We received the following question from a donor: I was looking at your wish list and I have a question: what are the clothes, hats, and shoes for? I assume the other stuff is all for the chimps or facility, but do they dress up in people’s clothes?
Good question! Those items must seem like very strange requests. The purpose of giving captive chimpanzees ‘human items’ is to alleviate boredom. Chimpanzees are extremely intelligent and curious and, of course, are not meant to live in captivity. In the wild they travel great distances each day, forage and sometimes hunt for food, manufacture and use tools, build nests to sleep in at night, defend their territory from neighboring groups… the list of complicated behaviors goes on and on. The #1 challenge of caring for captive chimpanzees is figuring out how to keep their minds active – because they can get extremely depressed when they don’t have enough to do.
Because chimpanzees who have been raised in captivity cannot be released into the wild, we must do whatever we can to make their environment complicated and interesting. Giving them access to human items is a great way to do so. Most captive chimpanzees have been raised either with or by humans, so objects like shoes and clothing are familiar to them. Some chimpanzees actually like to put clothing on (probably because they’ve seen humans do it and they are imitating) but most often they will use clothing to build nests. Free-living chimpanzees create nests in the trees out of branches and leaves and this seems to be an innate behavior because captive chimpanzees do it as well, but with blankets, sheets, clothing… any fabric they have access to, really. Different types, colors, and sizes of clothing gives them more variety for nest-building.
Of course, it’s important to distinguish between giving chimpanzees access to human items and forcing them to use human items, as we often see in entertainment situations. People often think it is funny or cute to see chimpanzees wearing clothing, and this is a perspective that we DO NOT take. But we do believe that we are obligated to give them access to any (safe) items that have been known to alleviate boredom in other captive chimpanzees.