Monday, 20 June 2011

Fauna Foundation: A Safe Refuge

Anytime you take a chimp to be raised for entertainment or used as a pet, you’ve changed its chances of being a chimp. At 7 years old, these animals are expensive, strong and dangerous. And that’s usually when the owner realizes they can’t handle them-and sells them for research. So the chimp’s life is over but they’re going to live another 30 years.

Gloria Grow ~ co-founder of Fauna Foundation
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Some would say entertainment is worse than research. Mainly because what people don’t see is that “training chimps” for entertainment usually means beating them or yelling at them. The physical abuse of research is not even as bad as entertainment. They’re punching 20-30 pound babies in the head and the back. Yelling at them. Keeping them in fear. They pull all of their teeth out so they don’t bite. And there’s no reason for it. It’s totally unnecessary. Also, we’re probably not going to convince people too quickly to stop research but entertainment is a waste of life.~ Gloria Grow   

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Not everyone necessarily agrees with or shares in the concept, but there are individuals who firmly believe that an animal possesses character, personality, the ability to experience the full range of emotions, and even a soul. Motivated by that belief, the notion that animals are entitled to and deserving of certain rights and dignities becomes more than a principle; it becomes a rooted and profound conviction. This is all the more relevant when it concerns our treatment - or rather, maltreatmeant - of our nearest genetic relatives with whom we share a staggering 99% of our DNA: the chimpanzees. Jane Goodall, one of the world's foremost primatologists, is likely  to be among those believers; Gloria Grow, is another. 

Gloria Grow, co-founder of Fauna Foundation, initially sowed the seeds of her sanctuary for abused, neglected and abandoned animals just outside of Montréal, Québec, in 1990. At that time, Gloria and her husband, Dr. Richard Allan, D.V.M., purchased one-hundred acres of farmland in the Monteregie region of Québec. The primary purpose of Fauna Foundation, which was created in 1997 by Gloria and Dr. Richard, was to offer a safe haven for abused and neglected domestic animals. The original residents of the sanctuary were not 'exotic' but farm animals: “sheep, goats, chickens and a few turkeys.” The foundation's tradition as a refuge for rescued animals formally and inadvertently began when a carriage horse by the name of "Jethro," from nearby Montréal, was slated for the slaughterhouse and needed the benefit of a speedy rescue - and a new forever home. Since then, Fauna's rescue missions have come to  include animals from various  industries: pet and agriculture, entertainment, education and research laboratories.
(Source and quote:, 2011)

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A native of Montréal (Canada's second-largest city), Gloria has always had a special affinity with animals. It may come as a surprise to learn that her favourite animals are not chimpanzees but pigs: “Probably because you have to show pigs a reason to listen to you. You have to wait until they’re ready. When I think about it, that’s probably why I work so well with chimps - you have to have patience. But I always loved chimps. And certainly my passion through life has been helping animals.” Prior to founding Fauna Foundation in 1997, Gloria attended the Nash Academy of Animal Sciences and, for fifteen years, was the proprietor of a dog-grooming business. Her determination to shift career course and dedicate her life to working exclusively in the cause of animal protection was formed when she turned forty years of age. It was a decision that was further reinforced and cemented when she attended an animal rights march held in Washington, D.C., back in 1996. Caring for Chimpanzees was a project instigated by Dr. Roger and Deborah Fouts at the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute in Ellensburg, Washington; Gloria decided to participate. Within days of her arrival there, Gloria determined to build Canada's first chimpanzee sanctuary and to create a refuge for chimpanzees rescued from the bio-medical research and entertainment fields. 

The day that Gloria first went to New York University's medical research laboratory and met a group of fifteen chimpanzees for the first time, she decided to take whomever she met. There, she was introduced to two groups of chimpanzees, seven of which were infected with HIV; she resolved not to discriminate. “I met the chimps and I decided that, even if they were HIV positive, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t even a question in my mind. We would overcome the obstacles... We did everything we needed to do in terms of learning about HIV. We had healthcare workers come in to educate our staff about working with the chimps. And we knew that the two primary methods for contracting the disease were intercourse and exchange of needles. But we are at the same risk as doctors, police officers, and healthcare workers – we’re not really at a greater risk. Plus, we knew who had the virus. The chimps had been labeled and they were behind bars.” There was another dilemma confronting Gloria: facing previous owners. Initially, she did not want anything to do with the chimpanzees' former owners, whether they were laboratory or entertainment workers, much less meet with any of them. But, as she has said, she needed to take both sides of the story into account. “The humans were extremely traumatized also. They watched the chimps suffer. They gave them up. They suffered a lot. Also, I needed those people to learn about the chimps. To hear their history.”
(Sources and quotes:, 2011; Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History,, June 20, 2008)

"Roger" ~ 2003
(Photograph by Frank Knoelker)
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The entertainment industry is perhaps as - if not more - traumatizing to chimpanzees as bio-medical research and that is mainly due to the fact that “training chimps” involves physical, psychological, as well as verbal abuse to force them into submission. They are, essentially, terrorized into learning and memorizing their performance routines. “The physical abuse of research is not even as bad as entertainment. They’re punching 20-30 pound babies in the head and the back. Yelling at them. Keeping them in fear. They pull all of their teeth out so they don’t bite. And there’s no reason for it. It’s totally unnecessary... entertainment is a waste of life.”

Given the extent of their histories, for the first three years after the chimpanzees first moved into the sanctuary, things were terrifying and, at times, very dramatic. Acts of aggression or attempts made on caretakers' body parts were standard behaviours. “Just being captive when you don’t deserve to be is traumatic enough,” Gloria has said in an interview for Nature, the PBS weekly television program. I liken them to maximum-security inmates or patients in a mental hospital. Like prisoners, they misbehave to get attention. It’s the only way they can have control. Or like juvenile delinquents, they act out all the time. But as the years pass, there’s some sort of healing.”
(Sources and quotes:, 2011; Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History,, June 20, 2008)

"Pepper" ~ 2002

At one point, according to Fauna's website, the sanctuary housed more than two-hundred rescued animals, “most of whom were from the farming industry, abandoned pets, animals taken from horrible situations, dogs used in veterinary school training, animals from zoos and laboratories, including monkeys and chimpanzees, and animals rescued from summer exhibits who at season’s end would have been killed.”

Over the years, Fauna Foundation has grown into more than just an animal rescue organization. Expanded, the original one-hundred acres have since doubled and now stretch across more than two-hundred acres and acts as a reserve for Québec's native flora and fauna; the land presently includes a lake, a river, protected wetlands and a young forest. (The sanctuary's property has also come to include islands for its resident chimpanzee population: “...the islands are a place with no bars over their heads. They can come out, surrounded by water and look up at the sky without any obstruction. There’s a vegetable garden on one of the islands. One of the females, Pepper [pictured above], likes to pick her own veggies. She’ll take her blanket with her and camp out on the island at night. She likes the quiet, away from the rest of the group. Just a chance to go out onto their islands, has changed their personalities a lot... they just love it – even in the winter... We put maple syrup on the snow and they eat it like kids do. They love icicles and snowmen. And it’s pretty funny to see them smashing snowmen down.”) (Sources & quotes:, 2011; Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History,, June 20, 2008)

"Kenya" ~ 2003

By city ordinance, Fauna Foundation is no longer permitted to take in “exotic” animals and, therefore, can no longer accept new residents. However, Fauna’s dauntless founders along with their dedicated team of staff, family members, and volunteers continue their life-long commitment to the foundation's current residents, and that commitment remains as strong and as vital as ever.

The first sanctuary to accept HIV-infected chimpanzees, today, Fauna Foudnation is home to about one-hundred resident animals, both domestic as well as 'exotic': horses, cows, pigs, goats, ducks, geese and other birds, llamas, monkeys, chimpanzees, several dogs and cats and even a donkey named "Eyore" - each animal, like Fauna's ambassador, "Billy Jo" (featured below), comes with its own individual story. The origins of most of those stories may not be happy ones; indeed, many are examples of the deplorable ways in which humans use, abuse, and exploit other species for food, entertainment, research and training purposes. But having been rescued and fortunate enough to have found a safe haven and respite at Fauna, at least these animals have the comfort of living out their retirement days in a secure and loving environment where they are respected as individuals, cared for, and all of their needs - physical, medical as well as emotional and psychological - are met. Most importantly, they can just be themselves - animals. (Source:, 2011)

"Toby" ~ 2002

Aside from her responsibilities at Fauna Foundation, Gloria Grow currently serves as Co-chair of Project R&R (Release and Restitution) for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories, a campaign whose aim is to bring the use of chimpanzees in bio-medical research to an end. She has co-authored two papers on the psychological effects of captivity and research on chimpanzees. Additionally, Gloria is also active in her capacity as Board Advisor for LPAG (the Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group) as well as a Trustee of AFAAR (the American Fund for Alternatives to Animal Research).
(Source:, 2011)

"Jethro" ~ 2004
(The above four photographs are by Frank Knoelker)
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It must be borne in mind that advances in medical science and research, not to mention the use of animals in the entertainment business, comes at a very high price. The ultimate hope and mission of Fauna Foundation, therefore, is to educate and enlighten people of that cost and of their plight. Making a difference in the lives of of these wonderful individuals, the chimpanzees, as well as its other residents, Fauna strives to help people reconsider and then change the ways in which they regard their relationships with - as well as their behaviour towards - other species around them. And change is the operative word here: by changing people's perceptions of animals from that of “owned property” to be utilized for the of fulfillment of our needs and amusements to that of individuals with real feelings who have a right to live in dignity and without maltreatment or suffering, Fauna’s goal is not just to “protect animals in its own care, but to foster an attitude of respect and an ethic of compassion, care and protection toward all animals everywhere.”
(Source & quote:, 2011)

Billy Jo's Story
"Billy Jo" ~ 2002

Irrespective of the species, each individual animal that is rescued and brought to Fauna Foundation, comes with a story, a history. One of Fauna's most beloved and famous residents (and the ambassador for all of the sanctuary's resident chimpanzees), "Billy Jo" was no exception. Born on June 17th, 1968, Billy was purchased in 1983 after having worked in the entertainment business (circus) for fifteen years. As a youngster during those years, Billy's teeth had been knocked out - with a crow bar (in all likelihood, a method to keep him, as with most other captive chimpanzees, under control and  a form of harm reduction for his handlers).  After which, he was sold for research purposes and spent another fourteen years at the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), a New York University research facility that closed in 1997, where Billy's treatment was certainly no better. (Source:, 2011)

"Yoko" ~ 2002

Labelled as "Ch-447" at LEMSIP, the then teen-aged Billy was  “knocked down over 289 times - 65 times by dart, sometimes with 4 or 5 men surrounding his cage.” Having been infected with the HIV virus, Billy endured other lab procedures; these included: forty punch liver biopsies, three open-wedge liver biopsies, three bone marrow biopsies and two lymph node biopsies without any tangible or practical results. To counter the pain he experienced in the laboratory, Billy turned on himself: he “chewed off his thumbs waking up alone from knockdowns when no one was around to care for him. During one fit of anxiety, he bit off his index finger. Anxious, aggressive, and fearful, Billy banged incessantly on his cage, rocking and staring into space when left alone.” Simultaneously anxious, fearful and aggressive, Billy would bang on his cage, rocking back and forth in an effort to prevent anyone from approaching; when left alone, he would blankly stare into empty space .

In fact, Billy's fears and anxieties from those years never fully left him and he remained prone to mood swings throughout his life - angry and volatile one minute, lovable and sweet the next. Even during his years of reprieve at Fauna, Billy could not bear the sight of having strangers grouped together in front of him and still caused him to experience anxiety attacks; these attacks were so severe that they often left him choking, gagging and convulsing. (Sources and quotes:, 2011; Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History,, June 20, 2008)

"Petra" ~ 2004

Understandably, his frustrations manifested themselves in furious outbursts and rages. “His mood swings were a challenge for anyone near him, especially his chimpanzee family who had a difficult time understanding what he was going through and why he was so volatile all the time. The chimps enjoyed his happy moods, but always seemed unsure and ready for his switch from nice to tyrant. Billy hurt others. They in turn hurt him, leaving him without anyone’s loyalty and instead only with their fear of him. Fortunately, his human family and friends knew why he and everyone else at Fauna had reason to be angry and on an emotional roller coaster.” Although he fared better with humans than with other chimpanzees (he never felt socially comfortable within a group of chimpanzees and therefore, often had a difficult time 'fitting in'), when in a jovial mood, Billy was very social with  people and loved to play and interact with them. In reality, Billy loved being with people most. If he felt that a person was interested in him (“He reacted immediately if anyone used a rough tone of voice or spoke in a condescending way. He even understood being laughed at and was terribly offended if he was disrespected in this way… as opposed to having a laugh together, in which he delighted”), Billy reciprocated his own interest by gesturing for the person to approach him for an interaction. But the invitation to approach had to be instigated by him; he had to sanction it. As with any self-determining person, it was about him deciding whom to invite into his personal space and being in control of the situation.
(Source & quote:, 2011)

"Chance" ~ 2004

(To draw out the gentle nature of this confused chimp, Gloria Grow devised a tactic whereby she treated Billy as an individual, not as a wild animal - something he seemed to sense as well as appreciate. She took into account Billy's history, personality, and his needs. “Billy really appreciated when we were communicating with him,” she has been quoted as saying.  It’s like taking up their language.” It is an approach that Grow applies to all of the other chimpanzee residents. According to Grow, she is glad she did not attempt to learn everything she could about captive chimpanzees before she rescued her group of individuals; otherwise, she feels, she would have gotten it all wrong. “We call them people,” she says, “not chimps. They have been displaced. They’re a displaced people. They’ve been raised by humans and they’re so confused by that.”) (Source & quotes: Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History,, June 20, 2008)

A highly sensitive and intuitive individual, Billy commanded a great deal of respect as well as attention. (He loved to nap as well as watch television, but hated loud noises, bright lights or being awakened too abruptly or too soon before he was good and ready.)  Billy also had a creative, artistic streak. One of his favourite activities was painting, something he thoroughly enjoyed doing. (Source:, 2011)


"Sue Ellen" ~ 2002

Although he generally did not get on well with other chimpanzees at the sanctuary, Billy did manage to form a few meaningful relationships with a select group of individuals. For instance, when he was young and still a part of the 'human world' (before his time at LEMSIP, the research laboratory), Billy had spent  a lot of time with Sue Ellen with whom he seemed to have bonded - the two formed a close relationship. For short periods of time only, he also enjoyed the company of Yoko, whom he tickled and laughed with. But it was Chance, Petra and Rachel whose presence he tolerated for the longest periods of time. Those three individuals seem to have understood Billy's complex personality best. Still, life in the chimpanzee community was often challenging for someone of Billy's character who, more often than not, found himself in trouble or felt afraid (“Tyrant in social settings, not tolerated by most, feared by some, constantly challenged by others. [Billy] had the most violent attacks made on him by the whole group. Great difficulty in any social setting”).
(Source and quote:, 2011)

"Rachel" ~ 2002
(All photographs above are by Frank Knoelker)
The above six images are all courtesy of:

Although he was a special individual, the truth is, Billy's story is not unique and, sadly, is merely one of thousands; his story typically illustrates the corrosive effects on animals living in captivity and laboratory confinement. Cross-fostering, entertainment, and research are manifestly destructive to a chimpanzee's body, mind, and soul. Billy Jo's life came to an end on February 14th, 2006. His loss continues to be keenly felt by hundreds of his human friends whose lives he had touched.

Today, even though he is no longer physically present, it is Billy Jo's handsome face, so intelligent and full of character, that greets visitors to Fauna Foundation's website. As Fauna's ambassador, it is  his profile that graces the foundation's new logo as well. (Source:, 2011)

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"Toddy" ~ 2002

Traumatized and violated in every sense of the word - physically, emotionally, and psychologically - chimpanzees (and other animals) continue to be used in biomedical research, both in the United States and abroad. (According to the U.S. Humane Society, “approximately 1,300 chimpanzees live in eleven laboratories around the U.S., making the US chimp population the largest collective chimpanzee colony for biomedical research in the world.”) From the chimpanzees' perspective, it is precisely their genetic code as well as their close physiological and behavioural similarities so nearly identical to our own, that places them directly in the path of biomedical research - it makes them highly sought after candidates for bio-medical procedures such as infectious diseases, genetic therapy, vaccine development, reproduction, language, behavior, and anatomy. But of all the infections which they share with humans - or with which they can be infected by humans - it is the research into Hepatitis, particularly Hepatitis B and C, that remains the largest area of chimpanzee use in the U.S. (As the timely PBS television program, Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History (aired 2008) indicated, in 2003 and 2004, nearly one third of chimpanzee research funds were directed to support Hepatitis studies.)

"Grub" ~ 2003

Then, in the early 1980s, a new virulent epidemic, unlike any other before it in human history, surfaced. The new disease, which was eventually named Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome [A.I.D.S.], imperatively required a vaccine to halt its devastating advance and to stem the rapidly escalating death toll it left in its wake; it thus required suitable subjects on which to experiment and to find the urgently-needed vaccine. And so, during the height of the HIV/AIDS outbreak, chimpanzees were the obvious candidates for studies into the new disease and were purposely bred in their thousands as research subjects for those studies. But the outcome of this breeding campaign merely resulted in a surplus chimpanzee population crisis when the animals “were found to be poor models – never developing full-blown AIDS... Critics of chimp research argue that the case of HIV is not an isolated case of scientific indiscretion. Even in the case of Hepatitis, chimps respond differently from humans. Chimps infected with Hepatitis B will not become sick while humans exhibit traditional symptoms of liver disease. And chimps infected with Hepatitis C will not develop cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer, though humans will. And in fact, with regard to drug development, 70% of drugs that have tested safe in nonhuman primates are known to be harmful to the human fetus.”
(Source & quotes: Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History,, June 20, 2008)

"Noelle" ~ 2003
(All three photographs above are by Frank Knoelker)
The above three images are all courtesy of:


In the United States, a new bill known as the "Chimp Haven is Home Act" was introduced in 2008 under which, retired chimpanzees living at Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana, would not be able to be removed for medical research. The bill, introduced by U.S. Representative, Jim McCrery, and U.S. Senator, Richard Burr, nullifies a provision in standing law that allowed such removal. The CHIMP Act of 2000 established the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary System for chimpanzees retired from use in research. Chimp Haven, which opened in 2006 when seven privately-owned chimpanzees were rescued from a Texas sanctuary, operates this sanctuary system through a public-private partnership. “The chimpanzees at Chimp Haven have spent their lives in research laboratories helping to improve the lives of all Americans,” McCrery was quoted as saying at the time. “Many of our discoveries in space and medicine are due to chimpanzees. I am proud to help modify the existing law to ensure chimpanzees at Chimp Haven will spend their final years happily.” (Sources & quotes: Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History,, June 20, 2008;, 2011)

(Photograph by Tony Beck: EBC)
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"Tom" ~ 2002
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"Toby & Chance" ~ April 7, 2011
(Photo by Kim Belley)

"Regis" ~ 2002
(Photo by Frank Noelker)
The above two images are courtesy of: Life At Fauna 


The decision to feature Gloria Grow and the Fauna Foundation on this blog sprung not only from a deep love of Fauna's resident chimpanzees and their individually moving stories - at once fascinating and heart-rending - but also from an equally deep, personal admiration for Fauna's co-founder, her husband, and her devoted team. It must also be mentioned that the inspiration for this posting was kindled - and, in a way, affirmed - in part, due to a beautifully-written review of Andrew Westoll's book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery, which appeared in The Globe And Mail not too long ago. The reviewer was Linda Spalding, author of The Follow. Ms. Spalding's insightful review, entitled "We have met the chimps and they are us," has been transcribed verbatim, in its entirety, below:

What do you get when you take a baby away from its mother a few hours after birth and raise it in isolation, adding physical abuse that stretches on forever, all in the name of biomedical research? The bad news is that, whether the baby is human or chimpanzee or probably anything else, the damage is lasting. The hurt done can never be fully healed. The good news is that some of us are trying. We are working with damaged human children and adults as well as damaged individuals of other species. One of us (let's try to look at this collectively, since we are all complicit in the damage) is doing it right this minute on a farm in Québec.”

“Gloria Grow is the doyenne of a very special retreat, a place of sanctuary for damaged creatures from all kinds of traumatic pasts. She and her veterinarian husband began by rescuing the victims of Québec puppy mills, but there was always someone else to save: a pig, a Belgian workhorse, a cow or an ostrich. Then, when Gloria met Roger and Deborah Fouts at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in Ellensburg, Wash[ington], she knew she had found the underlying purpose of her rescue work. After meeting the three chimpanzees they had saved, she decided she wanted to build a sanctuary for chimpanzee victims of biomedical research.”

This is the barest skeleton of the riveting story told by Andrew Westoll. He fleshes it out with the life histories of each of the 13 chimpanzees on Gloria's farm, and his intimate encounters with them during a stay of several months. As a writer, humanist and primatologist, Westoll is exactly the right person to describe the complicated nature of our closest relatives. And his adventures in the sanctuary feel only a little less fraught than the lives of its residents.”

“At first, they will have nothing to do with him. At New York University's Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, in a wooded area north of New York City, they had been taken from the nursery and put into small, hanging isolation cages, where they stayed for years, suffering invasive darts and surgeries and multiple exposures to hepatitis and HIV. Then, after a remarkable reversal of conscience by one of the researchers, several chimps were smuggled out to be saved by Gloria Grow. The chimps are terrified. They sometimes rage or refuse to eat or hurt themselves. How will Westoll earn their trust in order to tell their stories?”

“Fortunately, he has the time and patience to study each individual and learn to connect. Then, by interweaving past and present, he helps us understand the chimpanzee Tom, who has become the wise old face of the Great Apes Protection Project, and each of the apes Tom now sees as his charges. When the research chimps are joined by refugees from a zoo and a circus, things get even more complicated. Those pasts are not much prettier, but at Fauna Sanctuary, each chimpanzee is given a chance to form relationships of trust along with the sense of self every primate has a right to develop in infancy.”

Andrew Westoll
(Author of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary)

'Sometimes, as when I stumble on a forgotten children's toy in a remote corner, I am overcome with a sense of lightness, the conviction that this might be the happiest place on Earth. After all, the youngsters, like Binky, Jethro and Regis, have been living at Fauna longer than they lived at the lab - surely good memories have begun replacing the bad. But other times, such as when I'm picking through a mountain of stinking refuse to salvage reusable bottle caps, my thoughts turn dark and brooding. How messy their lives are, how weighted with consequence everything is in this false invented home.' ”

“The rehabilitation of a damaged individual requires profound empathy, time, regularity and choice. Lab animals cannot choose what they eat or where they sleep. They cannot choose to be part of a group or to go outside or to hide from invasive hands and tranquillizer darts. 'Dignity,' Westoll writes, 'begins when an animal feels that she is the chief instrument of change in her life.' ”

For Chance, a chimp who was kept in solitary confinement for the first five years of her life, it meant finding a truly private space when social interaction got too hard. For Tom, it meant learning to take care of the others, being mentor and comforter. For Toby, raised first in a human family and then sent to a zoo, it meant learning to be a chimpanzee. Andrew Westoll provides an opera of dramatic events, heart-rending tragedies and uplifting triumphs. For anyone interested in empathy and recovery, his book is required reading.” (Fully cited from: The Globe And Mail, May 28, 2011: R23) 

Andrew Westoll's new book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery (2011), is published by Harper Collins Publishers, Canada, and is available at book retailers everywhere.

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"Binky" ~ 2002

I’d like people to know that anybody can do something. Rescue a dog or a cat, learn about wetlands. I hope people get inspired to do something they care about.
~ Gloria Grow  

"Donna Rae" ~ 2002
(Photographs by Frank Knoelker)
The above two images are courtesy of:

Suggested sites to visit:

    Tuesday, 7 June 2011

    Portends of Doom: Laocoön & The Sack of Troy

    Laocoön and his sons
    (Vatican Museum)
    Image courtesy of:

    Nec deinde multo plurimum fama est, quorundam claritati in operibus eximiis obstante numero artificum, quoniam nec unus occupat gloriam nec plures pariter nuncupari possunt, sicut in Laocoonte, qui est in Titi imperatoris domo, opus omnibus et picturae et statuariae artis praeferendum. ex uno lapide eum ac liberos draconumque mirabiles nexus de consilii sententia fecere summi artifices Hagesander et Polydorus et Athenodorus Rhodii. ~ Pliny the Elder (Natural History 36.37)

    (“Beyond these, there are not many sculptors of high repute; for, in the case of several works of very great excellence, the number of artists that have been engaged upon them has proved a considerable obstacle to the fame of each, no individual being able to engross the whole of the credit, and it being impossible to award it in due proportion to the names of the several artists combined. Such is the case with the Laocoön, for example, in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of statuary. It is sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvelous folds. This group was made in concert by three most eminent artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes.”) (Translated from the Latin by John Bostock, M.D., source:, 2009)

    (Photograph by Carla Siqueira ~ July, 2008)
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    It is just possible that, were it not for the first century A.D. Roman copy of Laocoön and his sons (estimated between 20-40 C.E.), unearthed on January 14th, 1506, on the Oppian Hill, under the remains of the Baths of Titus at a site called "Le Capocce," in a vineyard on the Esquiline Hill worked by a certain Felice de Freddis, the tragic story of the Trojan seer Laocoön and his two sons would not have been noticed. The group statue is compelling; the story that inspired it is equally so. (Source: Frischer, B.,, June 1, 2010)

    Embedded in Book II of The Aeneid, is a story that can easily be overlooked or lost in the overall narration of Vergil's epic masterpiece poem. As it is recounted  by the lead character, Aeneas, it tells the tale  of  how the priest and seer of Apollo, Laocoön, in the midst of a sacrificial offering at the altar of Poseidon, warns his fellow Trojans against accepting the giant wooden horse (cleverly devised by Odysseus/Ulysses), left by the crafty Greeks outside of the city walls of Troy (Ilium). The Trojan Horse, as it is now known, was left by the Greeks as a  parting peace offering to the goddess of wisdom and war, Pallas Athene. In an attempt to prove or verify his concern, Laocoön hurls his lance at the horse. This act ensures the displeasure and, worse, the ire of the goddess - and his own, agonizing death. Thus enraged and at her divine behest, vengeful Athene bids twin serpents from the sea, monstrous in size and ferocity, to publicly attack and kill Laocoön and his sons, Antiphas and Thymbraeus, in full view of the Trojan populace.
    (Sources:, undated;, 2011; The Aeneid by Vergil)

    (Photographs by William McClung ~ June, 2010, St. Petersburg, Russia)
    (A copy of the original sculpture)
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    The hapless and heedless Trojans, misinterpreting the killing of Laocoön and his sons as an omen of  godly retribution for his impious sacrilege, foolishly ignore the priest's astute warnings. Unbenknownst to them and to their own detriment, the Trojans open the gates and drag the horse into the midst of their doomed city, completely unaware that lurking in the wooden belly of the beast are armed Greeks. Of all the Trojans, however, only Aeneas, the Trojan prince, correctly interprets the true significance of the omen - Laocoön's demise, strangled along with his two sons by the sea serpents was, in essence, a prompt silencing of the seer by the gods  - and manages to not only save his own life, but also the the lives of his old father, Anchises, his young son, Ascanius (Iulus), and a few of his compatriots by fleeing ahead of the marauding, murdering Greeks who have set Troy afire. (Source: The Aeneid by Vergil)

    (Photographs by William McClung ~ June, 2010, St. Petersburg, Russia)
    (A copy of the original sculpture)
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    Led by Aeneas, these Trojan refugees then embarked on a journey through foreign lands in search of a land of their own in which to found a new Troy and a new race of noble Trojans. Eventually, after seven roaming years, Aeneas and his compatriots who escaped the destruction of Troy by the Greeks, land in Lavinium - modern-day Italy; the ancient Romans always believed that the dynasty founded by Aeneas produced the founders of Rome: Romulus and Remus. And thus, the Romans always claimed their lineage from Aeneas and those first few surviving Trojans. Although the figure of Aeneas was most likely mythical, the intent of Vergil's Aeneid was the glorification of Rome and the greatness of the Roman race; and, by conferring on him a noble heritage through direct descent from Aeneas, to extol the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar.

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    The Aeneid of Vergil ~ Book II:

    Girt with a throng of Ilion's sons,
    Down from the tower Laocoön runs,
    And, "Wretched countrymen," he cries,
    "What monstrous madness blinds your eyes?
    Think you your enemies removed?
    Come presents without wrong
    From Danaans? have you thus approved
    Ulysses, known so long?
    Perchance - who knows? - these planks of deal
    A Grecian ambuscade conceal,
    Or 'tis a pile to o'ervlook the town,
    And pour from high invaders down,
    Or fraud lurks somewhere to destroy:
    Mistrust, mistrust it, men of Troy!
    Whate'er it be, a Greek I fear,
    Though presents in his hand he bear."

    He spoke, and with his arm's full force
    Straight at the belly of the horse
    His mighty spear he cast:
    Quivering it stood: the sharp rebound
    Shook the huge monster: and a sound
    Through all its caverns passed.
    And then, had fate our weal designed
    Nor given us a perverted mind,
    Then had he moved us to deface
    The Greeks' accursed lurking place,
    And Troy had been abiding still,
    And Priam's tower yet crowned the hill...

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    ...But ghastly portents lay behind,
    Our unprophetic souls to blind.
    Laocoön, named as Neptune's priest,
    Was offering up the victim beast,
    When Lo! from Tenedos - I quail,
    E'en now, at the telling of the tale,
    Two monstrous serpents stem the tide,
    And shoreward through the stillness glide.

    Amid the waves they rear their breasts,
    And toss on high their sanguine crests:
    The hind part coils along the deep,
    And undulates with sinuous sweep.
    The lashed spray echoes: now they reach
    The inland belted by the beach,
    And rolling bloodshot eyes of fire,
    Dart their forked tongues, and hiss for ire.

    (Photograph by Ya'ir Aizenman ~ August, 2010)
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    We fly distraught: unswerving they
    Toward Laocoön hold their way;
    First round his two young sons they wreathe,
    And grind their limbs with savage teeth:
    Then, as with arms he comes to aid,
    The wretched father they invade
    And twine in giant folds: twice round
    His stalwart waist their spires are wound,
    Twice round his neck, while over all
    Their heads and crests tower high and tall.

    He strains his strength their knots to tear,
    While gore and slime his fillets smear,
    And to the unregardful skies
    Sends up his agonizing cries:
    A wounded bull such moaning makes,
    When from his neck the axe he shakes,
    Ill-aimed, and from the altar breaks.
    The twin destroyers take their flight
    To Pallas' temple on the height;
    There by the Goddess' feet concealed
    They lie, and nestle 'neath her shield.

    Laocoön detail
    (Photograph by Giulio Menna ~ April, 2010)
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    At once through hapless Ilium's sons
    A shock of feverous horror runs:
    All in Laocoön's death-pangs read
    The just requital of his deed,
    Who dared to harm with impious steel
    Those planks of consecrated deal.
    "The image to its fane!" they cry:
    "So soothe the offended deity."

    Each in the labour claims his share:
    The walls are breached, the town laid bare:
    Wheels 'neath its feet are fixed to glide,
    And round its neck stout ropes are tied:
    So climbs our wall that shape of doom,
    With battle quickening in its womb,
    While youths and maidens sing glad songs,
    And joy to touch the harness thongs.
    It comes, and, glancing terror down,
    Sweeps through the bosom of the town

    (Photograph by Sergey Sosnovskiy ~ November, 2010)
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    O Ilium, city of my love!
    O warlike home of powers above!
    Four times 'twas on the threshold stayed:
    Four times the armour clashed and brayed.
    Yet on we press with passion blind,
    All forethought blotted from our mind,
    Till the dread monster we install
    Within the temple's tower-built wall.
    E'en then Cassandra's prescient voice
    Forewarned us of our fatal choice,
    That prescient voice, which Heaven decreed
    No son of Troy should hear and heed.
    We, careless souls, the city through,
    With festal boughs the fanes bestrew,
    And in such revelry employ
    The last, last day should shine on Troy.

    (Translated into English verse by John Conington)
    (Source: The Aeneid of Virgil, 1867: W. J. Widdleton)

    Laocoön detail
    (Photographs by Rebecca ~ July, 2008)
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    Popularly attributed by Pliny the Elder to be the work of  three contributing Rhodian sculptors, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, shortly after its discovery in January 1506, Pope Julius II (patron of the sculptor and artist Michelangelo) sent Giuliano da Sangallo, his son Francesco, and Michelangelo to see the newly discovered find. Giuliano da Sangallo quickly identified it as the famous group praised by Pliny in his book, Natural History (70s C.E.). Contrary to Pliny's description of the group, it was almost immediately noticed that the Laocoön was not carved from a single block of marble but assembled from several pieces (the figure of the older son and other parts of the group were found separately). Various explanations have been advanced through the centuries but few scholars have doubted that this Laocoön indeed corresponds to the statue group reported by Pliny. (Giuseppe Lugli, author of the 1958 book La Domus Titi e la scopeta del Laocoönte, argues that the Palace of the Emperor Titus was situated on the Quirinal Hill and that the Laocoön must, therefore, have been a copy.) (Sources:, 2011; Frischer, B.,, 2009)

    A couple of months after its discovery, Pope Julius II purchased the Laocoön from Felice de Freddis on March 23rd, 1506; by June of 1506, the group was moved to the Vatican. Pope Julius eventually installed the  Laocoön in the Vatican Belvedere, originally a rectangular garden courtyard placed in the "Villetta di Belvedere"[in] a special space like a chapel," in the central niche in the south wall of the Cortile between Apollo and Venus. In 1511, the group was placed on its new pedestal in the Cortile delle Statue. (Source & quote: Frischer, B.,, 2009)

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    In July 1798, the Laocoön was taken to Paris under the terms of the Treaty of Tolentino (February 1797) and placed in the Musée Central des Arts when it opened on November 9, 1800. The modern arms that had been created for it were removed and left in Rome (throughout the centuries since its discovery, several artists have attempted interpretations - and restorations - for some of the missing pieces of the group. The position of Laocoön's right arm, for instance, was often debated and surmised, as were the missing arms of his two sons and other lost parts). Once in Paris, a competition was held for a new restoration, but no one entered. The Laocoön was thus restored with the plaster arms that the sculptor Girardon had made on returning from his journey to Rome at the end of the Seventeenth Century. As Pinelli notes regarding the Laocoön's (right) arm, recalling Johann Joachim Winckelmann's judgment: "this arm, entangled by the snake, must have been folded over the head of the statue,yet it looks as if the arm folded above the head would have in some way made the work wrong."

    With the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon's defeat on June 18th, 1815,  the Laocoön (along with other works of art looted by the French from Roman and other collections) began its journey home from Paris in October 1815 and arrived at the Vatican on January 4th, 1816. In February, it was reinstalled in the Belvedere, though not into its original niche, but into the spot formerly occupied by Venus Felix.  

    Then at last, in 1905, a wonderful discovery: several hundred meters from where the statue group had originally been unearthed over four hundred years earlier, Laocoön's arm was found in a sculptor's shop on the Via Labicana in Rome. (Quote and source: Frischer, B.,, 2009)

    Drawing after the Laocoön
    (Sketch of the Laocoön Group by Peter Paul Rubens ~ ca.1601-02)
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    Suggested readings:

    The Aeneid of Virgil (1867), by Publius Vergilius Maro, translation by John Conington: W. J. Widdleton

    Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1962), by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Bobbs-Merrill

    Laocoön: The Influence of the Group Since Its Discovery (1967), by Margarete Bieber: Wayne State University Press

    Laocoön's Body and the Aesthetics of Pain (1992), by Simon Richter: Wayne State University Press

    Art and Civilization (1993), by Edward Lucie-Smith: H. N. Abrams