Chad and I have been taking turns sitting out by the chute this afternoon, so that’s where I’m currently stationed while I hammer out this blog post using my iPhone’s Notes app.
As many of you already know; three chimpanzees currently reside in the new wing of the Chimp House: Honey B, Mave and Willy B. Since arriving here in 2019, Honey B, Mave and Willy B have spent most of their time lounging in their cozy indoor areas, investigating new enrichment items, and looking out at the surrounding pastures and forests from the safety of the enclosed outdoor chute. As their caregivers, one of our responsibilities has been to give them the opportunity to go outdoors. For retired chimpanzees who were once used in laboratory research, going outside is a “gateway behavior” of sorts, bringing them closer to a multitude of novel and unique experiences.
Last fall, we started to give these three newcomers daily opportunities to venture outdoors into Young’s Hill, a two-acre outdoor habitat enclosed by two electrified fences. Early in this process, the chimps had some negative experiences with the “hot wires” that connect the fence posts, and for the next few months it seemed like the allure of the unknown was not worth the risk of another painful shock. As you may have gathered from following us this far, chimpanzees have a way of subverting our expectations and making us change course.
As J.B. reminded us all on Friday, chimps are not adapted for captive environments and we are constantly challenged to balance safety, health, and comfort for all parties involved. In the case of the new three and the prospect of going outside, we had to tinker with the environment in a way that led the chimps to act differently without compromising human or chimpanzee safety. The electrified barriers of Young’s Hill enable the chimpanzees to have an expansive and enriching outdoor environment, but they also can be a psychological deterrent.
Last winter, we extended a wooden boardwalk from the end of the chute to the large wooden tower that sits about thirty-five feet away. Chimpanzees, being semi-arboreal, like to stabilize themselves when they move and they often prefer to be above the ground. The boardwalk was designed so that the chimps could walk out into the Courtyard without having to touch the unfamiliar grass and without being tempted to grab the electrified wires for support. Then, we sectioned off that modest alcove of Young’s Hill to create a separate, secure area that we lovingly named The Courtyard. This way, the three would have a manageable amount of space to explore without the uncertainty of the larger enclosure (the far boundary of which is barely visible from the threshold of the chute). The modifications to the fence would also make it easier for us to monitor them if they decided to go on an adventure. Each day, we placed some treats on the boardwalk and waited patiently for them to consider their options.
One afternoon, just after the cold weather had broken and the valley greened up for spring, Willy decided that the moment was right. It began with a few cautious steps down the wooden path to collect food. Over a short period of time, like a chimpanzee Samwise Gamgee, his courageous adventures brought him farther from his familiar home. He learned to climb on firehose ropes, walk on grass, and even take naps outside. As J.B. stated in one blog post:
There could very well be setbacks to come, but Willy B’s efforts this past week have been deeply inspiring. To be honest, I have had trouble doing anything other than sitting quietly by the fence to watch it all unfold. There are so many other things to do and so much going on in the world deserving of attention. But Willy B is the story I need right now.
I wish I could go back a few months to let everyone know that, although Honey B and Mave have not yet decided to join him, Willy B has become quite comfortable in the Courtyard. As long as the weather isn’t too cold or wet, he excitedly waits by the hydraulic doors until we open them up. With all of the recent construction going on nearby, we’ve had to skip some of his group’s Courtyard turns. This hasn’t deterred Willy from making the most of his opportunities, though.
Today, we opened up the Courtyard after lunch, which is a bit later than usual. With a full belly and little incentive to rush back indoors, Willy has elected to spend two-and-a-half hours lounging on the structure all by his peaceful self, munching on lettuce and surveying the golden-flecked valley below. He shows no signs of coming back inside. I’m not complaining at all, but our daily workflow would definitely be improved if he had a change of heart. (After all, the barn needs to be mucked and I need to upload this blog!) We’re really excited for the day when we have two outdoor habitats, and Willy can sit unbothered from dawn ’til dusk.
Chad and I just offered him some sugar-free chewing gum, grapes, and strawberries in exchange for his return to the building. He chose to stay outside each time. Still, we’re respecting his choice to stay where he likes to be. As I finish typing this, he’s currently sprawled out in the autumn sun, holding his feet in the “happy baby” pose, letting the gentle breeze tickle his disheveled hair. I wouldn’t be surprised if he, like Jamie, learns that he can choose to stay outside as long as he wants. That would be fine with us.
Update: Willy finally chose to return inside after almost three unbroken hours in the Courtyard. It was almost certainly the longest duration of time he’s ever spent the outdoors. Now it’s time for one last walk with Jamie, dinner and evening puzzles, and a good night’s sleep in a heap of fleece blankets.