A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam

‘What’s your favourite book?’ is a question I find impossible to answer because there can be so many variables to weigh up. However, if I am asked what book has affected me the most when reading, then it is this one, A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam. Even reading the back cover made me feel tense, and for me, it has proven unforgettable.

This book is told from dual perspectives of humans and chimpanzees. Beginning in 1970s USA, Looee is a chimpanzee bought by humans as a replacement child. As he grows older, stronger and more volatile, their lives are headed for disaster. Outside of this unconventional family setting is a research facility studying the behaviour of a group of chimpanzees. What starts out as a test of their intelligence and communication tips over into their use in biomedical research during the AIDs crisis. The two narratives eventually collide and what unfolds is a distressing account of animal suffering in the name of science.

I found this book by total chance in the library and had a personal interest in the subject, having spent two years working with a zoo that housed chimpanzees. None of these chimps had ever been used in biomedical research thankfully, but some of the elderly ones had started life as pets in the 1970s, and some had been used in the entertainment industry. I have read and written about primates for the environment media, focusing on their cardiac health, conservation and breeding programmes to protect them as a critically endangered species.

I knew that this would be an uncomfortable read that would spare no feelings, and the writing is of exceptional quality. Colin uses a unique chimpanzee language in the sections told from their perspective, which requires time and attention to tune into. The use of this intricate language, combined with the chimps’ displays of intelligence demonstrates their sentience, and is what makes it such a devastating read when faced with the atrocities that they are subjected to.

In the field laboratory, you meet the individual characters of the troop, whose world plays out in brutal violence and a daily battle for dominance and peace-keeping. In the biomedical research laboratory, it is one of incarceration, mistreatment and terror at the hands of humans.

The lab chimps are kept in terrible conditions, injected with multiple strains of AIDs and flu, routinely anaesthetised and tested on by scientists. Animals showing signs of active disease are systematically dosed with developmental drugs from pharmaceutical companies.

A huge amount of careful research has been undertaken and masterfully deciphered in order to write this book. It is an uncompromising and compelling read which serves as a powerful reminder of how much we owe these incredible animals, and how much they have suffered for our gain.