As part of our ongoing Q&A series, I thought I’d address one of the most common questions we get: Do we ever wish we could have more physical contact with the chimps?
As many of you know, we strictly limit the ways in which we interact with the chimpanzees out of concern for our safety. Chimpanzees are incredibly fast and powerful animals with large, muscular jaws and massive canine teeth. Estimates vary, but it’s safe to say that chimpanzees possess at least twice the upper body strength of humans, pound for pound. And for chimpanzees, aggression is not an aberration but rather a normal part of the way they interact with one another and the world around them.
Compounding the risk posed by their strength and natural behavior is the frustration they experience in captivity. One of the profound ironies of caring for chimpanzees is that you are far safer strolling through an African forest amidst a community of over a hundred free-living chimpanzees than you are standing near the enclosure of a captive chimpanzee. In fact, when Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, lost the tip of her thumb, it was not to one of the chimpanzees of Gombe that she had spent decades living among but rather to a chimpanzee in a laboratory cage. Frustration is not limited to chimpanzees in laboratories, however. Even in the best zoos and sanctuaries, we deny chimpanzees control over their lives and the ability to make choices for themselves. To put it bluntly, all captive chimpanzees are prisoners to varying degrees and we should not be surprised when they occasionally act as such.
So if we are concerned with safety, we’re left with a cautious and largely hands-off approach to caring for captive chimpanzees. In those times when we do have contact, we do so through the mesh fence in very controlled ways. We like to use the term protected contact, which originated as a way to describe the safe management of elephants from behind a safety barrier. At CSNW, this means that our bodies never penetrate the caging. If the chimps want us to touch them, we do so with the tip of a knuckle while the chimps press their bodies against the mesh. If they want to touch us, they must extend their fingers all the way out and we limit their reach to our bare elbows or wrists. These methods, along with countless hours of training, help limit opportunities to get bitten or grabbed.
All of this eventually becomes second nature for both caregivers and the chimpanzees and I can honestly tell you that I rarely desire to have more contact with my chimpanzee friends. That said, I do remember feeling differently during my first summer spent around chimpanzees. In 1998, I was an apprentice at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, and my fellow apprentices and I would spend five or more days per week recording observational data on the chimps, cleaning near them, and coding videos of them. Our lives were consumed with chimps but we were not trained to a level where we could have any contact with them at all. It was killing us. So much so that when we’d be out on the town at night, we’d inevitably mob some unsuspecting dog and frantically pet them until they managed to break free and run for help.
There is one particular situation where it is relatively safe for us to have free contact with the chimps and where we do sometimes indulge ourselves, and that is when they are under anesthesia for medical care. In these moments, in between the IV prep and the blood pressure readings, we sometimes find ourselves holding their hands. Maybe it’s in the hopes that somewhere in the deep recesses of their subconscious they can sense that we are there with them. Or maybe we are looking to them for comfort.
It’s important to remember that in normal circumstances the chimpanzees in our care get all the hugs, snuggles, play slaps, and tickles they desire from their chimpanzee friends, and the chimps and their caregivers are able to develop rich and full relationships despite the physical separation. It’s only natural to want to have more physical contact with them, but eventually you come to realize that a raucous game of chase across the mesh barrier is a perfectly fine way for two friends to play. No physical contact needed.
And in those times when we need a good ol’ hug…well, that’s what dogs are for.