This weekend marked the start of our summer visitor program. During the guided observation of the chimpanzees, while the chimpanzees foraged for their lunch, I found myself talking a lot about food with our guests.
One thing that we discussed was how easy it is as a caregiver to want to give the chimpanzees “exciting” food all of the time. Chimpanzees, much like humans, love food. Witnessing their excitement as they see food being presented and hearing their food grunts and squeaks is incredibly rewarding.
We made the very conscious decision before the chimpanzees came to the sanctuary that we would not give them processed sugar and we would avoid food with added salt. In the last few years, we’ve even gone further, and rarely give them processed foods of any kind (with exceptions for certain holiday parties, like 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and their primate biscuits). Their diet therefore is almost entirely fresh produce with some seeds and nuts, peanut butter, air-popped popcorn, and a small amount of commercial “primate chow.”
The result of our somewhat strict rules on food is that the chimpanzees remain extremely excited about fresh produce. We hear food grunts and squeaks everyday over fruits and vegetables, even produce that they get on a frequent basis like apples and tomatoes.
If we had decided that it was okay to give the chimpanzees things like cookies, cake, pizza, ice cream, and all of those foods that we humans tend to have a love / hate relationship with, the chimpanzees would have grown accustomed to that diet and might look down their (rather flat) noses at lettuce, kale, cucumbers, radishes, and all of the produce they truly love now.
We recognize that we are responsible for the health of the chimpanzees, and we try to ensure that we are doing everything we can in the way of preventative health care, which means providing a healthy diet and opportunities for exercise.
We’re very happy that something like a single fresh raspberry, picked from the bushes right outside of the greenhouse and still warm from the sun, is a huge treat for Foxie (pictured below) and for all of the chimpanzees:
Today Jamie savored the broccoli that was spread on the hill as part of the lunch forage, bringing it into the greenhouse to slowly eat:
Dinner tonight included lettuce, watermelon (a special summer treat), and peppers:
Jody in particular likes to supplement the diet we provide with plants that she picks herself, including this bamboo that she brought into the playroom this afternoon and ate the leaves, one by one:
Our friend Zarin, who has written guest blog posts about her work at the Kibale National Park in Uganda, shared research they did that examined the nutritional profile of food that the chimpanzees in Kibale eat. One interesting thing they found was that even ripe fruit that the chimpanzees eat in the wild at that field site contain about the same amount of natural sugars as the carrots found in grocery stores and gardens here.
This information led us to serve more vegetables and less fruit to the Cle Elum Seven, and we now often sneak veggies into the chimps’ morning fruit smoothie. No doubt our policies will continue to adapt as we learn more, and hopefully the result will be healthy, happy, and long-lived chimpanzees.