The relationship between captive chimps and their caregivers is endlessly fascinating. Some chimps are very human oriented, and many even prefer the companionship of humans to that of other chimpanzees. Other chimps couldn’t care less about humans – we’re good for providing food and cleaning up, and that’s about it. Usually, it’s the chimps who were raised by humans who prefer humans, and it’s not hard to see why. We make more sense to them.
Take Burrito for example. He was born in a laboratory in New Mexico and, like many lab chimps, he was taken from his mother shortly after birth and reared in a laboratory nursery. At age 3 1/2, he was shipped to Pennsylvania where he lived in a human home as a pet. Six months later he was leased to Jungle Larry’s circus and a year after that, he was back in a lab cage, where he would remain for another 20 years.
He spent most of his life either alone or with humans. I think it’s a miracle that he can get along in a group of other chimpanzees.
Imagine if it was the other way around…if you were raised in a group of chimpanzees and then two or three decades later you were thrust into a group of humans. You might find that your new office mates don’t appreciate your loud dominance displays, or the way you stick your rear end in someone’s face when you are seeking reassurance.
In the 4 1/2 years that Burrito has been at CSNW, he has matured a lot. He is starting to understand the rules of living in a chimpanzee community. He loves to play with some of the other chimpanzees, and he is even starting to understand his role in the hierarchy. But I think that some human oriented chimps like Burrito feel a sense of relief when interacting with us. They understand us better than they do other chimpanzees. And they know that we won’t get upset or retaliate if they break one of the complex rules that govern life in chimpanzee society. Or maybe Burrito just gets sick of his chimpanzee family. Those reality TV shows always take seven people and stick them in an apartment for a year and that always ends badly.
We’re careful not to overstep our bounds with the chimps, however. Ultimately, we want them to rely on each other for support and in a social system as complex as the chimpanzees’, it takes a lot of work to build those relationships. But from the chimps’ perspective, it’s also good to have a positive relationship with the people you rely on. So we consider these little games of chase and tug-o-war just part of the job.