|Akira and Akati (Detroit Zoo photo)|
Despite Akati’s early removal from her mother, she is a lucky mom. The early zoo chimpanzees ‒ especially the females ‒ didn’t have it so good.
Like millions of Michigan kids, I loved watching the young chimpanzees during the Detroit Zoo chimp show “era,” which lasted from 1934 to 1984. Despite having a ready supply of chimpanzees, no chimpanzee was ever born at the zoo for most of that time, at least according to their official records. There were no chimpanzee births until 1974, when Glenda gave birth to twins. One died immediately, the second died a couple of weeks later.
How is it that no babies were born from the zoo’s first chimpanzee in 1932 until 1974, a span of 42 years? Today, most female chimps in zoos are on one of several human brands of oral birth control pill, but the Detroit Zoo didn’t institute birth control until 1992… so why weren’t any baby chimpanzees born? A closer look at the chimpanzee records gives some hints.
First, the zoo generally bought males. Less than 13 percent were female. From 1945 to 1974, the year of the first chimpanzee birth, the Detroit Zoo bought at least 93 baby chimpanzees, although history books published by the zoo indicate that even more “undocumented chimpanzees” were brought in. Of the 93 documented chimpanzees, twelve were females. (Another six are identified as “unknown,” even though they have names like Dick, Frank, and Ricky, so I’ve taken the liberty of putting them in the “male” category.) Even when they had females, they got rid of them before they started maturing, at around nine or ten years old.
The lopsided male-female ratio brings up another question. Why didn’t the zoo want female chimpanzees? The answer might astound people who imagine that little girl chimpanzees would be so cute: the zoo didn’t want them because they didn’t weren’t attractive. They got rid of the few girls that they had as soon as they started to mature because female bottoms swell and turn a bright pink as ovulation approaches. That causes natural competition among the male chimps, and chimpanzees fighting for a chance to copulate were not an appropriate skit for the chimp show. The zoo wanted to save parents the awkward embarrassment of having to get into the whole sex discussion during a fun day at the zoo. Causing embarrassment over natural functions tends to reduce chimp show admissions, and zoo revenues.
Where would the zoo ship female chimpanzees who were about to become sexually mature? How about to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), where breeding programs kept females in a constant reproduction cycle? Think for a minute what that means. The only way to keep a chimpanzee breeding is to take away her baby, so she can get pregnant again. Taking a baby is as traumatic for a chimpanzee mother as it is for a human mother. You have your child, you hold and nurture her, and love her, and then someone comes in with a gun and shoots you with a tranquilizing dart. Before you even fall over on top of your baby, still seeking to protect her, someone has rushed in to grab her from you. And the cycle repeats. And repeats. And you are left with empty arms, and an emptier heart, every time.
Four of Detroit’s young female chimps went to LEMSIP. Glenda, the mother of the ill-fated twins, went to three labs! (LEMSIP, Southwest, and Bastrop.) Another one ended up at Holloman Air Force Base, where the government was breeding chimpanzees for experimentation in the aeronautical program.
The Detroit Zoo did keep two of the females of that era around for a while. Abby and Mia were both born in Africa in 1965. The zoo brought them both in specially to breed, not to entertain. In 1974, Abby had a little girl, Britannia. Two years later, for some reason, Detroit shipped Abby out. By the time she was 16 years old, still a young adult, she was in the bioinvasive research program in Bastrop, Texas, now named Michael E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research.
The zoo bought Mia in January 1983 to be a breeder, but her timing was unfortunate. That year, zoo director Steve Graham decided to shut down the great ape exhibit and build a new one so he had to move the chimpanzees out. By August, just eight months after bringing Mia to her new home in Detroit, the zoo got rid of her by transferring her to the Primate Foundation of Arizona, a facility that ran a breeding operation to supply chimps to biomedical experiments. Mia died two years later, when she was about 20 years old.
Chimpanzees have feelings and emotions much like us, but back then no one at the Detroit Zoo was concerned about how these young females felt, how their mental health – and indeed their physical health – was affected by the cavalier decisions. The chimpanzee exhibition/exploitation/research industry just shrugged it off. Sorry girls. Deal with it.
Today, Akati should count her lucky stars that she is living under enlightened zoo management that cares for their chimpanzees and tries to do what is best for them. Happy Mother’s Day, Akati!