Monday, July 2, 2012

Chimp attacks, a birthday, and a passing

There has been a lot of discussion of chimpanzee aggression this past week.  A baby chimpanzee was killed in front of zoo visitors by a male chimpanzee at the LA Zoo and a graduate student who had just begun working with chimpanzees was horrifically attacked by two male chimpanzees at Chimp Eden in South Africa.  Journalists and much of the general public are shocked.  Most people familiar with chimpanzees are responding to the shock by explaining that chimpanzees are stronger than humans, that aggression is a part of their natural behavioral repertoire, that chimpanzees are not domesticated and will never be “tamed.” 
I think there is more to it. 
The aggressors are captive male chimpanzees who have not yet mellowed with age (some older male chimpanzees can be remarkably caring and sweet – but no one should let their guard down around them nonetheless. This is one especially sweet old guy, Keo, who turned 54 this week.  He is the oldest male chimpanzee in captivity).  
Keo at the Lincoln Park Zoo (c) Steve Ross
Captivity is stressful.  Even the best captive conditions are stressful, and from what I gather, both the LA Zoo and Chimp Eden are among the places that really take chimpanzee well-being into account. 
One very serious stressor for chimpanzees is being exposed to new people, whether those people are unfamiliar humans or chimpanzees.  At zoos, having new people constantly in one’s environment  is a significant stressor. The stress level during introductions between chimpanzees is always high, and a new baby inevitably causes shifts in group dynamics, which also adds to the tension.   Add zoo visitors gawking and oohing and ahhing at the new baby and, well, the sad outcome at the LA Zoo could have been predicted.  But that it was predictable, doesn’t mean it is the same as infanticide in the wild.  No one really knows enough about infanticide in the wild.  Maybe one cause is stress.  To point to infanticide in the wild as an explanation for what happened at the zoo, seems simplistic and wrong-headed.   
Captive chimpanzees engage in very different behavior than wild chimpanzees.  To take just one obvious example, no one would walk among captive chimpanzees in the way that primatologists have been doing at field sites throughout Africa for decades.
Perhaps that slippage contributed to the tragedy at Chimp Eden, where the young graduate student was horribly mauled.  This incident also involved a lot of new people and territorial issues with captive chimpanzees. The student was new to the facility, he was lecturing to visitors to the sanctuary, and he was standing in an area (with his back to the chimpanzees?) where he should not have been. 
Yes, chimpanzees are aggressive.  But captive chimpanzee aggression is different than wild chimpanzee aggression.  It would be interesting to learn more about each.
Aggression is just one part of captive chimpanzee behavior.  Another big part of their behavior is their compassion, courage, wisdom, and humor. And in some rare circumstances it makes sense for those who know them very well to interact directly with them.  This is what Gloria Grow did when beloved Pepper was dying.  I’m glad she was able to be with Pepper in this way.  It was a tribute to the depth of their relationship and Pepper’s profoundly “good” nature that Gloria was able to intimately hold her as she left this world.  Please read her memorial tribute here. RIP Pepper.
Pepper (c) Frank Noelker