Exploring the Ethics of Science
By MARY-JUSTINE LANYON
Renaissance Man – that term sums up the essence of Running Springs resident Ken Decroo. The retired educator has been a building contractor, a college professor, a teacher, a principal, an operator of fishing boats, an animal trainer.
Decroo is now an author. His first book, Almost Human, grew out of a conversation he had with two of the actors on the set of the movie Animal Behavior. Decroo was on set with Mike the chimp, whom he had taught some sign language. One of the actors, Armand Assante, told Decroo he couldn’t believe how humanlike Mike was.
“I put on my professor hat and told Armand about the similarities between humans and chimps,” Decroo said. “There’s a difference of one chromosome. The chimp is more closely related to us than they are to a gorilla.”
That conversation led to Decroo sitting down at the typewriter and writing the beginning of what would become a three-book series.
In Almost Human, creatures with the enormous strength and power of a chimpanzee and the intelligence and size of a human being are discovered in a remote area of equatorial Africa. Drs. Ken Turner and Fred Savage follow the rumors of these chimp-human hybrids, wanting to study them. The government, however, wants to exploit them.
While it took Decroo Thirty years to complete the first book, his second flowed much more quickly. He will be signing copies of Becoming Human at SkyPark at Santa’s Village on Feb. 7 from 4 to 7 p.m. All the proceeds from sales of the book will go to the PTA beautification project at Mary Putnam Henck Intermediate School, where Decroo served as principal.
Decroo did not have a vision for a sci-fi thriller series but his characters, he said, “didn’t like the ending” he wrote for Almost Human. “There was more to tell,” Decroo said.
In Becoming Human he has tried to “flush out the ethics of science and our human relationship to animals – how it can go awry very quickly. Some of the characters are in it for the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Others are in it for how that knowledge could profit them,” Decroo said.
In Dr. Turner, readers will see the “ethics of what we owe animals.”
Much of what happens in Becoming Human actually occurred when Decroo was working with Washoe, a chimp he taught to communicate using 350 words of American Sign Language. “We were approached by the Department of Defense, offering us strings-attached grants to do research on the retrieval of dangerous devices using chimps. They put a lot of pressure on us but we weren’t interested,” Decroo said.
In the book, however, “they do bend. It’s tempting when there’s that kind of money involved.”
Decroo’s series of books – the third one, which will be called More Than Human, should go to press in the spring – “has to do with the ethics of science and the ethics of people who work with animals – what is expected of us. We don’t always come up to snuff,” Decroo said.
Becoming Human sets up the third book, in which Decroo will tie in some of the mysteries and myths of the Pacific Northwest.
Decroo said he usually writes in the evening when it’s quiet. “Some days the characters come and help me out,” he said.
Decroo is somewhat baffled when people ask him if he ever gets writer’s block. “Writers write – that’s what they do.” And while he tries not to set goals, if he writes 2,000 words, that’s a good day. A couple of hundred words is a less good day – but it all adds up, Decroo noted.
He tells the story of seeing a woman sitting on a beach in Mexico, reading Almost Human. It was a sight that amazed him.
And Decroo was amazed when he heard from Stephen King. Apparently, King had been considering writing a book with the same title, Almost Human, and came across Decroo’s book. “He bought it, read it, liked it and realized it was very different from what he was thinking of doing.”
That led to an exchange of emails between the two authors. King has offered some sage advice, like don’t read any reviews. He told Decroo that’s what his agent is for. He also suggested writing the first draft of a book with the door closed – in other words, don’t show that to anyone. “Don’t think of grammar, don’t edit,” King told Decroo. “You don’t want to affect the rhythm and flow of the story.” The second draft is the one you show to a select few people you trust.
Decroo said he developed the characters in his books based on real people “so people will know there are people who work with animals who truly love them.” Part of the purpose of writing these books is to show characters who are defined by their love of the animals.
“I tried to shed some light on worlds right under our noses that the average person doesn’t know exists,” Decroo said. “The culture of circuses and movies – I was part of those worlds.”
Ken Decroo will be signing his book Becoming Human at SkyPark at Santa’s Village on Feb 7 from 4 to 7 p.m.