Today, we had the honor of hosting yet another birthday party for the sanctuary’s resident sparkplug: Missy Chimpanzee.
Missy spent 35 years in a cycle of exploitation before finally being transferred to Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest with her companions in 2008. During those lost decades, her and hundreds of other chimpanzees were utilized as breeders and research subjects. Missy now has 45 years under her belt (which is only a couple fewer than Negra, the sanctuary’s oldest chimpanzee). Despite her age, which would lead her to be classified as “geriatric” by primatologists, Missy is known for her youthful athleticism, persistent energy, and fierce independence.
The first thing you may notice about Missy is that there’s a lot of chimp packed into that compact little body, and she often appears to be propelled by explosive bursts as she zooms around the Hill. She’s the type of action hero who would walk away from an explosion without turning to look at it. Missy is a rebel who surely has plenty of cause, but I find her most admirable quality to be the way she regards the process of senescence with cool defiance. The rest of us can only hope to delay aging and enjoy retirement with a fraction of her success. We should all throw out our self-help books, shut off our podcasts, and instead look to Dr. Missy for advice.
You can imagine how daunting it must be to throw a birthday bash for such a unique and enigmatic individual. Fortunately for Chad (the Enrichment Coordinator), Missy has not been shy about her love for the red berries of a Central American flowering vine, Solanum lycopersicum, which are widely known by their Nahuatl name: tomatoes. Missy loves all cultivars of these things unconditionally, and doesn’t seem to ever grow tired of seeing them on the serving tray. As soon as she spies us take those waxy red orbs out of the refrigerator, Missy turns into a ravenous lunatic whose sole objective is to ingest as many tomatoes as quickly as possible. Given this knowledge, Chad obviously had to organize a tomato-themed party to celebrate Missy’s 45th trip around the sun.
While the chimps waited in the cool Playroom, today’s crew spread a forage of fresh veggies and chow in the Greenhouse and Young’s Hill. The cornucopia included whole beefsteak and wedged Roma tomatoes, small piles of grape tomatoes, chunks of sweet corn on the cob, and zesty red onions. One of our volunteer caregivers also prepared Gatorade cups with orange slices to wash it all down.
When we carried this feast out to spread in the chimps’ enclosures, the Seven erupted. The chimps were so raucous with excitement that Diana and J.B. heard their hoots and screams from the other end of the property. Foxie, who is also a fan of tomatoes, screamed the loudest. Because our hands were full of vegetables and other treats, we didn’t take any photos of the chaotic moment. Fortunately, J.B. and Jamie recently posted this demonstration so that you can all imagine what a chorus of pant-hooting chimpanzees sounds like. Eventually, the craziness subsided enough for the chimps to gather around the windows as we distributed small caches of food in their outdoor enclosures.
Once the caregivers had secured the Hill and Greenhouse, we let the chimpanzees back out to begin foraging. Of course, Missy launched herself out onto the grassy hillside and immediately started gathering tomatoes. It was as if she knew the reason for the celebration, and she was clearly the guest of honor.
The other chimpanzees enjoyed their shares, too. Missy undoubtedly “won” the event, but nobody went without food.
Burrito was more interested in playing, of course. This has been the norm for him this year. He eventually went outside and scrounged up some corn, but he made it clear that goofing around with a caregiver was the top priority.
At this point, you’re probably wondering where Jamie was. Did she hoard all of the corn? Well, she tried.
The magical aspect of widespread food is that it’s difficult to monopolize. In captive settings, resources are often provisioned in confined spaces that allow individuals with dominant personalities to, well, dominate. In ecological terms, this is known as contest competition and tends to reward those with brute strength and Machiavellian strategy.
Relatively large outdoor spaces (e.g. Young’s Hill) allow caregivers to distribute food over wider areas, which leads each group of chimpanzees to fission into smaller parties that then race each other to gather up the best available resources. This process, which more closely parallels the behavior of free-ranging chimpanzees, is an example of scramble competition. By facilitating this pattern of behavior, we can give subordinate chimpanzees a chance to get on the scoreboard. In such an environment, crafty and efficient chimpanzees can excel while those who usually rely on intimidation must fend for themselves. Today’s case in point was Missy, who proved herself to be the queen of the scramble.
Once the others had returned to the shade of the Greenhouse, Missy ventured out into the wilderness of Young’s Hill to continue searching. It was amazing to witness her scuttling across the wooden bridges and bushwhacking through the tall prairie grass. Her extraordinary effort reaped delicious rewards.
On the other side of the building, Honey B and her companions were treated to a similar feast. Honey B is, as you may know, Missy’s daughter. They have many differences, but Honey B was quite please by the tomatoes as well.
Willy B preferred the corn, and Mave was so engrossed with her lunch that we were unable to take any photos of her.
We usually avoid making assumptions about the chimpanzees’ experiences, but I feel confident that Missy made the most of her celebration.
Missy, I look forward to seeing you scarf down ten thousand more tomatoes.
Happy 45th, kid.