You may have noticed in photos and videos over the last year or so that Jamie has resumed overgrooming her belly. In the lab, she picked all of the hair out from her chest down to her waist on her right side. She stopped as soon as she arrived at the sanctuary. We were delighted, of course, and as her caregivers we patted ourselves on the back for a job well done.
Then, last summer, she began to pick at her belly again. It coincided with a brief illness, and while she recovered from the illness quickly, the overgrooming persisted.
It’s possible that the discomfort of the illness played a role in reviving an old habit, but it may have just been a coincidence. Perhaps the novelty of sanctuary had worn off and she was seeking more stimulation. Or maybe it was stress. Or anxiety. The staff and volunteers created new enrichment programs to try to keep her occupied, but the overgrooming continued.
Overgrooming is a fact of life in captivity. Not all chimps will do it, but for some it is a lifelong habit (in a recent study, overgrooming was found to be one of the most widespread abnormal behaviors in zoo chimpanzees). Normally, we wouldn’t be too concerned, because habits by definition are persistent and do not always reflect an individual’s current state. Both Annie and Jody overgroom their arms, but both were stolen from their families, raised without a mother, imprisoned in tiny cages for decades, and subjected to medical experiments. With a history like that, I would be surprised if someone didn’t have a lifetime of behavioral issues.
But trauma is only one part of the problem – captivity itself is the other. Chimpanzees are incredibly smart, and they evolved to live in dynamic environments and in complex social systems. Even the best zoos and sanctuaries are dull and predictable in comparison. Captivity also restricts a chimpanzee’s ability to make her own choices. We often take this ability for granted, but it is extremely important to our well-being – similar to the way we don’t appreciate the air we breathe until we are without it. I imagine that for a person like Jamie, captivity must literally feel suffocating at times.
Jamie’s behavior is only unusual in that she did stop, only to resume two years later. What changed? We may never know.
Just to be clear, Jamie is fine. She is healthy and doing all of the same things that she has always done. But we want to be as open as we can about life at the sanctuary, and that includes all of the difficulties and frustrations of caregiving as well as the positive, uplifting stories.