The Cle Elum Seven fight a lot. You probably don’t get that sense from reading this blog. It’s not a conscious decision of ours to downplay their aggressiveness, but I do worry sometimes that our inclination to share mostly cute, funny, and uplifting stories leads us to unintentionally misrepresent the nature of chimpanzees.
Don’t get me wrong – relative to all the other things they do, like eating, resting, playing, and so on, fighting occurs infrequently. Chimpanzees are by and large peaceful and cooperative. But for most groups, all that peace and cooperation is punctuated on a fairly regular basis by terrifying bouts of screaming, hitting, clawing, and biting.
This morning, Jamie got upset when she missed an opportunity to steal food at breakfast. Jamie has a hair trigger temper – if she thinks she wasn’t given the deference she deserves, she reacts by screaming bloody murder. Her screaming gets the whole group upset and before long Burrito begins to display. With Jamie screaming and Burrito flying around like a Tasmanian devil, it’s only a matter of time before contact is made and a fight begins – sometimes between two chimps that had nothing to do with the cause of the disorder in the first place.
Most fights end without injury. In fact, this fight at breakfast ended quickly without incident, and the chimps returned to their meal. But Jamie held a grudge. She was probably stewing inside all morning. In fact, I know she was, because she took it out on me.
Captive chimps love to redirect their aggression (one of the many unflattering traits we share). Why pick a fight with another chimp, who could bite you back, when you could direct your aggression toward a human? Caregivers are at times the chimps’ unwitting therapists, allowing them to release pent-up frustrations in a safe space. Hence the high-velocity feces that grazed my head as I let the chimps onto Young’s Hill this morning. That was just Jamie’s way of coping, as were the threat barks directed at us by Negra, Missy, and even Annie (!) throughout the morning.
But hurling feces wasn’t enough for Jamie. As we were cleaning the playroom, we saw her walk into the greenhouse with a full closed grin (a misleading term for a facial expression that includes baring both the top and bottom teeth in fear or aggression) to round up other chimps. When her backup arrived, she ran into the front rooms to confront Burrito. Burrito suddenly found himself trapped on a bench where he had been resting, surrounded by five of his family members all lunging and swinging at him. Burrito had to decide….should he fight back and risk escalating the situation while greatly outnumbered, or try to escape? He chose the latter and managed to get away with only a small bite to his foot. Jamie had made her point. He was chastened.
Fights are unsettling to the whole group because social instability is a threat to everyone. Following a fight, the chimps groom intensely to repair and restore relationships.
Burrito’s go-to grooming buddy is Foxie. Even when she is his antagonist in the fight, he still goes to her for comfort. This afternoon, they groomed on the greenhouse deck for at least 30 minutes.
Foxie & Burrito:
This kind of grooming has nothing to do with hygiene. It’s all about closeness and physical connection.
Eventually, Missy approached and Burrito turned to groom her as well.
But Foxie wasn’t done with Burrito, and she cajoled him into returning with a smile, a poke, some head nods, and a series of breathy pants.
Some scientists think that captive chimpanzees have a greater propensity to reconcile after fights than their wild counterparts do because of the nature of captivity – in captivity, you can’t run away from your problems. If someone beats you up, you are probably going to have to sit with them at lunch an hour later. So your best bet is to take out some of your frustration in whichever way floats your boat – charging through the playroom, smashing a toy into a million pieces, spitting on your caregivers, or initiating a CODE BROWN on an innocent and unsuspecting Co-Director – and with that out of the way, get to work making up with your family.