Snow on the Cascade peaks means that winter is on its way to the sanctuary. Until then, we will continue enjoying lunch with a view on these beautiful fall days.
Chimp house mornings are quite busy. We begin by prepping meds and breakfast and putting together the day’s food puzzles, and then spend the next 4-5 hours cleaning enclosures. The chimps spend most of that time eating, playing, grooming, and occasionally squabbling with one another. When lunch is finally served, there is a bit of a reprieve from the more hurried morning pace. It is then that we begin to clean dishes, wash produce, fold laundry, prepare enrichment, and work on the blog. The chimps know that they can’t ask for too much of our time in the morning, but in the afternoon we will usually drop whatever we are doing to cater to their wishes.
Each chimp has their own preference when it comes to socializing with caregivers. Some prefer to take walks or play chase, while others would rather sit quietly and groom. With Gordo, I’m lucky if I can get a brief bunny hop out of him, while with Burrito, I’m lucky if I can ever get back to work. Foxie wants to play with dolls, Terry wants to groom boots, Lucky wants to pick scabs off and maybe create a few new ones, and Cy wants to give a few tickles. Willy B wants to watch movies on our phones, though if he could figure out how to do this without the need for humans he probably would. That said, he does sometimes play chase with us, which involves him running away and then bouncing up and down while facing the wall. Go figure.
These moments are play time for us caregivers, too, but they are every bit as important as the other work we do.
Are you joining us for the Comfort & Joy Virtual Gathering tonight at 5pm PT/8pm ET? If you can’t make it, there’s still time to visit the online auction and bid on items for yourself or for the chimps—including helping us complete those new climbing structures. The bidding ends 11/18!
Today we celebrated the 32nd birthday of the one and only Lucky! Due to the seemingly unending rain here in Central Washington, we held the parties fully indoors, which meant that Lucky was out of view of the paparazzi for most of the corn, cherry tomato, and gum forage (yes, gum is one of Lucky’s favorite things). But after the lunch forage, everyone in her group was given a mango and I managed to snap a few photos of Lucky savoring her special treat in the Oakwood greenhouse.
Many thanks to Paulette for sponsoring this day in honor of the birthday girl!
There are very few chimps as sweet as Lucky and her brother, Cy. Lucky generally prefers to be out of the spotlight, with the notable exception of when we are serving her favorite foods, at which point she leaps to the caging to tickles our wrists with her toes while panting excitedly. With her more reserved personality, I wasn’t sure how quickly she would take to a more adventurous life on the Bray. Needless to say, she surprised us all! These days she is often the first one out and among the most likely to be seen at the top of the tallest climbing structures. We often find her out there just soaking up the sun and taking in the view.
The view from the Bray, by the way, is incredible (a few power lines and the occasional parked train in the valley notwithstanding). From almost anywhere on the hill, the chimps can see their caregivers coming and going, they can watch the sun reflect off the Yakima River, they can keep an eye on the cattle, or the can spy on their chimp neighbors next door. But from the very top of the hill, the view across the Cascade Mountains is almost limitless. In order to take advantage of that commanding view, however, the chimps need a few more places to perch.
Building the Bray took quite a while and we didn’t want Lucky and her friends to have to wait any longer than necessary to enjoy it, so we chose to hold off on building some of the climbing structures we had planned. With winter approaching, it’s a good time for us to get back out there and finish what we started.
This past week, we welcomed a new part time Facilities and Grounds Technician, Jake, and we immediately put him to work setting posts that we had purchased last year for these new structures (a quick note of thanks here to Kelsi’s husband, Adam, who filled the same role until his firefighting job began to require more of his time). Now we need your help to finish them! If you visit our Comfort & Joy online auction, you’ll see an option to donate towards the construction of new play structures on the Bray and Young’s Hill, which will help fund the purchase of the framing lumber, decking, and fasteners we need to complete these new towers. If we can get the in-ground work done this month, construction of the decks, roofs, ladders, and swings can continue throughout the fall and winter. And in the spring, we’ll be able to wrap things up with additional irrigation and more trees and shrubs.
And before you know it, Lucky and the rest of her family will be starting each day with a hike to the top of the Bray, just like Jamie’s group does on Young’s Hill, to which we will also be adding new climbing structures in order to take advantage of all the additional space we added last summer.
As a little bonus, here are some photos of Lucky’s group enjoying Ryan’s Lookout, one of their favorite places to hang out.
Rayne, again, retrieving a pomegranate from one of the crow’s nests connected to Ryan’s Lookout:
Rayne atop Ryan’s Lookout, with Gordo, Lucky, and Terry in the foreground:
Some dominant male chimpanzees maintain power through brute force and intimidation. But not all.
Traits such as kindness, fairness, and tolerance are often overlooked in discussions about chimpanzee dominance hierarchies, yet they can also be effective as a means to achieve status. Cy is a good example of this. It’s true, he has been known to steal a chow bag or two from his group mates, but he’s just as likely to use his alpha position to defend the underdog and keep the peace as he is to enrich himself.
This video shows just a small example of the myriad ways in which Cy’s leadership is called upon to maintain stability in his group.
It seems like all of the Californians are making great strides these days. Honey B, Mave, and Dora have all been on the Bray multiple times (true, only to chase the boys but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere), Cy is exploring the very top of the hill, and now Willy B is learning that while he may not enjoy it, the grass is not, in fact, lava.
I’m posting this video to celebrate Willy’s accomplishment, but I can’t help reflecting on how great a guy Cy is. Willy B is a great guy, too, but he’s not always an easy friend to have. He’s riddled with anxiety, he’s socially awkward, and while he’s not particularly aggressive himself, his displays and outbursts often have the effect of stirring his group mates into conflict. Whether Cy sees past all this, or just realizes that he has to work with what he was given, it amazes me to see how patient and kind he can be to his new buddy. Willy B may not always deserve Cy’s patience and understanding, but he’d be lost without it.
By the way, are you getting excited for Jamieween? Care to help us throw a big party? Check out our wish list here.
Fear is something we usually try to avoid instilling in the animals we care for. In fact, one of the original frameworks for thinking about animal welfare, known as the Five Freedoms, included as one of its central tenets the “freedom from fear and distress.”
But a little fear can also be a good thing.
As a caregiver, I love watching the chimps take their first anxious, tentative steps onto grass. I love watching them seek reassurance as they venture far into a new enclosure and away from everything they consider safe and comfortable. And I love seeing the expression of relief and excitement when they finally accomplish the thing they were so afraid of.
Certainly it would be better if they weren’t afraid of these particular things in the first place. But we all have some fears, and if we didn’t face them now and again we wouldn’t really be living. So long as we have choice, social support, and the ability to retreat to a place of safety and comfort when things feel overwhelming, it almost feels like a little fear should be a requirement.
Perhaps I just need a different word—something that refers specifically to a condition of one’s own choosing that is equal parts fear and exhilaration, but particularly one that involves overcoming some sort of obstacle, either physical or emotional. Words like thrill and frisson don’t seem to really capture it. I’m sure it exists…maybe someone reading this can help me.
In any case, witnessing this emotion in the chimps at CSNW is for me the peak of compassion satisfaction. It’s almost like a high. And it’s one of the rare times that I wished I worked at a bigger sanctuary, so I could see it over and over again.
As I close up the chimp house, I often wonder if the chimps reflect on their day. I hope that Cy is laying in bed right now, picturing that view of the valley and feeling whispers of the way he was feeling when he first made it to the top of the Bray.
In 2011, primatologists Lucy Birkett and Nicholas Newton-Fisher conducted a study that sought to shed light on a simple yet provocative question: How abnormal is the behavior of captive, zoo-living chimpanzees? I encourage you to read the paper but I’ll spare you the suspense:
Their treatment of the issue was only slightly more nuanced. Captive chimpanzee behavior is normal, the authors say, in that they display many of the same behaviors as their wild counterparts—behaviors that we refer to as species-typical. As we know, captive chimpanzees tend to run, climb, groom, and use tools, just like wild chimps. The problem is that they also display a wide range of behaviors that are only rarely, if ever, seen in wild chimpanzees, such as hair-plucking, regurgitation and re-ingestion, coprophagy (eating feces), urophagy (drinking urine), pacing, rocking, self-clasping, and self-biting, which are commonly understood to be a reflection of poor welfare at some stage of life, and perhaps even mental illness. After observing the behavior of 40 chimpanzees at six accredited zoos in the U.S. and Europe, the authors came to the conclusion that abnormal behavior was not only present but endemic in these populations, regardless of group size, composition, and housing. Every single chimpanzee subject exhibited at least one abnormal behavior during the study period, with an average repertoire of five abnormal behaviors and an average frequency of once every forty minutes. This, it should be noted, was in contrast to the whopping total of zero instances that they recorded in over 1,023 hours observing wild chimpanzees in Uganda.
Researchers within in the zoo community rejected this characterization. They conducted their own study, which utilized a larger sample size but substituted surveys of zoo staff for direct behavioral observation, and concluded that only 64% of chimpanzees displayed abnormal behavior. And after excluding coprophagy, which some argue can be considered abnormal without necessarily being reflective of poor welfare, the overall prevalence of, shall we say, meaningfully abnormal behavior in their study dropped to a somewhat lower but still shockingly high 48%. As a rebuttal to the use of the term endemic, the paper may have succeeded, but it should provide little consolation.
Why would half or more of all chimpanzees in accredited zoological institutions exhibit abnormal behavior, in such stark contrast to their wild counterparts? Why, in light of decades of rigorous animal welfare science and the best efforts of hundreds upon hundreds of experts, do captive chimpanzees continue to regurgitate and pluck themselves bald?
One thing I discovered shortly after entering this field is that there is little agreement as to what it means for an animal to have a good life. To some, a good life is one in which one’s basic needs are met. As Dr. Dave Hone argues in an article entitled Why Zoos are Good:
…[zoo animals] will not suffer from the threat or stress of predators (and nor will they be killed in a grisly manner or eaten alive) or the irritation and pain of parasites, injuries and illnesses will be treated, they won’t suffer or die of drought or starvation and indeed will get a varied and high-quality diet with all the supplements required. They can be spared bullying or social ostracism or even infanticide by others of their kind, or a lack of a suitable home or environment in which to live. A lot of very nasty things happen to truly ‘wild’ animals that simply don’t happen in good zoos and to cast a life that is ‘free’ as one that is ‘good’ is, I think, an error.
There’s no question that the best zoos attempt to do all of this and more for the chimpanzees in their care. Why, then, does abnormal behavior persist?
The answer is that chimpanzees are more than just bundles of basic needs. They are complex social and emotional beings with highly intelligent and inquisitive minds. Moreover, chimpanzees are adapted to employ these traits in the environments in which their species evolved—a diverse range of environments, it should be said, from rain forest to savanna, which altogether actually have relatively little in common, save for one thing: their complete lack of resemblance to an urban zoo exhibit.
Should we be surprised that animals whose home ranges are measured in square miles in the wild feel frustrated in zoo exhibits? Should we expect animals that evolved dynamic fission-fusion communities of up to 150 individuals to thrive in relatively static groups of a dozen or less? Do we believe that members of a species that exhibits a predictable pattern of migration, in which males remain in their natal communities while females generally emigrate upon reaching adolescence, would not experience prolonged stress when groups are broken up and reorganized in violation of those patterns? This mismatch between the captive environment and the environment in which chimpanzees evolved both denies them the opportunity to express behaviors that are biologically and psychologically fulfilling and introduces stressors for which they have no innate coping mechanisms. And, importantly, it exists to varying degrees in every situation in which chimpanzees live under human care, from laboratory to zoo to sanctuary.
Regarding Dr. Hone’s point, I would never argue that life for wild chimpanzees is perfect. But I don’t think it requires a defense, either. It very well may be nasty, brutish, and short (actually, wild chimpanzees that reach adulthood live nearly as long as captive chimpanzees), but it is theirs, and has been for millions of years. It would be strange, and perhaps too convenient, to think we could improve upon it.
If we accept that all is not well for captive chimpanzees, we must then ask ourselves why we continue to breed them in captivity. I, for one, am not against all forms of captivity, as for the better part of the last 25 years I have worked to keep chimpanzees behind bars and electric fencing. Sanctuaries are necessary for chimpanzees who have been raised in captivity or who cannot be returned to the wild. And in fact many zoos have, to their great credit, provided homes for chimpanzees from laboratories, the pet trade, and various failed and shuttered institutions. But intentionally breeding and keeping animals in a way that denies their autonomy and restricts the full repertoire of their behavior, and which results in the proliferation of myriad abnormal behaviors despite our best efforts to enrich their environments, requires justification or, at the very least, a bit more reflection.
The modern defense of maintaining chimpanzees in zoos rests on two assumptions. The first is that the captive chimpanzee population serves an important role as a reservoir for one day restoring declining wild populations—the ark strategy, if you will. Given what we know about captive chimpanzees’ behavioral abnormalities and the absence of any kind of culturally-transmitted knowledge that would permit them to survive independently, this is unlikely to succeed and is generally accepted as such, even within the zoo community. The second is that zoo chimpanzees help educate the public and inspire support for conservation efforts. For this there is at least a somewhat more robust debate. But even if we were to accept that these benefits could only be achieved by maintaining chimpanzees in exhibits, our rightness in doing so would depend largely on how we measure the costs on the other side of the ledger; namely, those borne by the captive chimpanzees themselves.
The degree to which abnormal behavior correlates to the internal experience of suffering in captive chimpanzees is difficult to define with precision and we must be careful not to lump all abnormal behaviors together as though each is indicative of the same degree of compromised welfare. But the data appear to support what many of us have experienced professionally and what many others know intuitively: The chimps aren’t alright. And the reason for their troubles, it seems, has less to do with the way in which we keep them than with the very fact that we keep them at all. Our society is just now beginning to wrestle with the fact that, at least for some species like elephants and cetaceans, captivity is simply incompatible with good welfare. If we care enough about chimpanzees to conserve their wild populations, it’s time we think critically about the well being of the individuals serving on their behalf.