Chimpanzees can be melodramatic at times. When they display, become frightened, or get into spats, the hoots and screams can be deafening. It happens often enough that you become inured to the minor day to day scuffles and other assorted histrionics (looking at you, Annie and Mave). But you can tell when things become serious. And we could tell that someone was really mad.
The conflict began as the staff were walking up the driveway to the front gate. One second it was serene and peaceful, the next it was an absolute cacophony of screams. After about 30 seconds only a single voice remained, and as we entered we could see Jody walking through the playroom screaming – in anger, it seemed, but I would imagine also in shock and in pain. A closer look revealed a laceration across her right foot and a toe pointed in a decidedly wrong direction.
Chimps heal quickly and uneventfully from injuries that would leave me in the hospital. Serious lacerations often zip up within days without sutures and chimps may even take it upon themselves to straighten out a dislocated digit before anyone else can intervene. But injuries can also go undetected.
Thankfully, Jody is a cooperative patient. After isolating her in Front Room 1, we were able to use our new foot box along with portable x-ray equipment from Best Friends Mobile Veterinary Care (and a ton of grapes) to obtain awake x-rays. In doing so we discovered that, in addition to the dislocated third toe, she had a complete fracture of her fourth toe.
So along with pain medication and antibiotics, Jody was also booked for surgery. Dr. Erin and Dr. Erika treated Jody’s injuries this morning and conducted a full physical examination along with vaccinations. Jody was quickly moved back to recovery and before long was sitting up and even enjoying some snacks.
Examination of our closed circuit camera footage helped us understand how the injury occurred, but as is often the case, did not help explain why. The chimps are scattered throughout the playroom, many still in their nests from the night before. Foxie, standing in the loft, begins softly vocalizing and working up to a display. As her pant-hoots reach their crescendo, she charges across the bridge and attacks Burrito, who appears to be minding his own business on the opposite catwalk. Everyone leaps to their feet and begins to run and scream. Jody heads toward the conflict but tries to stay on the periphery. Soon, however, she is pulled across the bridge, her foot in Jamie’s mouth.
We’ve been primed in many ways to think of chimpanzee aggression in strategic terms – the epic struggles for dominance as beta males overthrow their aging leader or the clashes between communities as they vie for scarce resources. But aggression in captive chimpanzees will often leave you scratching your head as to its purpose. Why are Foxie and Burrito unscathed and seemingly still on good terms, while poor Jody bore the brunt of the violence? We can’t help but invent explanations for behavior – we’re wired to think that way. But so often we’re wrong. And the theories we develop can color our perceptions of future events in misleading ways. For example, if we didn’t have the closed circuit camera footage, I would have put money on Burrito playing some role in instigating that fight. Turns out the guy is just misunderstood.
Sometimes when we talk to colleagues at other sanctuaries, they will say things like “Oh, you have a biter in that group.” And sadly, we do. Many of them. Maybe all of them. In twelve years with the Cle Elum Seven, we’ve seen no consistent aggressors, no consistent victims, and no one that hasn’t had an ear, finger, or toe bitten during their time here – with the exception of Annie, suspiciously…
I wish we had a soap opera script explanation for these events, or that we could blame it on the weather or the moon, but if I’m being honest, they just happen sometimes. I’m just glad chimpanzees are tough.
So for the next few days Jody will rest up, take her medications, and eat lots of good food, and before long she will be back with her family. Jamie will probably welcome Jody’s return and tenderly groom the foot that she nearly chomped off. Nearby, Foxie and Burrito will play a quiet game of tickle as they sit in front of the sunny window where Foxie launched her attack. And life will go on for the Cle Elum Seven.