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Andrew Westoll wins $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for 'Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary'

Andrew Westoll shows off his Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction for his book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery, in Toronto on Monday March 5, 2012 . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu

TORONTO - Toronto author Andrew Westoll says he hopes his Charles Taylor Prize win on Monday will shine a spotlight on someone he calls a "national hero": Gloria Grow, who runs the Quebec chimpanzee sanctuary that's featured in his award-winning book.

"This prize is for Gloria and it's for Binky and it's for Regis and it's for Jethro and it's for Chancey and it's for Rachel and Yoko and Toby and Sue Ellen and Pepper and Spock and Maya," Westoll, choking back tears, said as he rhymed off the names of the sanctuary primates while accepting the $25,000 non-fiction award.

Westoll won the prize at a luncheon attended by Gov. Gen. David Johnston for "The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery" (HarperCollins), which was also a contender for the $40,000 B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.

The book details the 10 weeks he spent at the southwestern Quebec facility, which houses chimps who are retired from biomedical research. Some had been subjected to experimental surgeries and injected with HIV and hepatitis.

Westoll, a former primatologist, said Grow received the chimps from a veterinarian who smuggled them out of a laboratory in upstate New York.

"They've been rescued from hell and they've been given the retirement they finally deserve, and they have an amazing place there," Westoll, 34, said in an interview after winning the Charles Taylor Prize.

Westoll arrived at the sanctuary about 2 1/2 years ago to work as a volunteer caregiver with the chimpanzees.

He said his first day there was terrifying, "But that fear dissipated almost immediately when I met a chimpanzee named Binky, otherwise known as the Bubster, or the Bub."

As Westoll made the primates' meals and spent time with them, he formed a bond with them.

"They taught me the incredible resilience of animals, humans included, and Gloria taught me the unbelievable compassion that we're actually capable of, when you really put your mind to it," said Westoll, who wrote the travel memoir "The Riverbones."

He's now hoping the Charles Taylor Prize win will introduce more readers to the same feeling, and also help them understand the "unbelievable resilience of animals, including humans, to overcome trauma."

"I hope readers understand the incredible compassion that humans are capable of," said Westoll, who plans to donate some of his prize money to the sanctuary. Ten per cent of his book royalties also goes to the facility.

"I'm still trying to figure out how Gloria does what she does, that's part of what the book is about, is unpacking that, and I'm still not sure I have an answer," he added. "Being exposed to that kind of compassion is an incredible thing, it can't help but rub off."

Jurors for this year's Charles Taylor Prize were journalist and author Stevie Cameron; Allan M. Brandt, author and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University; and publisher Susan Renouf, principal of Abanaki Editorial and Consulting. They selected the five finalists from 115 titles.

They called Westoll's book "Heart-rending and heart-warming" and "a stunning and important work of art and documentary and science."

Runners-up receive $2,000 and additional promotional support.

The other contenders were: Charlotte Gill's "Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe"; Wade Davis's "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest"; J.J. Lee's "The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit"; and Madeline Sonik's "Afflictions and Departures: Essays."

Last year's winner was Charles Foran for "Mordecai: The Life & Times."

The Charles Taylor Prize was established in 1998 by Noreen Taylor in honour of her late journalist husband.

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