Monday, March 28, 2011

Chimpanzee expert challenges this chimp trainer's daughter long-held beliefs

Baby boomers like me remember the zoos of the 1950s and 60s. Cages and bars, tiles and cement. We were amazed –- and maybe a little discomfited -- visiting the Great Ape House, with chimpanzees crammed in on one side, gorillas on the other, and both exhibits complete with hanging tires. The zoos of the 1980s and 90s were better but, heck, we were still vaguely uncomfortable with the conditions.

My last blog post bemoaned the conditions that zoo chimpanzees are forced to live under. It didn’t take long for me to hear from zoo folks who are creating a better existence for chimpanzees today, with brighter hopes for tomorrow. It’s only fair that I give them equal time to explain what accredited zoos are doing, especially those zoos active in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) that is responsible for what’s called a species survival plan” (SSP) for chimpanzees.

In the March 27 blog, I expressed my hope that zoos would stop breeding chimpanzees in captivity. Well, it appears the SSP is going beyond baby production.

Baby chimp Zoe was born at
Oklahoma City Zoo in October 2008
“The Chimpanzee SSP manages the population to have just a few births a year,” Steve Ross, the chair of the SPP, told me. “Lately that number has been about three chimps annually, and we haven't had a baby since last summer.”

And then he said something that really and truly impressed me.

“We have kept the birth rate purposefully low, as we have been making a concerted effort to open up space for chimps from the entertainment and pet industry. Working with Project ChimpCARE, we have brought 17 ex-pet and ex-actor chimps into the population in the past five years or so, including 14 ex-actors from a movie trainers facility last year.”

Steve is happy with how they manage the population… and I imagine the rescued chimpanzees are even happier.

He went on to explain why they allow chimpanzee births at all.

“We have a few babies from carefully selected pairs across the country, ones who we feel will be good mothers and whose offspring would be particularly genetically worthwhile,” he explained. “SSPs maintain populations as a hedge against extinction, but we're not breeding indiscriminately or at any great rate. Our chimps aren’t ‘popping out babies’ without due consideration.”

Steve admits that there are contraceptive mistakes at zoos, just like they have in very good sanctuaries, but these are very rare. There are 271 chimpanzees in the accredited zoo population and all but just a handful are in “contracepted situations.” That situation could be that the female had her tubes tied, the guy had a vasectomy, or it often means that the female is taking human birth control pills.(See, chimpanzees are more like us than you imagined!)

Ross went on to explain how zoos are improving the living conditions for their chimpanzees. I truly did not realize that they were taking such aggressive action.

 Houston Zoo's new chimp building is raising the bar
to a new standard of comfort and spaciousness.
“We have worked very hard over the past decade to increase the quality of chimpanzee enclosures by closing down chimpanzee exhibits we felt were substandard, and promoting new and improved environments such as the newest exhibits in Houston and Lincoln Park Zoo.”

“Is every AZA chimp exhibit mind-blowingly good? No way,” he admits. But, directly challenging my characterization of living conditions, he makes clear that “I think we have evolved far beyond being characterized as ‘concrete cages.’"

Finally, he explains how zoos are moving away from the traditional zoo management that I was familiar with.

“My colleagues and I conducted a study that showed that ape behavior in holding areas [off exhibit, which the zoo visitor doesn’t see] is different than that on exhibit.

“I used the findings from that study to advocate the system we use at Lincoln Park Zoo. The apes are in their spacious primary enclosure 22 of 24 hours a day – these are the spaces that are most enriched and complex – and our apes only go down to the smaller holding areas for a couple hours each morning. We have to rotate them so the keepers can clean their primary enclosures and scatter breakfast items.”

(BTW, scattering food items is a GOOD thing, as it makes eating a more enjoyable and sociable adventure for the chimpanzees…)

I believe Steve Ross. He convinced me that zoos involved with the chimpanzee SSP have worked really hard over the past decade to improve things. This Chimp Trainer’s Daughter is proud of the professionals who have moved so far beyond and above the practices from my dad’s days at the last century’s Detroit Zoo.

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