Like us, chimpanzees are social primates. We look to our friends and family for comfort and companionship. We rely on our communities for protection. Our cultures provide us with the knowledge we need to survive.
The desire to be with others is so essential that it is hardwired in apes like us. Without social contact we literally go insane.
But it’s not always easy being social. It comes with a host of trade offs, where individual interests must be compromised for the good of the relationship. It brings with it opportunities for miscommunication and misinterpretation. It leads to jealousy. Cheating, stealing, and deception are all par for the course. And it almost invariably leads to conflict.
All of which are difficult waters to navigate for even the most experienced and even-tempered individual.
Now imagine being Burrito.
Taken from his mother and raised in a lab nursery. Sent to live in a human home for his most formative years. Leased to a circus. And then returned to the lab, where he would live much of his life alone or with only one other individual in a cage barely big enough to walk in.
Or imagine being Jamie.
For nine years she struggled to master the human environment, a world in which she was rewarded for mastering tricks and likely punished for failing to understand or comply. Then, like Burrito, she was ripped from that world and placed in a laboratory with her own kind – a kind that she might not have even recognized as her own – where she would remain for two decades.
It’s common knowledge in the sanctuary community that ex-pet and ex-performer primates are the most difficult to integrate. Many people think the laboratory environment is the most damaging, but at least lab chimps tend to live with other chimps when they’re not on protocol. Being raised by humans is a kind of damage they don’t recover from. It actually deprives them of resiliency. It permeates the way they think and they way they react. You can see it in the way they relate to other chimps, and it even has a measurable physiological effect – the more time chimps spend with humans during childhood, the greater their cortisol (stress hormone) levels as adults.
Nearly every conflict at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest is instigated or at the very least amplified by Burrito or Jamie – Burrito, through his undirected and ungoverned aggression and Jamie, through her intense need to dominate, manipulate, and control. For both, their worst tendencies seem to be chronically stoked by insecurity. Granted, chimpanzees personalities are complex and influenced by many factors, but it’s hard not to see their extremes as a direct product of their histories.
Just today, a conflict broke out at lunch. It began when Jody calmly took Foxie’s lettuce. Not a nice thing to do, of course, but given their friendly and trusting relationship it would have ended there without incident. But Jamie saw it happen. And Jamie couldn’t stand the fact that Jody was getting away with it. Jamie began screaming from the playroom, which in turn got Burrito riled up. Burrito then launched himself around the room in a frenzied display, eventually slamming into Jody. For the next five minutes, all of the chimps ran throughout the playroom, front rooms, and greenhouse screaming (with the exception of Negra, who took the opportunity to eat her lettuce by herself). It was hard to tell who was chasing who near the end. Exhausted but uninjured, they finally returned to the front rooms and finished lunch.
We often talk about chimpanzee conflicts in Machiavellian terms, as though each move is premeditated and calculated to maximally derive some social gain. This kind of social behavior does occur in chimps, but many fights are about nothing of substance, as best as we can tell. Put simply, it’s hard to be social, and even harder for those whose social lives didn’t even begin until they were young adults.
Fortunately for Burrito and Jamie, the benefit of their presence in the group far outweighs the stress they cause, and the group in turn gives them something they deserved but never had: a messy, loving, quarreling, comforting chimpanzee family.