Joyce Wadler has been thinking about chimps ever since she began her magnum opus on the dozens of dangerous primates living like humans all around us. But after recounting tales of fingernail-pierced scrota and brutal impromptu dental surgery, she decided she would try to tell a (less violently) touching story. So she tracked down 82-year-old Harry Raven, a man who grew up with a chimp before it was all the rage. In 1929, his dad, the explorer Henry Raven, brought back Meshie, an orphaned baby chimp, from an African expedition. The elder Raven, who didn’t spend much time at home, attempted to make her part of his human family.
Their father took photos and home movies of the kids playing with Meshie and pretending to sleep together in a big bed, and he even allowed her to cradle Harry’s infant sister. Sometimes their father took Meshie to work, and he generally seemed to dote on her more than any of his human children. Writes Wadler:
Magazine stories of the time reported that the children considered Meshie a sibling. All of this still drives Harry Raven, a polite, mild-mannered man, a little crazy. Meshie was never considered a sibling, he says. She was cute and nonthreatening when his father first brought her home—he has a memory of her dozing in an apple crate in the basement—but as soon as she grew up, she was strong and unpredictable. She never slept in a bed—she was kept in a cage in the basement or backyard. The only time she played with him and his sister was when his father was shooting movies. When something went wrong—like the time Meshie bit Harry on the finger because he didn’t give her an orange quickly enough—the scene was cut.
The family gave Meshie to a zoo in 1934. After nearly eighty years, Harry reconnected with the chimp: She’s now behind glass, stuffed, in a display case at the American Museum of Natural History.