communicate at a highly sophisticated level. These two professors support the mission of the Great Ape Trust, that humans need to feel less separate from other species; that we need to know more about our relationship with other animals and be aware that we are only one notch on the continuum of evolution.

Gruen was able to glimpse this relationship through video clips showing bonobos responding to questions, making complex decisions and communicating these to their human associates, expressing a full range of emotions through body language that is very similar to how we react. Said Gruen, “the highlight of my Glendon visit was watching a video of Kanzi [one of the bonobos at the Great Ape Trust] ‘vocalizing’, that is, using real words to express what he wanted. When I heard him say ‘bring water’ and ‘right now’ with recognizable sounds, it was a very moving experience”.

Benson and Greaves, who have been collaborating for decades on research and publications, are currently examining interactions between humans and bonobos, to analyze their vocalization, gestures, expressions, body language, etc. “Bonobos express concentration, shame, affection, just as we humans do”, explained Greaves. “They gaze, point, make eye contact. We share a lot with them; biologically, we are very close.”

As for Sara Gruen and her next book, she expressed her great delight at this opportunity to learn in such scientific detail about a species she has not explored before. “I have already figured out my plot for Ape House”, she said. “What I needed from my visit to Glendon was to gain a deeper understanding of apes. But I am also going away with a number of wonderful anecdotes, which will be grist for the mill. It has been a thoroughly enjoyable visit.”

More about the research done at Glendon by professors Benson and Greaves...

This article was submitted by Glendon’s communication officer, Marika Kemeny.

Published on November 30, 2006