We recently (like this morning recently) received a really good question about the hesitancy of Mave, Willy B, and Honey B to step onto the grass in the new greenhouses.
For those who have emailed me at all over the last decade know, I am not normally this speedy in my responses, but I have been thinking about this lately too and thought it would, indeed, be a good blog post. So, thank you, Kim, for the question!
This reminds me that we should go back and check this post from months ago and see if we left any questions hanging.
So, about hesitancy. First, this is the standard (albeit sometimes annoying) answer that we tend to give whenever we are asked questions about why a chimpanzee does something (i.e. Why is Jamie obsessed with boots?): “I don’t know.”
We have no access to the internal experiences of the chimpanzees, so answering the interesting why questions, for the most part, is pretty much impossible.
Of course we can speculate, but we don’t want to simply make up things that aren’t based in sound reasoning, repeat observations, and maybe extrapolation from other chimpanzees.
So, with the question of why the Cali Three are hesitant to walk on the grass, we don’t really know. What we do know is that chimpanzees, like many living beings, are often wary of new things.
I remember Binky at the Fauna Foundation alarm barking for what seemed like an hour because we had put out an open umbrella as part of the enrichment. The other chimpanzees could not figure out what he was so disturbed by, but he seemed pretty sure that umbrella was up to no good.
We know that chimpanzees at other sanctuaries are often very wary of different types of substrates (the technical term for what’s under your feet at any given time). This is especially true if for most of their lives they lived on a particular type of ground. For captive chimpanzees, that usually means concrete.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with concrete – we certainly utilize it for the indoor spaces at the sanctuary. Our concrete floors are heated, so that makes them a little cozier, and of course they are given nesting material like blankets and straw.
For chimpanzees who have only known the sturdy, flat feeling of concrete under their feet, stepping onto something with more dimension must feel so strange. Combine that with the possibility of things hiding in the substrate that can’t easily be seen (insects? snakes? who knows what!?).
I don’t blame them for being wary. You can read some eloquent past thoughts from J.B. in this blog post.
Everyone has preconceived visions of how captive chimpanzees should be living and what they will appreciate, but often those visions do not take into account the individual differences between chimpanzees and their life histories.
Sometimes all that stands between the reality today and our vision is time – in some cases a LOT of time. Amy Fultz of Chimp Haven just said the other day that it was twelve years before one of the chimpanzees at that sanctuary ventured onto the grassy parts of his outdoor habitat.
You might recall that it took Negra about the same amount of time to climb to the tallest structure on the hill.
And she hasn’t done it since.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t create spaces with grass, or tall climbing structures, of course. When chimpanzees do overcome their hesitation, it’s one of the most beautiful sights in the world. Missy running full speed across the expanse of Young’s Hill will never not take my breath away.
What’s important is providing choices, and trying to figure out what might help them transition towards the unknown.
Honey B is already there. She’s waltzing across the grass in the greenhouses with confidence (though not yet loitering for long),
while Mave and Willy B seem to still prefer to avoid it, which they can do easily by walking on the logs, maneuvering around with the fire hose and caging, or using movable objects to avoid their feet touching the lovely grass.
This might be surprising, considering that Willy B has ventured out in the Courtyard, while Honey B and Mave have not. But there are so many differences between the new greenhouses and the Courtyard. The grass is entirely different, the greenhouses still afford the security of being enclosed (open-top areas are super scary for a lot of chimpanzees), the access is different (through a playroom door vs the Chute tunnel), and then of course there’s the electric fence of the Courtyard.
We hope that the greenhouses will prove to be a transition area for Mave and Honey B, so that they become accustomed to the semi-outside, and perhaps down the road, the open-top enclosure won’t seem so foreign. We’ll likely be doing some other adjustments to the Courtyard in the future in the hopes that it will be more inviting/less intimidating.
In the meantime, we’ll let the chimpanzees adjust at their own pace.
While it may seem that the original group of seven have always been comfortable in their various areas, that’s not the case. The original greenhouse was the seven’s first semi-outside area, and it was open to the elements.
When the greenhouse panels went on, it created a space that was more usable throughout the fall and winter.
While Burrito had been comfortable with the space as it original was, once the greenhouse panels went up, which you would think wouldn’t really impact his experience of the space at all, he was freaked out.
The staff at the time had to brainstorm ways to encourage Burrito to overcome his hesitation. We started serving meals out there, and eventually the promise of food is what led Burrito to embrace the changed spaced. You can read a blog post and watch a video that shows what was, at the time, Burrito’s bravery.
While all seven of the original group poured out onto Young’s Hill when the door first opened on day one, a few of the chimpanzees were quite hesitant to repeat that experience in the days that followed. Read this blog and watch the video of Foxie getting braver, thanks to her friends and to an ingenious way she discovered to motivate herself!
Like Honey B, Willy B, and Mave, the Lucky Six have lived for most of their lives in indoor/outdoor enclosures that have concrete floors.
It will be so interesting to see what they make of the grass. Whatever their reaction, we will be watching and learning from them so that we can help them be comfortable and, hopefully, overcome any fears they may have. It seems like just yesterday we were having similar thoughts about the seven and Young’s Hill.
Imagine, hopefully next year, we’ll all be on pins and needles as we anticipate a group of six, or maybe nine, chimpanzees enter their new open-top habitat.
BIG thanks to everyone who has been a part of this sanctuary. YOU have helped the chimps overcome their fears by enabling us to provide them with choices, flexibility, and individualized care in a loving, trusting environment.