Chimpanzees thrive on routine.
Of course, we don’t want every day to be exactly the same for them. As caregivers, we strive to provide the chimps with an enrichment program that balances variety and predictability, which is a never-ending challenge. The result is that we work hard each day to facilitate a range of new experiences for the chimpanzees within the framework of a regular schedule. Knowing what’s going to happen next helps the chimps to plan ahead, make choices, and be agents of their own comfort and happiness.
With so many new events occurring at the sanctuary, sticking to a familiar routine also seems to help the chimps adjust to each change. For example, even though Jamie and the Girl Gang are now residing in a previously unfamiliar area of the Chimp House, we still provide them with their favorite enrichment items at the same time each morning, serve their meals on the same schedule, and open the hydraulic gate each day so that they can explore Young’s Hill.
We’ve had some perfect fall weather for the past few days, and the Girl Gang (Annie, Foxie, Jamie, Jody and Missy) have been eagerly spending time outdoors. Just this weekend, J.B. and a group of committed volunteers built a new multi-level wooden structure on Young’s Hill. As Kelsi noted yesterday, the females were quick to investigate this new addition to their habitat. Even though nobody modified or enhanced the structure overnight, the girls needed some extra time today to reacquaint themselves with the new tower.
The new structure is located near the entryway into the chute. Now that they’re in the new area, Jamie and the others access Young’s Hill via the chute and therefore begin their patrols over on the southeast corner of the enclosure. Even though their patrols no longer start over by the Greenhouse door, they still walk in the same clockwise direction as they have since they first started exploring the Hill almost a decade ago. I have never seen them patrol in a counterclockwise direction. Just a few days ago, I jokingly asked J.B. if we could try to get Jamie to walk counterclockwise around the Hill with us. He dryly answered “No. You can’t do that.” We agreed that Jamie has a routine and it would be a crime to disrupt it.
So, when I opened the hydraulic door and the chimps hustled out of the chute onto the Hill, the unthinkable happened.
Anna and I were quite stunned when all five of the females started plodding their way uphill along the southeastern boundary of the enclosure. Missy led the charge, of course, but Jamie seemed a bit apprehensive about the whole thing. She started to follow the others, then fell behind, and was soon looking back at Anna (who was watching the events unfold from outside the electrified fence).
Sure enough, Jamie returned to the bottom of the slope and began to patrol in her normal clockwise pattern, gesturing at Anna to follow along. She encountered the others about halfway up the northwestern boundary and it was hella awkward. As Jamie trudged past each of the others, they had to stop and greet each other with a touch and a chimp kiss. Then they all just stood there, lined up along the fence, and watched her defiantly continue up the slope on her own.
Jamie seemed a little off after that, because she abandoned her patrol, ditched Anna in favor of the Twister, and cut straight through the bamboo forest on her way back to the chute. Jamie can handle wildfires, social integrations and even snakes, but going counterclockwise around the Hill is too much.
This exemplifies the power of routine. Some chimps, such as Jamie, have personalities that seem to thrive on discipline and repetition. She likes to be in control. She did three patrols today, walking at the same pace in the same clockwise direction using the same path. The other four females, who tend to be more easygoing, didn’t seem scared by the idea of hiking the trail backwards.
Of course, there is the possibility that Jamie, like Derek Zoolander, cannot turn left. Let’s not rule that out.