Although Emily Carr is now considered a Canadian legend, the most enduring image is that of her pushing a beat-up old pram into downtown Victoria, loaded with dogs, cats, birds—and a monkey. Woo, a Javanese macaque whom Carr adopted in 1923, has become inextricably linked with Carr in the popular imagination. But more than that, in her short lifetime Woo became equally connected to Carr’s life and art.
Born to a strictly religious family, Carr was never able to reconcile her wild and passionate nature with the stifling mores of the well-to-do Victorian society in which she was raised. Over the years, she increasingly turned to the company of animals to find the love and trust missing from her human relationships. Across the world in an Indonesian jungle lagoon, Woo (like Carr) was parted from her mother at a young age. The tiny ape with a “greeny-brown” pelt and penetrating golden eyes was then shipped across the world. When Carr spotted Woo in a pet store, she recognized a kindred spirit and took her home.
Woo was many things to Carr—a surrogate daughter, a reflection of herself, a piece of the wild inside her downtown Victoria boarding house. Welcoming the mischievous Woo into her life, Carr also welcomed a freedom that allowed a full blooming of artistic expression and gave Canada and the world great art unlike any other before or since. However, despite Carr’s clear love for Woo, her chaotic life did not always allow Carr to properly care for her. Tragically, after Carr was hospitalized due to heart failure, she arranged for Woo to be sent to the Stanley Park Zoo. Bereft of Carr, Woo died alone in her cage only a year later.
Hayter-Menzies approaches his subject from a contemporary perspective on bringing wild animals into captivity while remaining empathetic to the unique relationship between artist and monkey.
“Truthful and tender, a meticulously researched and fine reflection on the connection between art and animals.”
“This is an extraordinary, profound, poignant and true story, brilliantly and fascinatingly told. Human and animal relationships are complex and, when they involve captive wild animals, troubling to say the least. Even when, as we find here, there is deep mutual affection. In such an unnatural situation there can rarely be a ‘happy ending.’ I have almost never read a book which I longed to read again, as soon as I had turned the last page. Such is the subtlety, sensitivity and skill of Grant Hayter-Menzies’ storytelling.”
“What animates this tale with force and purpose is the author’s profound respect for animals. Carr’s relationship with Woo is impeccably researched by Hayter-Menzies, but he goes a step further. He deepens his understanding of the bond between these two primates by visiting a present-day monkey sanctuary. I found this book enlightening, heartwarming, and distressing. Casting its shadow over Carr’s devotion to Woo is the question the author pursues throughout the book: how could the artist have given up her animal companion to languish in a cage at the Stanley Park Zoo? In trying to find an answer, readers too are brought face to face with what it means to be a human guardian to an animal, wild or domesticated, and how tragically such a loving relationship can end.”
“Grant Hayter-Menzies is an accomplished historian and writer, and Woo, the Monkey Who Inspired Emily Carr brings a unique perspective to the wide shelf of books regarding Emily Carr… The author’s profound sympathy for all animals leads him to careful research into zoos, the trade in animals, animal behaviour and the long relationship between the legendary Canadian artist and the ‘human-imprinted primate’ who shared fifteen years with her. At once serious and fanciful, this is art history with a difference.”
“Meticulously researched but also indulging an unapologetic and compelling stream of authorial speculation, this imaginative biography depicts two figures from two different species whose relationship, if imperfect, was fascinating and consummately intimate. Woo, the Monkey Who Inspired Emily Carr will certainly provoke reflections about our own animal companions: how we live with them, how they live with us.”