Rosemary and Lowell stay at the diner until the morning, when they order breakfast and coffee. Lowell explains that he is now vegetarian and mostly vegan. He talks to Rosemary about the abuse of animals in the scientific and agricultural industries. He says he regrets not going to college but that he reads a lot. He expresses disapproval of their father’s work and of psychological studies of nonhuman animals in general. Both siblings agree that the study with Fern began from a mistaken initial premise; instead of asking why humans could not understand Fern, their father and the other researchers only ever sought to understand why Fern couldn’t understand them.
Rosemary has always had a sense that there was something morally and intellectually dubious about the study conducted on their family’s life with Fern. However, she has never fully articulated her thoughts on the matter until this point. Lowell is more critical of science than Rosemary, but the siblings share a fundamental, instinctive conviction that animal abuse should not be justified in the name of scientific research. The fact that this conviction was born out of their own (involuntary) participation as subjects in a scientific study is somewhat ironic.
Nervously, Rosemary manages to ask Lowell how Fern is doing. She requests that he starts from the moment he left and explain everything from that point onward. Lowell says that he traveled straight to the laboratory where Fern was taken and introduced himself to the secretary as a prospective student interested in chimpanzee studies. He managed to find the address of the building where Fern and the other chimps were housed, and waited overnight for a car to arrive, during which time he slipped through the opened gate unseen. He warns Rosemary that what he encountered next was “awful.”
Rosemary’s attempts to deny the reality of Fern’s existence and falsely reassure herself that Fern is fine cannot last much longer. After almost an entire lifetime of denial, Rosemary finds the courage to face the truth. Lowell, of course, has confronted reality since childhood, and it is this engagement with the brutality of the truth that compels him to take such bold, decisive actions, such as traveling to South Dakota and breaking into the primate center as soon as he learned about Fern’s plight.
Lowell explains that he found Fern in a cage with four adult chimps. Fern sensed his presence before she even saw him, and immediately started screaming. She grabbed Lowell’s arm and pulled him toward her so hard that she whacked him against the cage bars. Lowell apologized to her, but Fern was still screaming. An adult male came over and began pulling at Lowell’s arm as well until Fern bit him on the shoulder. Fern signed Lowell’s name to him and then the words for “good Fern”––promising that she would be good if he took her home. The older male then attacked Fern, and at that point staff members ran in with a cattle prod, which immediately scared the chimps into backing away. The staff members told Lowell to leave before they called the police. Fern kept signing “good Fern,” but was clearly confused and distressed. Lowell left and never saw her again.
Lowell’s encounter with Fern is both heartbreaking and disturbing. The fact that Fern remembers him, immediately wants to go home, and promises to be good is highly emotive, highlighting Fern’s rich internal life and true status as a lost member of the Cooke family. On the other hand, Fern’s violent physical behavior serves as a jarring reminder that she is not a human but an animal, and that she has the power to seriously hurt her human family members. These two elements of Fern’s personality are difficult to reconcile, even if we acknowledge that humans also struggle with the binary between emotional sensitivity and violent destructiveness.