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Transcript: 631: So a Monkey and a Horse Walk Into a Bar

Transcript

631: So a Monkey and a Horse Walk Into a Bar

Originally aired Nov 10, 2017

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue.

Ira Glass

So a horse walks into a movie theater, gets his popcorn and a Diet Coke, and sits down in one of the few seats that are left. He realizes right away there's a cow sitting directly in front of him wearing this huge hat, totally inappropriate to wear indoors, one of the big, tall Stetson hats, completely blocking his view. So the horse taps the cow on the shoulder. Excuse me?

Cow doesn't budge. No response at all. So again, the horse taps him on the shoulder. Excuse me? The cow is like ice. He's like a statue. So OK, one more time. He taps him on the shoulder. Hey, can you take off your hat? Cow turns around. And he's like, oh, my god, it's a talking horse.

Not the greatest joke in the world. But what I love about that joke is that for once in the joke, the animals acknowledge that we should not be having animals talking in jokes. That's the actual punchline of the joke. That's the premise.

We as human beings are so constantly blurring the line between animals and people in kids' stories, and movies, and the way we talk to our pets. We can't help ourselves. And we do it so much we even have jokes where the animals call us out on it.

And I bring this up because that's our show today. Today in our program, we have two stories of human beings not just trying to blur the line between people and animals but trying to erase that line completely. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us, people.

Act One. Monkey in the Middle.

Ira Glass

Act One, Monkey in the Middle. So there's some places where animals almost never go, places that are designed by humans for humans. This act ends up in a place like that, but it starts about as far from there as you can get. Dana Chivvis explains.

Dana Chivvis

Our story begins deep in the rainforests of Indonesia on an island called Sulawesi. A few years ago, the photographer David Slater traveled there from his home in England to photograph a troop of monkeys.

David Slater

I'd gone a whole day just following them into the thick of the forest, through the tangles and the vines and the muddy undergrowth and the cobwebs and the poisonous snakes.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, man.

David Slater

You name it, I had to go through it. And it was just so amazing just to be like a monkey. I was a monkey honestly. I had met monkeys before, like I said, all over the world. And I know a little bit about monkey etiquette and showing your teeth-- not to show your teeth, not to stare them in the face. Yeah, this is one of the secrets, actually, of being able to get good photography is making the animal relaxed.

Dana Chivvis

There was one shot David really wanted to get-- a full face portrait with a wide angle lens. But every time he got close to taking the shot, the monkeys would look away. So after two days of these near misses, he changed strategies.

He put his camera on a tripod and threw down some cookies to try to entice the monkeys over. He was hoping they'd get curious about the camera and start pushing the button themselves. They were curious. They were not pushing the button. So David attached a cable with a button on the end of it to the camera. The monkeys liked that. They started playing with it, putting it in their mouths, fighting over it.

David Slater

And of course when it got pressed, they automatically looked into the lens. And the fact that it's going ch, ch, ch, ch, ch, it's monkey language.

Dana Chivvis

They fired off a few shots. David reviewed them. They weren't bad, a little out of focus. So he adjusted the settings and put the camera back. The monkeys were into the whole project by now.

In fact, they were getting a little too excited. They almost knocked the tripod over. So David laid down on his stomach and stretched his arm out to steady the tripod with two fingers. A few other monkeys noticed their strange new friend lying full out on the floor and hopped onto his back.

David Slater

So I had monkeys on my back whilst I'm trying to keep my camera from being knocked, while some monkeys, or two or three monkeys, are trying to play with the button. And all of a sudden, I heard the camera going off. And I didn't dare. I knew that if I looked up at them, they would probably look away. So I let them click it, click it, click it. And I sort of very carefully looked up to see them pulling these amazing contorted faces, like howling mouths, and the smiling mouth, and more besides.

Dana Chivvis

The monkeys were taking selfies-- amazing, beautiful, weird selfies.

David Slater

I just wanted it to go on forever really.

Dana Chivvis

When David finally stood up and checked their work, he saw that the shots weren't just regular, old, everyday selfies. They weren't that guy at the gym taking pictures of his muscles in the mirror. These were next level, transcendentally good. They somehow escape the bounds of selfie and enter the realm of art.

There was one shot in particular that caught David's eye. The monkey's face is very close to the camera looking straight into the lens. It's hair perfectly coiffed. Eyes friendly, big and round and amber. All of which are nice details, and details are important. But the focus of this selfie, the main event, is the monkey's self-satisfied grin-- teeth that are too big for its mouth with gaps between them, a real grin, like he knows he's smiling for a picture.

David Slater

I just saw it on the front cover of National Geographic or something like that. And I just thought, I need to get this to my agents.

Dana Chivvis

David and his agents put out a press release about the selfies. They thought they could grab people's attention with the photos and then use the opportunity to send a message about conservation. And also they wanted to sell the pictures, of course.

These monkeys, crested black macaques, are considered to be critically endangered, which is just one step before extinct in the wild. They've lost 80% of their population in the last 40 years because of humans, which is why David went to Indonesia in the first place. He wanted to take photographs that would inspire us humans into caring more about these little monkeys, to stop killing them. The selfies didn't end up on the cover of National Geographic, but the British tabloids were interested. The Daily Mail was the first newspaper to publish the story about the selfies. This was in 2011.

David Slater

Within an hour, it was all over your country, Australia, Germany. I was getting emails everywhere. My inbox went crazy. People wanting to know the story, wanted to use the image. Literally, my phone was hot with calls.

Dana Chivvis

Over the next few months, the monkey selfies sold pretty well. David was licensing them to publications and selling prints. And then one day, he goes online to research the monkeys.

David Slater

I started to just search crested black macaque one day in the Google. And there was Wikipedia, top of the list as always. I clicked on that, and there's my image. And I thought, where have they got this from? Have they been to Caters News Agency and paid a license fee for it?

Dana Chivvis

They had not.

David Slater

So I sent them a letter. Sent them a letter saying, I think you're using this without a license fee. Could you show me one, or would you pay? They wrote back, saying, this image we believe is public domain.

Dana Chivvis

In other words, anyone could use it without David's permission, for free. To David, that was just stealing. He makes a living from selling his pictures. So it was really helpful to have one that was such a hit. But now, anyone could download it from Wikipedia and hang it on their wall or print it in their publication. Wikipedia's opinion is that information on the internet should be free. And David soon learned that they had decided the selfie was in the public domain--

David Slater

Because the monkey pressed the button.

Dana Chivvis

So the monkey was technically the creator of the photo. But in Wikipedia's assessment, monkeys can't own copyrights. Hence, the photo was free and fair for all to use. It belonged to the internet. David was baffled. He thought--

David Slater

Well, surely I've got the copyright. I set it all up. I've got the intent. I had the creativity. All the monkey did is press the button.

Dana Chivvis

Wikipedia includes a note below the photo, which reads, quote, "This file is in the public domain because as the work of a non-human animal it has no human author in whom copyright is vested." This decision of Wikipedia's, to declare the photo public domain, that was the opening volley in the monkey selfie battle to come. It was the moment when mother nature was shoved aside, and human nature, with its overstuffed baggage of laws and opinions and domination, took a seat.

David went on the offensive, assembled a team of lawyers, studied up on copyright law. He even looked into finding venture capitalists to fund a lawsuit against Wikipedia. Wikimedia-- that's the foundation that owns Wikipedia-- they just gave him the finger. This was at their big conference in London. It's called Wikimania. One of the founders, Jimmy Wales, was there.

David Slater

I soon got to know, from the good Wikipedians out there, that Jimmy Wales and many of the delegates were mocking me by printing out my image on great big boards that were placed all over the conference facility. And Jimmy Wales and various other people were encouraging the delegates to take selfies with my selfie.

Dana Chivvis

That's just mean.

David Slater

There's quite a few of these images around the place on the internet, but the one with Jimmy Wales is particularly odious.

Dana Chivvis

Wait. I want to look that up really fast here. Hang on.

David Slater

Yeah.

Dana Chivvis

Jimmy Wales monkey selfie.

David Slater

Jimmy Wales Wikimania.

Dana Chivvis

Here we go. Oh, yeah. Look at that. If you type Jimmy Wales monkey selfie into the Google, you'll find a photo of an adult male human holding his phone up in one hand and the monkey selfie in the other right next to his face. And he's got his lips puckered up like a duck.

Dana Chivvis

He looks ridiculous. Now, is he-- is that face he's making-- is that--

David Slater

Well, it's like a duck face. I don't know where that comes from.

Dana Chivvis

I don't either.

David Slater

But a lot of people seem to do this duck lips.

Dana Chivvis

How did you feel when you saw that Jimmy Wales selfie with your monkey selfie?

David Slater

So angry.

Dana Chivvis

David was fighting Goliath. And then one day, the battle took on epic new proportions. It was like King Kong walked onto the scene, and now David had to battle him too. The dispute with Wikimedia had generated some press in the UK. And one day, David's wife was online.

David Slater

There it was. Photographer being sued by a monkey.

Dana Chivvis

You found out the monkey was suing you because your wife found it online.

David Slater

Yeah. Just as I found out Wikipedia was stealing it because I stumbled across it, I also stumbled across the fact that I was being sued by a monkey.

Dana Chivvis

The monkey in the selfie photos was suing him for copyright infringement with the help of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. David called his lawyers and said--

David Slater

Look. Have you seen what's happening now? What can we do? And they said, Dave, this is clearly an April Fools'. Somebody is having you on. They said, just sit back. Let's see what happens. But do not respond to it. And you can't-- you've got nothing to worry about until you get served papers. Let's see what happens.

Dana Chivvis

Right.

David Slater

And sure enough, one afternoon I was at home. And there's a knock at the door. And a man in a black suit was standing in my porch way. I opened the door. He thrust a large A4-sized white envelope in my hand. And he says, I've been instructed to pass these to you. So I said, what are they?

And I opened it in front of him. And I took it out. And I said to him, do you know what this is? And he said, not really. I said, I'm being sued by a monkey. And I showed him. And he started laughing. And we had a little chat. Because he was just a local from a local firm down the road from me. And he went on his merry way.

Dana Chivvis

I've read the complaint. It's kind of weird. You flip through pages and pages of legalese about copyright law. And then at the end when you get to the exhibits, it's just a bunch of monkey selfies, grinning, serious, howling monkey selfies-- like a legal document put together by Curious George. The monkey, whose name is Naruto, was suing David through his next friends, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The case is officially called Naruto, a Crested Macaque, by and through his Next Friends, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., v David John Slater, an Individual. In legal parlance, next friend is a status like guardian. When someone can't represent themselves in court, the next friend can step in for them.

David Slater

That's just the same as if it was a baby or a disabled adult who couldn't speak or represent himself.

Dana Chivvis

I see.

David Slater

That's not unusual in human law.

Dana Chivvis

PETA has a reputation for pulling stunts to attract attention to the plight of animals. Once, they dumped horse manure on the sidewalk outside Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in London after a guest on his cooking show made a dish with horse meat. They made a comic book called Your Mommy Kills Animals and then handed it out to moms who were wearing fur coats at performances of the Nutcracker. They campaigned to change the word fish to sea kittens so that people would associate seafood with their adorable kitty cats and stop eating them-- the fish, I mean. But Jeff Kerr-- he's the general counsel to PETA-- he says this monkey selfie case is not one of those stunts.

Jeff Kerr

We first saw the monkey selfie in approximately 2014 when the dispute between Mr. Slater and Wikimedia became international news. Our view was immediately that Naruto, who created the photograph, should own the copyright to it.

Dana Chivvis

Jeff saw the dispute as this photographer wants to sue Wikimedia, and Wikimedia is claiming the photo is in the public domain. But who's standing up for the monkey?

Jeff Kerr

That's what the law is. And our argument, very simply, is that that should apply equally to him, even though he simply happens not to have been born human.

Dana Chivvis

But certainly the monkey didn't think like, now this is great. I've got a camera in my hands. I'm going to snap a couple frames and update my Bumble profile with whatever I get. The monkey's not thinking of it as, I'm taking a photograph here.

Jeff Kerr

But that's not required under the copyright law. All that's required is that-- the copyright law simply provides that the author, the creator of the image, is entitled to own it. It doesn't say that the author has to know that he or she is making a photograph. If somebody gives you their camera and asks you to take a photograph, and you arrange them and you take the photograph, under those circumstances, you technically would own the copyright.

Dana Chivvis

There are like 20 French tourists that I need to sue.

PETA is an American organization. And the case was to be heard in federal court in San Francisco. David talked to his lawyers in England. And they told him he needed to hire an American attorney and fight this.

David Slater

I was advised by talking to these attorneys that I really did need to follow this through, because there would be a chance, an outside chance albeit, of it just going the monkey's way if I didn't challenge it.

Dana Chivvis

The monkey would win?

David Slater

Yeah. Well, it was in the court in California. And everybody has the opinion that anything can happen there. I don't know how true that is. But I was being told I can't take that risk. But of course--

Dana Chivvis

Have you been to California?

David Slater

Well, no.

Dana Chivvis

It's kind of true.

David hired Andrew Dhuey to represent him.

Dana Chivvis

Do you remember when you first heard about the case? Was it when-- did David call you? Is that how you first heard about it?

Andrew Dhuey

No, I read about it. And I don't remember where I read about it. But I got pretty excited when I saw that it was filed in San Francisco federal court because I'm right across the bay in Berkeley. So I thought, wow, I would be perfect for this case.

Dana Chivvis

Andrew is an intellectual property lawyer. Works for himself. And when he read about the case, he reached out to David to ask if he could take it.

Dana Chivvis

Why did you think you were perfect for the case?

Andrew Dhuey

Well, I think the case kind of lent itself to making monkey puns and things like that. And I just thought that would be-- I kind of like to do that. I like to joke around. I don't know if you've seen my LinkedIn profile. I'm in a Chippendales costume.

Dana Chivvis

For his LinkedIn picture, Andrew chose a shot of himself wearing eyeglasses, a bow tie, and nothing else.

Andrew Dhuey

All these years-- I've been practicing for like 25 years, and I've never been able to joke around in anything I filed in court. So I was like, hey, this would actually be a case where I could do that.

Dana Chivvis

That said, he's a real intellectual property lawyer. He's defended the toy company Wham-O, won an important case against Panasonic. And for Andrew, the case was a one banana problem. He answered Naruto's complaint with a motion to dismiss the case. Monkeys, he said, do not have standing to sue in federal court.

His argument is based on a precedent set in 2004 in a case called Cetacean Community v George W. Bush, in which all the world's whales, porpoises, and dolphins sued the president. All the world's whales, porpoises, and dolphins argued that the military's use of underwater sonar was hurting them, changing their natural behaviors, like eating and mating. Basically, sonar is just an incredibly loud sound wave.

So cetaceans, that's a scientific word for a category of marine mammal-- cetaceans flee when they hear sonar, sometimes even beating themselves to get away. In that case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that unless Congress explicitly states otherwise, animals do not have standing to sue in federal court. So that's the case Andrew pointed to in his defense.

But PETA hired an outside attorney to represent the monkey Naruto in court, a guy named David Schwarz. This guy, Schwarz, he comes from a fancy law firm in Los Angeles known for intellectual property law. Most of his case was an intellectual property argument that Naruto was the legal owner of the copyright because he was the one who made the photo.

But PETA also saw this case as an opportunity to nudge the law and set a precedent. They disagreed with the ruling in the cetacean case. They believe animals should have recourse in court.

Woman

Calling civil matter 15-4324, Naruto v David John Slater, et al. Counsel, please come forward and state your appearance.

Dana Chivvis

This is a recording from the hearing in the federal district court in San Francisco. The judge asked Schwarz if he has an example of an animal ever being granted a copyright.

Judge

In the vast history of common law prior to the Copyright Act, was there-- do you have an example of where an animal was granted a copyright?

David Schwarz

I do not have an example where an animal was granted a copyright. We could make the counterargument as to how other humans were denied protection under that law due to the color of their skin. One could see the contradiction in a statutory interpretation where we see that problem in the antebellum days. But when you look at the cornerstones of--

Judge

That's quite a stretch, Mr. Schwarz.

Dana Chivvis

Just to pause on this for a moment. Yes, Schwarz is comparing a monkey's lack of copyright to chattel slavery, which is offensive and seems weirdly blind to the racist history of comparing black people and monkeys. Even Schwarz seems uncomfortable with it. He's saying that denying a monkey the right to own property because of its species is the same as denying humans the right to own property because of the color of their skin.

Judge

That's quite a stretch, Mr. Schwarz.

David Schwarz

Pardon me?

Judge

That's quite a stretch. But go ahead.

David Schwarz

And I certainly wouldn't make it the centerpiece of any argument here today. But it is fair to say that before the adoption of the 14th Amendment, the concepts of property ownership in the area of patents foreclosed the ability of a slave to claim ownership to a patent.

Dana Chivvis

What's going on here is that PETA sees the monkey selfie case in the context of a larger end game. If they can get a court to agree that denying a monkey the right to own property is the same as denying a human the right to own property, that opens the door for the legal system to completely reconsider the legal status of animals. An animal would be declared an owner of property instead of just being property.

This isn't the first time PETA has tried an argument like this in the courts. In 2011, they sued SeaWorld on behalf of five orcas at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego. Orcas are huge, 20 to 30 feet long. And they weigh about six tons. They typically travel around 75 miles in a day.

PETA said that keeping these orcas at SeaWorld in small concrete tanks against their will to perform for human entertainment, that was slavery. PETA lost that case. But SeaWorld has agreed to end its captive orca program after the last of their 27 orcas dies.

To understand why PETA is pursuing cases like these, you have to consider two very different pictures about how the world works. In one of them, humans are at the top of the food chain-- either because God wanted it that way, or because we figured out how to use our opposable thumbs so well that we could hunt and gather, and till the soil, and build cities, and create copyright laws. We make the rules for everything else in this world.

And the other picture-- and this is the one PETA has hanging on their wall-- humans are not at the top. Humans are just another mammal walking around on earth. And if we're going to give ourselves certain rights as humans, we should extend those rights to our fellow animals.

Dana Chivvis

You guys are saying humans are not superior to other animals.

Jeff Kerr

We're not. We are just another member of the animal kingdom. And it doesn't-- it's just prejudice and hubris that prevents us many times from seeing that.

Dana Chivvis

This is Jeff Kerr again, the general counsel to PETA.

Jeff Kerr

That property status is something that we think is just an abomination. Like Naruto, these animals are feeling, sentient beings. They should be entitled to fundamental legal rights beyond simply food, water, veterinary care, and shelter.

Dana Chivvis

This idea that animals should have recognized, fundamental legal rights is not unprecedented. Three years ago in Argentina, a judge granted a habeas corpus petition filed on behalf of an orangutan at a zoo in Buenos Aires. She was being held in a tiny, crappy cage. The judge decided the orangutan had basic rights as a non-human person, including the right to freedom. And in New York state, an attorney is fighting to get the courts to recognize that two captive chimps, Tommy and Kiko, are non-human persons deserving of legal rights, just like corporations get.

The thing is-- David Slater, the photographer who's getting sued by the monkey, he agrees with PETA on this point. In fact, he used to defend PETA to his friends when they grumbled about the stunts. David even worked with them once on a campaign to protect wild hogs near his home in England.

David Slater

That's one of the greatest shames on them is that they've attacked somebody who is trying to achieve the same goal as they are. Saving animals from suffering is a very noble cause. But I think sometimes they get carried away with their power.

Dana Chivvis

Did the fact that this group that's sort of on your side was the one kind of attacking you or opposing you, did that make you stop ever and think, well, now, wait a minute? Do they have a point?

David Slater

No. I've had to think very carefully about what my philosophy is. Because the book, my Wildlife Personalities book, that's part of the court case, I argue for animals having more fundamental rights, like dignity, and access to their ancestral forests, and access to food. So I am an animal rights advocate.

Dana Chivvis

Naruto and PETA lost that first round in court. Andrew Dhuey called David to tell him the news.

David Slater

We just took it very casually. We just said, yeah, of course. Of course that's going to get thrown out. Andrew Dhuey said this all along to me. There's no way that this is going to go anywhere.

Dana Chivvis

And then the monkey appealed.

David Schwarz

Good morning, Your Honors. And may it please the court, David Schwarz on behalf of the appellant.

Dana Chivvis

The case went before three judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That's the court that ruled against Trump's travel ban twice this year. These judges are not messing around. Schwarz made it 30 seconds into his oral argument before one of the judges interrupted him.

Judge

Mr. Schwarz, before we get there, there's a preliminary question which I'd like you to address.

Dana Chivvis

At this stage, the attorneys and the judges are going to debate case law. And the judges have a lot of questions for Schwarz-- the first being, how are you qualified to be Naruto's next friend? You don't know the monkey. And then a few minutes later, Judge Randy Smith interrupts Schwarz to grill him about injury. That's the legal term for harm or damage.

Judge Randy Smith

Well, what's your injury? There's no way to acquire or hold some money which the copyright would give. There's no losses to reputation. There's no even allegation that the copyright could have benefited somehow Naruto. What financial benefits apply to him? There's nothing.

David Schwarz

But, Your Honor, the redressability issue doesn't necessarily turn on the compensation. It could be--

Judge Randy Smith

Well, I want to know what then is the injury. There's no case that says copyright infringement itself is injury. So what injury do we have?

Dana Chivvis

Whatever the legal merits of this case are, there's just something really enjoyable about hearing lawyers throw around terms like redressability and compensation and injury when they're talking about a monkey.

Judge Randy Smith

I mean, if you give me a case that says copyright infringement itself is injury, I'll believe you. But I don't think you've given me one. What's your injury?

Dana Chivvis

The judges and Schwarz volley over case law and legal precedent and the definition of author for 20 minutes before handing the floor to David's lawyer, Andrew Dhuey. And after two years of research and legal filings and oral arguments, Dhuey finally gets his wish to make a monkey joke in court.

Andrew Dhuey

Monkey see, monkey sue will not do in federal court.

Dana Chivvis

After that, his oral arguments can pretty much be summed up as, you should throw this case out. And can you please make PETA pay my legal fees? Once Dhuey is done, Angela Dunning gets up. She's the codefendant's attorney. PETA also sued the self-publishing book company that David had used. So Angela Dunning gets up to deliver her defense, which is also pretty straightforward.

Angela Dunning

Naruto can't benefit financially from his work. He's a monkey.

Dana Chivvis

David Slater wasn't in court in San Francisco that day. He didn't want to spend the money to travel all the way to California from Wales. But he watched the whole hearing online.

David Slater

When I watched it-- and you see three judges there. And then one attorney comes up, and then my attorney comes up, Andrew and then Angela, and they started talking about monkeys. It made it real all of a sudden.

Dana Chivvis

That, yes, he was being sued by a monkey. Naruto didn't make it to the hearing either. He stayed in the rainforest in Indonesia. And to my knowledge, nobody asked him what he thought of all this. After two years, the humans managed to figure things out on their own. They told the appellate court they didn't want it to rule in the case after all.

And in September, David and PETA announced they'd reached a settlement. The details of the settlement are confidential. So I can't tell you much about it. But here's what I do know. David Slater still has the monkey selfie copyright registered in his name in two countries. And he agreed to donate 25% of the proceeds of the photos to protect the crested macaques.

About Wikipedia, they've still got the monkey selfie up there for anyone to download. They still claim it's in the public domain. David will have to sue them to get it taken down, which he says he plans to do.

There's just one other thing that should be mentioned about Naruto. There were a bunch of monkeys around when the selfies were being taken that day. And PETA consulted with the primatologist who works with those crested black macaques. She's the one who identified Naruto as the monkey in the famous selfie. But David says that's not right.

David Slater

Naruto is a male. I distinctly remember it being a female. I distinctly remember that pink rump which the female macaques have.

Dana Chivvis

Basically what you're saying is is that Naruto is making a fraudulent claim himself.

David Slater

Yes. It's the wrong monkey in court.

Dana Chivvis

He's taking credit for an artistic work that was actually made by a female monkey.

David Slater

Yeah. And I think the feminists amongst us should start to protest.

Dana Chivvis

I'm sure she's not the first lady monkey to have this kind of experience.

It's in the nature of both humans and monkeys to horse around in front of cameras. But it's a uniquely human characteristic to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, years of our lives, to go to court over it.

Ira Glass

Dana Chivvis is one of the producers of our show. Coming up-- our first act was about a monkey horsing around. Next up, we have a horse monkeying around. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio. When our program continues.

This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme in today's show, So a Monkey and a Horse Walk Into a Bar. Today we have stories of people trying to completely erase the line between animal and human.

Act Two. If Wishes Were Horses.

Ira Glass

We've arrived at act two of our program. Act two, If Wishes Were Horses. So there was a thing that we were interested in for this week's show that's at the heart of this new short piece of fiction by Amy Bonnaffons. Here it is. This is an excerpt from a longer story read by two actors, Grace Gummer and Geraldine Hughes. Quick warning that this story acknowledges the existence of sex.

Woman 1

Every morning we meet in the kitchen and unsheathe our needles. My roommate Serena delicately peels down her underwear. I count to three, hold her hip to steady her trembling frame, then jab, thrusting the handle until the fluid disappears.

Then it's my turn. We're in this together, at least for now. The two needles look identical, although their contents are different. We have different goals. Serena wants to become a mother. I want to become a horse.

Woman 2

What does it mean to be a horse? First, it means not being a person-- no credit cards, no fad diets, no existential questions, no more boring meetings or family dinners, no political allegiances or disappointments, no responsibility to anyone but yourself. How do I become one? It's quite simple. State your desire in writing, and we'll take it from there.

Is it expensive? No. Why not? Because there's not yet sufficient demand for the procedure. All the more reason for you to try before it becomes pricey and exclusive. Right now, it costs less than a Pilates vacation in Tulum.

Woman 1

I wanted something human existence couldn't offer. As I neared my 40th birthday, I felt increasingly constricted by daily postures-- sitting in a chair at my desk, cocking my head with feigned interest at a party, stirring spaghetti sauce over the stove. I started taking expensive vacations to engage in extreme physical challenges-- mountain climbing, skydiving, snowboarding.

These pursuits all induced a feeling of mastery and freedom, but only after learning a complex set of rules regarding harnesses, buckles, and straps. I wanted to do away with constraints entirely. Then I learned about becoming a horse.

Woman 2

How does the process work? The process now known as equinification was discovered by Janus Belacek, a Hungarian doctor, transforming human DNA into horse DNA. The process requires only a simple series of shots.

Why does it only work on women? We're not sure, but we think it's because they want it to. Where do these horse women live? Atalanta Ranch, which occupies an entire island off the coast of Florida, and has been built expressly for this purpose.

What do the horses on the ranch look like? They look like horses, tall, graceful animals designed for running and grazing, muscles rippling beneath a shiny coat of fur, hair flying in the wind. They look like they're doing nothing other than actively being themselves.

Woman 1

Of course, I went to visit. The ranch was just as they described. The horses looked healthy and vibrant. Their hooves pounded across the plains making a sound like rainfall. "Do you think this is some kind of modern version of the lesbian separatist utopia?" I mused that night to Kathy, one of the other women on the tour, over gin and tonics at the island's guesthouse. "Except not just for lesbians?"

She laughed. "Old fantasies die hard." She gave me a meaningful look. "Can I ask something? What's your reason?" "Boredom," I said without hesitation. She nodded. "What about you?" I said. "What are you escaping?"

She replied with a long story about her body, which had endured nearly every tried and true form of female trauma-- abuse, rape, abortion, endometriosis, hysterectomy. "I guess," she said, "I want a different body with a clean slate." They kept refilling our drinks without our asking. And soon we were very drunk.

Somehow, we found ourselves in my room stripping off our clothes. This sex was like a competition. Who could manage to escape her body using the other's body first? Later, embarrassed, we turned away from each other. Just then I sensed movement behind the window. I got up stark naked and pulled aside the curtain.

One of the horses was standing right outside, staring in with her dark liquid eyes. I felt the bed creak behind me then heard Kathy gasp. She saw it too. The horse gave a deep, slow nod. Then she turned and disappeared into the night.

Woman 2

When I become a horse, will I still have human consciousness? You will simultaneously be your human self and not be your human self when you become a horse. You will think the same thoughts, but in a horsey manner.

Your personality will have the same attributes but horsily expressed. Your thoughts will take on a horsey cadence. Your feelings will pulse and throb with thick, horsey blood. We cannot guarantee that you will continue to inhabit your human identity in any recognizable way.

Woman 1

Serena went to the doctor and found out that her second attempt at IVF had failed. "We don't say failed," the doctor said kindly. "We say unsuccessful." "It's almost as bad," said Serena. Serena and I became friends in a PhD program. I dropped out after our third year when I realized that the most pleasurable part of my life was my summer waitressing job.

But it got old. I tried a few other restaurant jobs then finally settled for freelance copyediting, for which my half degree apparently qualified me. Serena graduated with honors and won an award for her thesis on 18th century women's novels. But after graduation, despite her accolades, she couldn't find a job.

I encouraged her but privately ascribed her failure to her meekness with strangers. In the end, she got a job teaching English at an all-girls high school. To her surprise, the girls recognized her quiet power and obeyed her, surrounded her with a mute halo of reverence. She became one of the school's most beloved teachers. Yet no matter how deeply the work absorbed her, she always felt like a failure.

Woman 2

Isn't this really a glorified form of suicide? We prefer to think of it in the opposite way, as a kind of birth. But your friends and relatives may not see it this way. You may have to prepare them for your transformation as you might for your death. Will I need to make out a will then? Yes. You may not bring anything with you to Atalanta Ranch beside your body.

Woman 1

It started happening right after my 40th birthday in June. I woke up in the middle of the night with a strange feeling in my feet-- not pain exactly, but pressure so intense it absorbed my whole attention. I cried out in surprise, and Serena rushed into my room.

And then we pulled back the covers to see that my feet had been replaced by perfect horse hooves, black and stone-like, cloven in the middle. As predicted by the pamphlets, I felt disgust then wonder. The pamphlet said--

Woman 2

The transformation of your own body will be a spectacle arousing both revulsion and awe.

Woman 1

I got up and tried to walk around. Serena and I both giggled manically. My hooves were tender, and it hurt to walk on them, like when my feet used to ache at the end of a night on high heels. I felt lopsided and clumsy. These hooves weren't made to carry a bipedal organism.

But hearing their clop, clop, clop around the floors of the apartment, I grew excited. We couldn't sleep the rest of the night. We stayed up rereading the informational pamphlets, speculating on how quickly the rest of me would start to turn. As if by magic, by some prearranged signal of the gods, Serena peed on a stick the next morning and discovered she was pregnant.

Woman 2

Are the horses tame or wild? The horses at the ranch are wild. We provide nothing but acreage for running and grazing. We do nothing to break them. There are no harnesses, no bridles, no whips. Among other purposes, the ranch exists in order to cultivate wildness.

What is wildness? And may wildness be cultivated? Isn't that a contradiction? That is what we're trying to find out. All we can say is either you personally resonate with this desire, or you don't. Either you like the idea of shaking off your restraints and are willing to give up everything you know in the attempt to do so, or you're like most people, comforted by language, by clothing, by laws.

Woman 1

Walking around town with my hooves, I gained a new kind of attention. Women regarded me with disgust or envy, men with disgust or desire. My first night out at a bar with some friends, I was the object of many stares. But I sensed a particular heat coming from one man at a corner table.

He wore the distinct, recognizable look of a graduate student-- floppy hair, and a lanky frame, and a too-large cotton hoodie. Every time I looked over at him, he turned away, red-faced. Eventually, when he approached the bar to get another drink, I addressed him.

"Hey," I said. He blushed again, flicked his eyes down to my hooves, then back up, then blushed deeper. "Hey," he said. "Am I the first you've seen?" "Yeah," he said. "Sorry, I guess I was staring." "It's OK." "Is that-- is that the only part of you that's--?" "So far, yes."

He nodded, swallowed. I grabbed a pen from my purse, scribbled my number on a napkin. I wasn't particularly attracted to him, but I had been horny since my hooves had appeared. "My friends and I are about to head to another bar. But if you want to meet up later, text me. I'll be free by midnight."

Later that night, in his spartan studio apartment, he stared at me as if he'd never seen a woman before. I felt his gaze lingering on the spot where the slope of my ankle gave way to the ashen density of the hoof. But as he reached out to touch me, a violent, molten feeling welled up within me. I recognized it as rage.

But it was too late. It had already happened. I had kicked him. He jerked backward, his hands to his face. Blood seeped out between his fingers. He said something or tried to, but all I heard was, [GROANING]. The old me would have gone and fetched him a towel, called him a taxi, accompanied him to the hospital.

But the sight of his bloody face only increased my rage, tinged it with contempt for his weakness. I fought the urge to kick him again, harder. It was all I could do to get out of the house. I hurried down the stairs of his walk-up, pushed open the door, and ran through the streets of Somerville, awkward on my hooved limbs but propelled by the heat his near touch had unleashed.

I ran past university gates, over the bridge, through Boston at full sprint. At some point, I realized my awkward gait had been replaced by something graceful and rhythmic and, well, horse-like. I had stopped noticing the strangeness of my hooves. I was using them as they were meant to be used. I was cantering.

By the time I approached my own neighborhood, I'd slowed to a trot, but I felt elated. My very nature was changing. I was becoming wild. The man's touch had been a bridle, and I'd kicked it away.

Woman 2

What symptoms might I experience during my transformation? The same symptoms you would experience during any transformation-- mood swings, growing pains, strained relationships, the occasional blinding toothache. To find a centaurite support group near you, consult our website.

Woman 1

Over the next few months, the change slowly inched upwards. My human ankles became horse ankles. I grew coarse, caramel-colored hair on my legs. My femurs stretched and thickened. Occasionally, I felt sharp pains in my bones, growing pains. But other than that, the physical transition felt invigorating.

My rage, however, only grew. I was energized by aimless, volcanic fury 100% of the time. Perhaps I wasn't changing my nature but recognizing something that had always been there. My boredom had never really been boredom but rather a deep, deep anger.

Where had this come from? Did everyone have it? My anger was obvious now to everyone I met. I responded to routine rudenesses, catcalling, crowding on the subway by snarling, flashing my eyes, baring my teeth. People's eyes grew wide. They stepped back. They treated me like the dangerous animal I was. I loved it.

Serena, too, was changing. The pregnancy had rooted in her body, and she blossomed. The first sonogram showed not one but two fetuses in her belly. Every moment she wasn't teaching, she was at the computer researching the development of the strange creatures inside of her.

I, on the other hand, found myself unable to sit still. I'd sit down, get through one paragraph, then feel it kick through me, the wildness, the aimless rage. Then one evening, I got so frustrated with my work that I stood up and kicked a hole right through the kitchen cabinet.

Serena appeared in the doorway, pale, one hand on the swell of her belly. We stared at each other, gripped by the same mute question. How much longer could we go on like this sharing the same space? That night, lying in bed, I heard the unmistakable sound of muffled weeping.

I got up, knocked lightly on Serena's door. I walked in, sat on the edge of the bed, lightly stroked her hair. "What's the matter?" I said. "Nothing," she choked out. But before I could respond, she corrected herself. "I'm terrified. This is the biggest thing I've ever done, and I'm doing it totally alone."

"You have your family," I said. "You have your friends." "Yeah, except for you." "You can come visit me," I said. "Bring your kids to the ranch." "Tell them what?"

"This is your aunt Cassie. She was restless and turned herself into an animal." "That's supposed to be an example of some sort? Things get hard, and you just leave? Just peace out of human life entirely?"

In the greenish light coming through the window, Serena seemed distinct and alien, like someone I had never seen, really seen, before. The protrusion of her belly was impossible to ignore. There were two whole people in there. For the first time, the terrifying marvel of this fact hit me full force. Perhaps her transformation was even stranger, even wilder than mine.

Woman 2

Is the change reversible? No change is ever reversible. What happens if the process doesn't work on me? You'll get your money back. And we may ask you to participate in an ongoing scientific study of long-term centaurite health outcomes, for compensation. But you may decline.

That's it? It's not possible for us to do more. Our hope is that the centaurites living among us will be viewed not as freaks or as failures, but as courageous-- female animals who gathered up all the uncertainties of their existence into one single, massive risk.

Woman 1

I went for a checkup with the Atalanta doctor. The visit was routine, had been scheduled for months. But I was nervous. My progress since the last visit seemed to have stalled. She examined me all over and said "hmm" a lot. I grew increasingly worried.

When I got home from the doctors, I saw that yet another delivery of baby stuff-- hand-me-downs from friends, large Amazon boxes full of equipment-- had arrived at the apartment and completely taken over the living room. To reach the couch, I had to pick my way over and between the boxes, stepping as delicately as possible with my horse legs, legs that were not made to do anything delicately.

Even when I got there, I couldn't sit down. It was piled high with baby clothes. I lost it. I whirled around and began kicking with an aimless violence that startled me with its force. I had not intended this. I was beyond intention. Like if I stopped kicking and hurling things, I would cease to exist.

By the time I managed to stop, I had wrecked not only most of the new baby equipment but also the large flat screen television and the coffee table. I looked around at the torn baby blankets strewn with broken glass, the mutilated breast pump, the mangled stroller. Just then, a key turned in the lock, and Serena stood in the doorway.

She looked from me to the mess, from the mess back to me. Her face hardened. I could offer no defense or consolation. I had only one option. "I'm going to leave now," I said. "I'll find someplace else to stay." She nodded with no expression.

I walked aimlessly, vaguely in the direction of the downtown hotels. My muscles grew leaden with shame. I felt like I was walking underwater. What pained me was not the notion that my wildness, my horseyness, had finally overtaken me.

It was the suspicion that my violence had been entirely human. That night, under a scratchy hotel blanket, I contemplated my situation. For the first time in nearly a year, I cried-- sobbing into the lumpy pillow, mourning the grotesque monster that I was, howling at my failure, my loneliness, my inadequacy as woman and as animal. Eventually, from sheer exhaustion, I slept.

When I woke in the morning, I saw that during my few hours of sleep the fur had finally reached upwards. My breasts were gone, replaced by a fine equine torso. I raised my hands to touch it, then realized that they had been replaced by another set of hooves. I felt practically ambushed by relief.

I went downstairs to the concierge, asked her to use her human fingers to make a phone call. Red-faced and excited, she rang Atalanta. They would send someone that afternoon, they said, to pick me up.

Woman 2

Can my loved ones visit me at the ranch? Yes. Will they recognize me? Most of them claim to, but it's impossible to determine how much this recognition depends upon wishful thinking. Can they ride me? We don't recommend it. So far, every attempt has ended in tragedy.

Woman 1

I have four horse legs, and a horse torso, and a horse head. Outwardly, at least, I am all animal. I believe I still have a human brain mostly. But every day, its language grows rougher around the edges. For minutes at a time when I'm running or eating in the pasture, I have no thoughts.

My brain is not empty exactly. It's as though a hot wind blows certain textures through my mind. My rage has diminished, but I am neither contained nor calm. I feel many emotions now, but they don't quite fit the words I know. I would describe them mostly as variations of active receptivity, of alert acceptance.

Somewhere soon, Serena will be teaching her children the words for things. This is a table. This is a chair. This is a horse. Meanwhile, my language is slowly departing, the words replaced by syllable and breath-- yes, mm, yes, huh, no, mm, [WHINNYING].

Maybe she'll come visit me one day. Perhaps in my absence her hard judgments of me will soften, turn into questions. They will lead her to me across the long grass. And I'll look at her and nod. She won't try to ride me, but I'll let her approach, put a hand on my forehead. We'll both feel a sudden snare of recognition-- wildness face-to-face with itself.

Ira Glass

Grace Gummer and Geraldine Hughes reading a short story by Amy Bonnaffons. It's a part of her collection of short stories called The Wrong Heaven, which is available for preorder at Amazon and elsewhere.

Credits.

Ira Glass

We're program was produced today by Robyn Semien. Our staff includes Elna Baker, Elise Bergerson, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Kimberly Henderson, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, B.A. Parker, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu.

Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Special thanks today to Leo Mankiewicz. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he was explaining to me the other day why he had a horse in a hot tub.

David Slater

This is one of the secrets, actually, of being able to get good photography is making the animal relaxed.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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