To get at such questions, Gagneux has spent many hours fashioning devices to coax sperm from chimpanzees. He began by sculpting a silicone version of a female chimp’s rear end. But the male chimpanzees at the Primate Foundation of Arizona that were recruited to help with the project did not see it that way, and the model sat unmolested on a counter. “It’s a nice chimp butt, but I thought it was a bonobo butt when I first saw it,” Jim Murphy, the foundation’s colony manager at the time, admitted to me when I visited a few years ago. “Maybe that’s why they don’t like it.”
Gagneux’s next attempt relied more on medical science than on art. He modified a piece of PVC pipe to create a variation on what’s known as a Penrose drain, which is used to remove pus and other liquid discharge from wounds. For the chimps, the pipe was rigged with a compartment that holds warm water; latex coated with K-Y Jelly lined the interior.
On this day, Rachel Borman, who had worked at the foundation for 10 years as an animal handler, was given the job of selecting a sperm donor and encouraging him to produce a sample. Borman ﬁrst “gowned up” to protect her clothes. The target donor today was a 16-year-old named Shahee. Borman asked me not to follow her into the space that held the caged chimps, as the presence of a stranger might break the mood. So I peered through the glass portal in a door. “I’m just going to go in there with these other guys to make him jealous,” Borman told me as she entered the chimp space. She did a quick pass by Shahee’s rivals and returned to the supply room for the modified Penrose drain. With it in one hand and a training clicker in the other, Borman walked toward Shahee. (Trainers use clickers in tandem with positive reinforcement, usually food, to condition animals to perform a specific behavior—in this case, masturbation.) After a few clicks, Shahee stuck his erect penis through the bars. Borman held up the PVC pipe and said, “Good boy! Good boy!” She then gave him an M&M, and walked back to the lab. “He did it,” Borman said proudly.
Borman cracked open the tube. Lying on the tan latex was a chunk of chimp sperm about the size of a small wine cork. I say “chunk” because most of it had coagulated into what is known as a plug, about one-quarter of which usually melts in the warm vaginal vault. Using a Popsicle stick, Borman transferred the ejaculate into three vials. “It’s fun for the chimps to do this,” Borman explained as she capped the vials. “They love it.”
My job was to shuttle the vials to San Diego when I flew home that night, and then drive them to Gagneux’s lab at the University of California at San Diego so he could study them while the sperm were still alive. As we exited the enclosure, we passed Shahee. He spat on me.
On the way to the airport, I realized that the chimp sperm created something of a dilemma. I had the vials in my day pack, the only bag I had brought for my short trip to Arizona. If I wanted to carry the bag with me on the plane, I would have to pass it through security, and surely the screeners would question the liquid in my vials. What would I say? It was hair conditioner? Packed in laboratory vials? If I told the truth, would they think I was a modern Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, the Russian scientist who tried to breed a “humanzee”? But if I checked my small day pack as luggage, would they suspect that I was a drug smuggler or some such, and escalate to a search and a humiliating outing?