I’m not going to lie, these last few weeks have been really challenging for all of the primates here at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, and the challenges are not over.
Before you read this lengthy post, or after you read it, consider supporting the staff fundraising page now or on Tuesday, October 15th for Giving Day for Apes. We would really appreciate your support and friendship right now!
Intellectually, we humans knew that integrating the new three with the original group of seven chimpanzees would be stressful, but I’m not sure any of us knew just exactly how stressful it would be. Caring for captive chimpanzees is a weighty responsibility on an average day. For me, integrations have highlighted the added responsibilities that the sanctuary has taken on now and in the future.
We are a small sanctuary compared to many others, which means each staff member is part of the integration process and veterinarian Dr. Erin is playing the crucial and also stressful standby role in case someone gets injured.
Things are going remarkably well, but there have been fights with a couple of minor injuries. Chimpanzees do not generally hold their emotions back, as you have seen in the two integration videos we’ve shared. They scream when they are anxious, scared, angry, offended, or even just really happily excited. Since screaming is a high-arousal state, there’s more of a chance for fights to happen. And that’s just on a normal day with a group of chimpanzees who have known each other for a long time. Throw in complete strangers and the need for some of the chimps to stake their position within the group, and fighting is bound to occur. It’s just part of chimpanzee social behavior.
There are various levels of fighting. Often fights are loud and dramatic but without contact between participants. We know from the last eleven+ years, that sometimes the fights do result in fairly significant (at least significant from our human perspective) injuries. Aside from bites to the body, which are not infrequent but generally not concerning, both Negra and Jody have had toes bitten off, Jody had an eyelid torn, Missy had a large split to her lip, and several of the chimps are missing parts of their ears to bites that happened at the sanctuary or before they came here. It was only a few weeks ago when Burrito bit part of Foxie’s ear off, as described in this worth-your-read blog post by Anna. That incident seemed to be a sudden reaction to who-knows-what and happened in an instant. Since then, Burrito and Foxie have been friendly and playful with each other and we still consider them very close, which is why they will join the group together when we feel it’s time.
These injuries are rare enough that I can name them very quickly, but they certainly stand out in the minds of the humans, particularly when they have required us to separate the injured in order to provide medical help. You might be surprised what it takes for us to intervene. Chimpanzees are tough! They can casually walk around with an injury that would make any human I know go to the ER in a panic. When Jody lost her toe during a fight years ago, we gave her some analgesics and some antibiotics and she carried on as though nothing had happened.
So far we haven’t seen these more serious injuries during the introduction process, but it’s what we brace ourselves for when we hear the chimpanzees starting to scream. There’s not a whole lot that we can do to stop a fight from escalating but you can be sure we are standing by and watching. As much as possible, we try to stay out of the fight as we watch. Often the chimpanzees will approach us from the other side of the caging and ask for reassurance. Because we can’t actually back them up, it would be a mistake to reach out with a reassurance gesture in those moments. It’s not our place to take sides.
The best piece of advice that Amy Fultz from Chimp Haven has given us is to trust in the chimpanzees. They are meant to live in groups and they can usually work things out. The fact that all of the chimpanzees so far dived into the new group situation without hesitation, eagerly embracing each other upon meeting, bodes well for their future relationships. There are no guarantees, but there are so many good signs so far.
The potential benefits of bringing them together and allowing them to work things out are huge. Each of them will have an expanded social network. They all will have more options for who to groom, play with, or just sit next to at lunch. For chimpanzees who will spend the rest of their lives in captivity, this is a big deal.
While I wish I could take away every bit of everyone’s anxiety, that anxiety is part of being a social primate too. I remember being terrified on the first day of school as a kid. I wanted to meet new people but I was worried I wouldn’t fit in on day one or ever. I was sure the whole experience was going to be a disaster. Within a few days, though, things were fine and I had already made friends or reconnected with kids I hadn’t seen all summer. Eventually, I formed strong friendships with certain people, and those friendships were invaluable to my overall wellbeing, enriching my life like nothing else possibly could.
That is what we hope we can provide for all ten of these chimpanzees who we care for so deeply.
We know there will be fights in the future, but we also know there will be laughter, play, making nests next to each other, and the sharing of everyday happenings and not-so-everyday adventures. We have already seen some very touching and unexpected moments, like the play between Missy and Willy B and Willy B and Negra in the video above. Seeing potential friendships starting to build is so exciting!
I would love to skip ahead to the days of zero anxiety, but, in the meantime, I will keep reminding myself to trust them.
Did I mention that we humans would really appreciate your support and friendship right now? There’s actually a lot of sanctuary people you can support now or on Tuesday for Giving Day for Apes – the staff, the board of directors, and the volunteers and interns. Or just give on the main page! All donations from all pages will go to the care of the chimpanzees and the running of the sanctuary.