Since she began working at The New York Times in 2021, Emily Anthes has written about African malaria mosquitoes, video-chatting parrots, California condor parents, the deer that got Covid-19 and even an exhibit of 500,000 leafcutter ants. Animals, she said, are one of her main beats as a science reporter. So when she visited a chimpanzee sanctuary in June, she couldn’t ignore the connections between human nature and animal instinct.
“Even if we can’t know exactly what happens in their minds, they have a lot of similar experiences to humans,” Ms. Anthes said.
Ms. Anthes and the photographer Emil T. Lippe traveled to Chimp Haven in Keithville, La., which is home to chimpanzees that have been retired from biomedical research, to report on how the sanctuary prepares its residents for severe and unpredictable weather. Staff members use noises from items such as cowbells or sound machines to coax the chimps from the forest into shelter. The goal is to condition the chimps so that they have a routine response to storms.
Days after Ms. Anthes visited Chimp Haven, a severe thunderstorm knocked down trees and made roads around Keithville impassable. The storm added new urgency to the staff’s mission of keeping the chimps safe in a more volatile climate, and it became a driving force in Ms. Anthes’s article.
In an interview, Ms. Anthes discussed her reporting trip and why it’s useful to compare animal vulnerabilities to mankind’s. This interview has been edited and condensed.
How do you prepare to report a longer narrative article?
I always sketch out in advance a bullet-point list of questions. I don’t keep it in front of me, but always at the end of the day, or before I’m getting ready to leave, I’ll say, Hey, can you just give me a minute? Let me just double check and make sure I didn’t miss something that I meant to ask.
When I’m out reporting in the field, I’m collecting all the atmospheric stuff — how do things feel, look, smell, sound. When I’m calling someone from my desk I try to elicit that stuff from them, but in this case the onus was on me to capture all those details and to notice them in the first place.
What was it like to experience the sanctuary? Was there anything that you didn’t have room or time to put in the article?
The story does have this narrative component of taking people through what happened after a severe thunderstorm. But the interesting thing is that the storm happened after my visit. When I went, I didn’t know that there was this severe storm coming, that it would be in the story, that it would provide a narrative structure. I was very focused on what was happening on the day. And, interestingly enough, the weather was pretty wild even on the day I was there.
Did that cause you to think about extreme weather in relation to humans, and the kind of precautions we all need to take?
The sanctuary’s staff members are there to take care of these chimps, and they take that seriously. But they also have a large human staff and they live and work in the area, too. They’re also affected by these weather events. Sometimes you get very little warning. What would you do if a tornado was coming in five minutes and you were supposed to take shelter? They said, Well, staff safety comes first.
In an article like this one, do you try to stay away from projecting too many human attributes onto animals?
I write a lot about animals, and it’s something that’s always a tricky line. From a scientific perspective, we certainly don’t want to anthropomorphize animals. They’re not human. They’re creatures with their own ways of being in the world, processing the world and moving through the world. But sometimes anthropomorphizing gets treated as a dirty word. It’s sometimes useful to draw parallels between animal experiences and human life.
It can cause the reader to relate more to the subjects you’re writing about, even if they’re not human.
There is certainly plenty of reason to believe that animals, especially chimpanzees, which are so closely related to us, have a lot of similar experiences to humans. It’s not a huge stretch to, in the case of this story, imagine that a chimp might be nervous or afraid during a storm. They do have complex social bonds and hierarchies, much like humans do. Some of that is not such an enormous stretch. In some ways, it would be surprising if they didn’t have experiences that were very similar to our own.