When the wind picked up the fire spread
And the grapevines seemed left for dead
And the northern sky looked like the end of days
The end of days…
Once again, Earth’s inhabitants are suffering through yet another record-breaking wildfire season. Forests are ablaze from Turkey to Siberia and almost everywhere else, sending clouds of haze over the northern hemisphere from the burroughs of New York to the ice sheets covering the North Pole.
Here in the American West, a combination of social and environmental factors has resulted in several consecutive years of devastating wildfires and oppressively hazy conditions.
As with many ecosystems around the globe, the continent’s prairies and boreal forests have depended on periodic fires to recycle nutrients since before humans even existed. However, the current frequency, intensity and duration of large fires is unprecedented and concerning.
As of yesterday, there were 91 active wildfires in the continental United States and another 241 fires burning in the Canadian province of British Columbia (just across the border from Washington State). The monstrous Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon has been sustaining itself for over a month and has charred half a million acres of land on its own. Thanks to high winds, prolonged drought and excessive heat, some of the region’s larger fires may continue to burn for several months.
Currently, the sanctuary is covered in a dystopian fog that obscures the horizon and, much like that of a smoggy urban area, could be unhealthy if breathed in for prolonged periods of time. As with past summers, the chimps will continue to have access to the outdoors unless conditions worsen to “Hazardous.” The air quality hasn’t dipped as low as it did last September, but we still have several months left before we’re literally out of the fire. Thankfully, the forecast indicates that atmospheric conditions should improve over the next few days, giving us some relief from the haze.
In the past, the sanctuary team has had some close calls with brush fires. The scariest experience was the Taylor Bridge Fire, which ignited near the sanctuary in August of 2012 and almost reached the Chimp House before firefighters could get it under control. If you’d like to read the harrowing story from several different perspectives, you can still read the blog posts from that nightmare of a week almost a decade ago: The Story of the Fire (Part 1), Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.
Another close call occurred in 2016 when Jamie, a proactively vigilant chimpanzee, notified her caregivers that a brush fire had ignited within sight of the Chimp House. Thanks to Jamie’s efforts, local firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze and subsequently gave her the title of Honorary Firefighter in 2017.
Given the ubiquitous threat of wildfire in our region, several of our dedicated blog readers have recently asked how we protect the sanctuary and its residents. Today’s post will review our strategy for coping with these dicey conditions so that you can all stay informed.
First and foremost, here’s an elementary chemistry lesson: fires need fuel, heat and oxygen. The ideal strategy minimizes these three components.
We can’t rid the sanctuary of oxygen (for obvious reasons), but we can lessen the amount of combustible material around the property so that any nearby fires have less to consume. When it comes to weed control, bringing in natural grazers can be a sustainable long-term solution. Since 2018, our unofficial fire prevention squad has consisted of four rescued Jersey cattle who subsist on seasonal vegetation that would otherwise become a fire hazard when it desiccates in late summer.
The staff take care of the rest by mowing, trimming, and spraying weeds. Importantly, we avoid any activities that could accidentally ignite a new fire. For example, our crew avoids using machinery (tractors, vehicles, mowers) in tall grass during the summer and restricts outdoor welding to the cooler and wetter months.
Additionally, we make sure that there are no large trees or shrubs within a certain radius of the Chimp House so that it would be difficult for a fire to jump closer to the main building. This perimeter of defensible space is mandated by our county’s regulations, but we would gladly maintain it even if it weren’t. In the case of the aforementioned Taylor Bridge Fire, such a boundary enabled the firefighters to safely protect the building with the chimps (and human) safely inside. The building itself is predominantly built from concrete and steel and is covered with a metal roof, so it’s unlikely that the structure itself would catch fire. The interior is also constructed to code and has a sprinkler system that would activate if we had a fire inside the building. The chimps always have access to outdoor enclosures like the greenhouses and chute to which they could escape if the indoors were filled with smoke.
The Chimp House is now surrounded by a system of wildfire sprinklers that J.B. built in 2014. In just a few seconds, any staff member can start a propane-fueled pump that collects water from a nearby pond and sprays it into the air around the building. This mist creates a humid microclimate which effectively dampens any airborne embers, converting the building’s immediate surroundings into a fire-resistant oasis. Our staff regularly tests and maintains the sprinkler system during the late spring and summer.
Finally, local firefighting departments know the sanctuary well, have visited the site and the chimps, and consult with the sanctuary’s leadership on issues related to fire prevention. In turn, we use their social media channels to stay informed about local conditions.
Even at our maximum level of preparedness, there are limits to our defenses and we will remain open to contingency plans. For example, we have the capacity to evacuate all humans, canines, felines and bovines from the property if another evacuation order is given, but we would be less likely to evacuate the chimps. Many supporters have asked if we have ever, or would ever, evacuate the Chimp House in one of these situations, and the answer is complicated. As J.B. explained in the aftermath of the Taylor Bridge Fire, keeping the chimps in their defensible home has always been the safest option for them and for us. This statement is more true than ever given the upgrades to the facility and additions to our chimp family in recent years; loading sixteen chimps onto a trailer would be a big challenge.
While we may encounter a scenario that causes us to do otherwise, we hope we never have to resort to such extremes.
It’s almost certain that our fire prevention and emergency response strategies will continue evolving as new technology and information become available, we continue the ongoing expansion of the facility, and the regional climate shifts further into precarious territory. Through all this and more, we will keep doing whatever is needed to keep the sanctuary’s beloved residents safely out of harm’s way.
Things have changed at CSNW.
Many, if not most, male former laboratory chimps are what people in the zoo world refer to as behavioral non-breeders. In short, they were raised in such unnatural ways (e.g., in human homes or in nursery peer groups) that they never learned “normal” sexual behavior. This isn’t to say that they don’t express any sexual behavior at all. Willy B, for example, loves to watch videos of female chimps on our phones – especially Jamie – which puts us in a somewhat uncomfortable position at times. And Diana and I worked with a chimpanzee that was notorious for getting women to bend down towards him so he could look down their shirts. But a large number of them don’t copulate. In fact, none of the groups that I’ve cared for long-term over the past 20+ years has included a male that does.
For whatever reason, this wondrous ball of fluff named Terry defied the odds and loves to express his natural behavior on a regular basis with Dora. Which is great. But because sanctuaries don’t allow breeding, it raises the stakes of our contraception program. Terry was vasectomized, but that may need to be checked down the road as they do sometimes fail. Or the females in his group could be put on oral contraceptives as we have done with other groups during intros or for ongoing medical reasons. Stopping in for the chimps’ birth control always delights the folks at the local pharmacy.
Diana’s been on a kick lately trying to add to the genealogical data we already have for chimps in sanctuaries. So many of the chimps we’ve cared for in other sanctuaries are closely related to the chimps we care for now. And often the resemblances are uncanny. This is in part due to the fact that it’s a relatively small population, but it’s also because of how few of the chimps in labs exhibited breeding behavior. Terry, for his part, was born towards the end of large-scale breeding in labs and was released from the lab at a young age so he was never used to produce more chimpanzees for research.
I can’t tell you how much I love Cy. He really is a sweet, gentle guy. Tonight we watched the first real conflict among his group since they got to CSNW. Gordo was terribly upset (we don’t know why) and he followed Cy around, screaming incessantly while trying to get others to join him in going after the big man. But Cy, who is a good 30 pounds larger, held back and allowed Gordo to get whatever it was off his chest without engaging further. And no one backed Gordo in his efforts. Eventually some of the others got in a scuffle due to the group’s arousal level but that ended quickly.
This is what so many primatologists try in vain to convey about alpha males – the best alphas don’t rule solely through aggression and intimidation. They settle disputes. They promote cohesion in the group. They are loved and respected. Now we haven’t even gotten to know this group well enough yet to confirm that Cy is in fact the undisputed leader, but he certainly has some of the makings.
Honey B isn’t a big fan of change. She’s the nervous type, often retreating to a corner and clutching blankets when she feels the slightest bit stressed (something I remember vividly from our first encounter at her previous home). And with all of the new chimps, new facilities, and changes in enclosure access, I would expect her to have some anxiety. But all in all she has been doing quite well. The other day I played chase with her and she repeated ran across the grass in the greenhouse, which is a big step. And at this point she hasn’t been too much of a bully to her new (and old) friends across the hall. Though there’s still time.
Kelsi and I were just talking about how difficult it is to come up with a new blog title each day now that we have published over 5,600 of them. Often times we are left starting blankly at the screen long after the workday ends, with all but the title completed. Quiet Moments…hmmm, have I used that one before? Photos of the Day? Happenings? I don’t know, but it’s getting awfully dark outside…
Of course, some of our staff have been seduced into the dark world of pun titles. Anthony and Chad are too far gone now to be saved. Sadly, they are intent on bringing Sam down with them, though I still have hope for her.
In any event, here are some photos of quiet moments and happenings that I took today.
This video (above) reminded me of someone eating a corn dog at a ball game, though I don’t really go to ball games and I have no idea if they still have corn dogs.
In any case, Jody definitely was enjoying her cattail wadge while keeping an eye on the neighbors today.
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Happy Saturday, everyone!
Cy’s reaction to magazines still catches me off guard. Is someone food squeaking? Alarm barking? Oh, it’s just Cy looking at magazines again. We’re going to need a name for that vocalization.
Willy B continues to be the center of attention at the sanctuary. When he goes into the courtyard, the Seven hoot and holler, which causes the Lucky Six to respond, which in turn causes Willy B, Honey B, and Mave to call back. And around it goes. Eventually they all settle down. But it’s quite the soap opera.
Speaking of soap operas, that little Dora continues to look for Willy B wherever he goes.
Once and a while they meet across the hallway…
While I was on my perimeter check this morning I came across Meredith grooming her buddy Nutmeg.
Then Betsy came over to groom me.
Willy B must be feeling pretty good about himself these days, as he seems to be setting some of the new girls’ hearts a flutter. The first time they laid eyes on him, Dora and Rayne pant-grunted towards him and then turned to each other and hugged. And now, each time Willy B goes outside, Dora rushes to the greenhouse bench overlooking the courtyard to watch him.
For now, we are trying to regulate any close interactions between the groups, even ones that are consistent with our quarantine protocols, so that none of the chimps are able to direct dominance displays at any other individuals in particular (which could complicate potential future introductions if allowed to go on too long). The windows directly between the two areas they are currently separated into have been semi-permanently covered with thick plastic sheets and we’ll do the same to the cage walls dividing the playrooms and the greenhouses before quarantine ends and the groups live side by side. But there’s one area where two windows sit across a small mechanical room from one another and in there we simply covered one over in paper, meaning we can easily give the groups a peek at one another. So today we tried that. It was surprisingly mellow!
Mave, Willy B, and Honey B all came down to Front Room 7, the medical enclosure, to see what was going on.
They were greeted at the opposite window by Rayne, Gordo, and Dora.
As soon as Willy B approached the window, Dora stood up, smiled, and swayed back and forth. She had never been so close to him before. Terry joined her as well.
Cy then strolled in carrying one of his magazines.
Now we see what he’s been so interested in.
Lucky somehow missed out on today’s excitement but she’ll get a chance to see them soon enough!
For their first 30 days here, our new arrivals will be in quarantine to protect the health of the chimps already at the sanctuary. In addition to keeping the groups physically separated, the staff must change scrubs, gloves, boots, and masks anytime they go between groups in order to prevent cross-contamination. To make life easier, we dedicate two staff members each day to work with the new guys while the rest of us care for everyone else. You can imagine how badly those of us not working with the Lucky Six want to pop over and say hello!
As it was not my turn today to work with the new group, I’ll have to share some photos I took the other day. I’ve been reminded a lot this week of when the Cle Elum Seven first arrived back in 2008. We were all so eager to get to know them, but whenever we tried to spend time with them there was one chimpanzee – Jamie – that hogged all of our attention. Likewise, as much as I’m dying to get to know Rayne, Lucky, Gordo, and Dora better, for me this whole week has been The Terry and Cy Show.
Terry enjoying some chewing gum:
Fun fact: Terry really wants to lick everyone:
Cy, the alpha of the group:
By the way, if you haven’t noticed already, Terry and Mave are brother and sister from another mother and mister. They even do the same “smoosh face”, wherein they greet you with their faces pressed up against the caging.
While Willy B has been putting on some of his best displays to make himself known to the chimps on the other side of the wall, Mave has offered up only the occasional recumbent pant hoot to back him up.
Thankfully, our record-breaking heat wave is over and we’ve returned to a seasonally appropriate level of too hot. But it is a relief in comparison and the chimps have been spending a little more time outside.
Missy and Annie: