Introductions. In the chimp sanctuary world, no word is as simultaneously exciting and terrifying.
Introductions occur anytime you form a social group from unfamiliar individuals. They are exciting because chimps are social creatures, and they benefit greatly from living in groups, especially groups that are large and diverse. And they are terrifying because chimpanzees can be incredibly aggressive and they don’t always welcome new members with open arms.
As many of you know, Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest is in the process of expanding. Our plan is to add a new wing to the facility to accommodate an additional group, but we also hope to add new members to the Cle Elum Seven family. So what can we expect when we introduce new chimps to this group that has been together for nearly a decade?
Let’s start with the good news. According to the literature, over 85% of documented introductions have been successful. In studies like these, an introduction is considered a success when a chimp is integrated into the group and remains there for at least one to two months.
Now, the bad news. Even when introductions are successful, the process can be ugly. How ugly? Let me explain it this way: the introduction protocol from a progressive and reputable zoo recommends that introductions be stopped immediately only in cases of “severe injuries that impede locomotion, loss of limb function, severe gaping wounds with bone(s) exposed, severe blood loss, [or] compromised state of consciousness.” According to the same document, a discussion about stopping the introduction may be warranted in situations of “extreme fatigue or severe loss of appetite, relentless pursuit of an individual such that the individual can’t eat, sleep, etc…[or] mental shutdown.”
Imagine if we applied these criteria to humans…
How was Billy’s first day of school?
Well, Ricky bit half of his ear off, the other kids chased him up and down the hallway all morning, and he got trapped at the top of the jungle gym for an hour during recess by a raging hoard of 6-year-olds, but by lunchtime they allowed him come down and eat a few tater tots off the floor. So, all in all, things are going pretty well!
The thing is, chimps are not humans, and we need to judge their interactions by a different standard. It’s not as cold and heartless as it may seem because if we separated them at the first sign of aggression, there would be very few chimps living in groups. The Cle Elum Seven are a good example of this. They’re all missing bits and pieces of ears, fingers, and toes from fights during their time in the lab and here at the sanctuary. But by and large, they’ve learned to get along, and they’ll do the same when it comes time to add someone new to the mix.
Despite all the fighting and potential for injury, chimps will usually work things out if we allow them to. And when they do, they get to take back a little piece of the life they should have known in the wild.