Charles Siebert

Talks About Non-Human Animals

“They are making nests of sounds out of what they hear,” said Charles Siebert, Professor of Creative Writing, NYU Abu-Dhabi. He is speaking about starlings flitting around New York City and he is not surprised to hear scientists are studying these starlings to learn about the roots of human language. “What is at the base of language?” he asked. “Empathy and comprehension.”

The moving, wide-ranging discussion brought together much of what Siebert has written with empathy and comprehension, the two concepts seemingly at the core of his work. On March 13th, he shared his stories with a packed room of students and professors from AUP and NYU, moving the crowd, sometimes to laughter and sometimes to tears, as he told stories of animals that have informed his writing for the last few decades. By his own admission, early in his writing career, he could not have predicted his current field of interest: “I thought that last thing that I’d do would be having stare downs with elephants in the wild,” he said.

We’re being knocked off our pedestal of human exceptionalism

Charles Siebert Professor of Creative Writing, NYU Abu-Dhabi

Siebert recently published a book, The Wauchula Woods Accords: Toward A New Understanding of Animals, a story that follows a chimp by the name of Roger. Roger lived in Florida in a retirement home. “It says something about us, as a species, that there is a retirement home for chimp entertainers there,” he says. To write the book, Siebert spent a long time with Roger and for months lived next to his cage, sleeping within arm’s reach of the chimp. He shared another story of Lucy, a chimp he knew who, for 11 years, was raised human. She was subsequently unable to fully integrate into a normal living habitat after years of trying and , after much effort, met a sad ending at the hands of poachers.

Other stories he shared included that of Flight 805, on which 18 elephants were transported, each an orphan of violent culling practices in Swaziland; a beluga whale who had been taken captive and trained by the US military, and the parrots of Los Angeles’ Serenity Park where abandoned, discarded, orphaned parrots help veterans to overcome their emotional and physical ailments through, Siebert said, their inherent empathy.

Siebert’s work focuses on socialization of animals and just how complex they can be, how human-like, with complex cultures, memories and emotions. He finished the evening pondering empathy, a quality that for a long time we thought was unique to humans. Siebert argued that “we’re being knocked off our pedestal of human exceptionalism.”

Charles Siebert is the author of three critically acclaimed memoirs: The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward A New Understanding of Animals (2009), A Man After His Own Heart (2004), and Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral (1998), a New York Times Notable Book of 1998, as well as a novel, Angus; an e-book, Rough Beasts: The Zanesville Zoo Massacre One Year Later; and a children’s book, The Secret World of Whales. A poet, journalist, essayist, and contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, he has written for The New YorkerHarper’s MagazineVanity FairEsquireOutsideMen’s JournalNational Geographic, and numerous other publications. His appearance was made in partnership with AUP’s Creative Writing Program.