Sunday, July 10, 2011

Chimps, and their zookeepers, can't walk away

I need to step back from the blog for a while. Constantly pulling up memories can take a toll, and I need time. I want to stop reflecting on the past, and to relax instead. Now is a perfect time for that.
Even as I was putting away the photo albums, a thought struck me – hard. I have a choice to walk away if I want. The Detroit Zoo entertainment chimpanzees from the past half a century didn’t have that choice. Refusing to go on meant “retirement,” and retirement, more often than not, meant going into a small cage or steel box for the remaining 40 years of life, to be subject to the whims of the biomedical research industry.
As I was scanning some of dad’s old photos, I came across a scene taking place in the back of Detroit Zoo’s chimp show amphitheater. The main subject of the photo is a chimpanzee riding on the back of a Shetland pony, which is doing an unnatural trick on a rolling thingamajig. But as I zoomed in, I found this episode happening along the back wall of the stage.

This is one unhappy chimp, deciding not to cooperate with his trainer. Wisely, the trainer has stepped back from a confrontation with the chimpanzee. This was happening during a chimp show.

Chimpanzees in the wild do not normally attack humans. But captive chimps, forced to meet human standards as entertainers or pets, often rebel against their abnormal circumstances. Their efforts to step back, to get away from something they don’t like, are met with punishment, life on a chain, or worse. I’m willing to put good money on a bet that the rebellious chimpanzee in this photo was soon retired from the show, headed for life in a laboratory. (For more on life for chimpanzees inside U.S. labs, see Project R&R’s excellent report.)
You know who else can’t just step away? The zookeepers.
In the November 1948 Detroit Zoo newsletter, the zoo tells how they had to operate on Tiny Tim, a baby chimpanzee who was probably about a year old, for “an infected leg bone.” Dad (“Mr. Brown”), who had recently started his job at the zoo, helped keep an eye on the tot after the operation…

“At about 1:00 P.M. Dr. Appelhof wrapped ‘Tiny Tim’ in a baby blanket donated by Mr. Greenhall for the event. They returned to Tow Animal Hospital where Dr. Appelhof administered penicillin. From there ‘Tim’ was taken to the zoo where arrangements were made for Mr. Schwartz, Animal Keeper in charge of the chimpanzees, to be in attendance until midnight, and for Mr. Brown, Assistant Animal Keeper, from midnight until morning. It was not thought wise to leave ‘Timmy’ unattended while he was still under the influence of the drugs.”
One thing that hasn’t changed much over the decades is the dedication of the zookeepers. Your zoo is closed because of a blizzard? The keepers somehow make it in, to feed the animals. Your state or local government has shuttered your zoo because of a budget problem? Zookeepers take care of those animals, regardless. Through holidays, extreme weather events, and to provide special care to a hurt animal, zookeepers and sanctuary caretakers are on the job. They can’t walk away when they would prefer to be doing something else.
My advice for this summer? Go see Project Nim, read Unsaid, and hug a zookeeper. I've done all three, and it feels great!
Talk to you again in a couple of weeks.


  1. As a former zookeeper, who worked through blizzards and government shut-downs, thank you Dawn, for acknowledging us! You deserve a big hug, too, and to take a break from the blog. I hope it has helped you heal; I know I have learned a lot! Enjoy your "vacation"!

  2. Thanks Melanie!

    BTW, I just found a source for some wonderful press photos from the old Detroit Zoo... Lovely pictures of Sadie and Jiggs, Jo Mendi I, others. The "suggested" captions will lead to some thought provoking stories, I hope...