Burrito is a male chimpanzee.
You may not be all that familiar with chimpanzees, but if you’ve ever known a male human being, you’ve pretty much got Burrito figured out. Because if there’s one thing us guys share above all else, it’s that we are compelled by forces beyond our control to do stupid things.
I like to think that each male chimp has a little devil on his shoulder that whispers bad advice into his ear all day long:
Hey – since everyone’s asleep right now, wouldn’t this be the perfect time to throw this barrel across the room and make a lot of noise?
Pssst…you know what really impresses girls? When you hit them on the back of the head.
I bet the caregiver will give you extra food if you spit a little of it back in her face.
Don’t get me wrong…the little devil is not all bad. Chimpanzee society is organized into a dominance hierarchy, and you need the little devil to help you stake out your place. But the trick is to keep him under control. Over time, most male chimps learn that they can ignore him once and a while, or at least limit his influence. When they are young and they act inappropriately, they get reprimanded by their mothers or put in their place by the adults in the group. And at the same time, they learn to model their behavior after the adult males in their community so that they can harness all of that testosterone effectively. But what happens when you are raised without a mother or without any other chimpanzees at all?
When Burrito first came to the sanctuary, he seemed genuinely surprised when the girls got mad at him. He would fly around the room like a Tasmanian devil during his displays and when they began to react, he would push it even farther until they all ganged up on him. Afterwards, he would lay by himself and nurse his wounds, with a pathetic Why me? look on his face, as if he had been minding his own business when the girls just spontaneously attacked him.
There are all sorts of subtle interactions between chimps that keep their society running smoothly. For example, when a subordinate chimp submits to a dominant chimp, the dominant chimp accepts this submission by extending a hand to be kissed, or reaching his arm around them for reciprocal grooming. But Burrito never learned how to be a chimp and these social situations seem to make him nervous, so he has developed an alternative strategy: close your eyes and pretend nothing is happening. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t work very well.
In a way, Burrito is like a kid that never grew up, and adult behavior just doesn’t make sense to him. He knows that he wants to be dominant – that it’s his rightful place to be dominant – but he can’t quite figure out how to make it happen. So he has been stuck in limbo. Strong enough to be feared, but not wise enough to be respected.
Every once and a while, you get a little glimpse of that male chimp swagger, and you start to think that he may just figure this whole alpha thing out after all.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath…