In case you missed Monday’s announcement: We’re back in the game.
The merging of two chimpanzee groups is almost always an emotional roller-coaster for chimpanzees and humans alike. We caregivers have to balance the immediate safety and comfort of each chimpanzee with our expectations for their long-term happiness and stability, all while working around the limitations of our existing facility and restricted schedule. For the most part, though, the reactions of the chimpanzees determine if, when and how the integration proceeds. There have been heartbreaking setbacks, such as last Wednesday’s chimp fight, that made us pause and regroup. There have also been intervals of uncertainty while the chimpanzees recuperated from stressful and exhausting experiences and we struggled to return to some sort of routine.
Most importantly, there have also been heartwarming breakthroughs, like Monday’s play session between Willy B and Burrito, that have encouraged us to keep on keepin’ on.
From our perspective as behaviorists and caregivers, the potential bond between Willy B and Burrito is worth all of the effort of integrating the two groups. Male chimpanzees are more gregarious than females and seem to have an inherent desire to spend time with each other. In the wild, males stay in the same communities for their entire lives and therefore develop and maintain lifelong partnerships with their male peers. Although adult male chimps sometimes fall victim to rivalry and violence, they generally have relationships characterized by cooperation, reciprocation, and trust. In captivity, although males may not be closely related and may be introduced to each other as unfamiliar adults, they still tend to form enduring and fulfilling friendships with other males.
Burrito has not had an opportunity to hang out with another male since long before he reached sanctuary. His friendships with individuals like Foxie, while still important, may not offer him the same excitement or comfort as his developing bond with Willy. Now that we understand more about Burrito’s insecurities and have seen how he tends to behave when encountering new chimpanzee neighbors, we are going to try a more gradual and controlled integration of the two groups. Hopefully, the two boys will form the solid core of the new social group.
Of course, there are other important friendships to consider as well. Jamie and Mave seemed to really hit it off, and Negra has often been seen playing with Honey B. Jody seems to have found the guy of her dreams in Willy B, and Missy has had the opportunity to play with, groom, and embrace her daughter (even if she probably has no way of knowing that).
For now, however, we will continue to advance slowly in order to remain considerate of each chimpanzee’s desires and anxieties. We will continue to trust the chimpanzees (because they are, after all, quite smart). For now, I recommend that you all enjoy the video of Burrito and Willy B’s first meeting without a barrier between them. I hope it brings you all the same joy and courage that the experience gave to us.