Almost Human: A Biography of Julius the Chimpanzee by Alfred Fidjestøl

Reviewed by Antonella Townsend

I have just swung, Tarzan style, through the gamut of emotions from delight to sadness and anger.  Alfred Fidjestøl’s biography of Julius and his struggle to live a happy life reaffirms the importance of a safe and stimulating environment and a stable social system that provides calm justice.  Julius was lucky to have survived his mother’s rejection. His first year was a joyful adventure, but it is how Julius lived through the tough stuff, the long years of isolation and rejection that is so sad and at times infuriating.  Eventually fortune smiles and he finds a happy place.  In short it is a touching true story about life.  Incidentally, brave and resilient Julius is a chimpanzee.  

Almost Human is well researched, referring to international academic studies, to documented observations of chimpanzees living in the wild, and studies of zoo chimpanzees.  Julius is quite a celebrity in Norway, so Fidjestøl also uses some of the many media reports written about the life and times of Julius.  As such, this is both informative and entertaining.  Readers get an insight to chimpanzee society in general, and specifically about how Julius relates to humans and chimpanzees.  There are plenty of amusing anecdotes of chimpanzee love, loyalty and high intelligence. 

Julius was born in Kristiansand Zoo, Norway, at the end of 1979. His young inexperienced mother rejected him, and, to really make a point, had bitten off a few of his fingers.  Chimpanzees are empathetic and self-sacrificing; in the wild, another female chimpanzee would probably have cared for Julius, and so it would have been if an experienced mother had been available in his zoo troop.  As it was, it fell to the zoo humans to take him into their homes and look after him for the first year of his life, with the goal of returning him to the chimpanzee community.  This time is full of heart-warming stories, and how he became a television celebrity in Norway.   It seemed harmless at the time but really this was going to make his future life hard.

After a year of being socialized by humans, it was not so easy to reintegrate Julius back into his community.  He had become so very fond of his human family during his first year.  During this time, he had acquired celebrity status and performed for many photo shoots, which helped fund the zoo but interrupted his re-integration program. It was upsetting reading about Julius being caught between two worlds separated from humans but not yet accepted by the chimpanzee troop.  In fact, it took some twenty-five years to establish him as the alpha male of his own group but he never forgot his human family always recognizing them when they visited him.

Almost Human is a gripping biography.  Fidjestøl gives readers real insight into chimpanzee thinking, to understand that they are sensitive, intelligent, social beings. Sharing 98.6% of DNA with humans, it is unsurprising that they are so intelligent.  They collaborate together to plan future actions, and, like humans, they can be brutal, fighting for supremacy over mating rights and territory.

Hopefully, humans will continue to evolve and become truly understanding of animal sensitivities and needs, both in the wild and in captivity. 

Highly recommended!

Almost Human: A Biography of Julius the Chimpanzee

(2019)

BY ALFRED FIDJESTØL

Hachette Australia

Paperback:  ISBN 9780733642791 – $32.99

e-Book:         ISBN 9780733642807 – $14.99

Pp241

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