One of the first things you realize when you begin working with chimps is that you are not in charge. We humans may have larger brains, but believe me, the chimps are just not that impressed.
On a good day, they graciously allow us into their world as friends or playmates. On a bad day, we are unwilling participants (usually the victim) in their constantly unfolding social dramas. But most of the time we are merely spectators, forced to watch impotently from the sidelines.
Fights are a good example of this. If you’ve worked with chimps for a while, you can forget what it was like to witness your first fight – the piercing screams, bodies leaping and rolling and flailing across the enclosure, the huge canine teeth bared for all to see. The first time you see it, you wonder if anyone will come out alive. But after a while, you get used to it, and you start to differentiate between regular squabbles and the more serious fights based on the tenor of the screams alone. You get so immune to it, in fact, that during minor fights you don’t even bother looking up from your computer until you notice a new volunteer breaking out in tears and wondering how a group of people so heartless and unsympathetic could have ever been placed in charge of a sanctuary.
The thing is, even if we wanted to intervene in a fight, there’s not a whole lot we could do. When chimps are fighting, they are intensely focused on the task at hand. When the potential for a life-threatening fight is high, as the case may be during social introductions, caregivers might try to break up a fight by spraying the chimps with a hose or firing a CO2 extinguisher into the air with the hope that the noise will distract them just long enough to get them separated. But most of the time, all we can do is stand by and assess the damage.
We often joke that it’s the chimps that run the sanctuary, not us, but there’s more than a bit of truth to that idea. Within these walls, we have no choice sometimes but to play by their rules.