In The Field

ABS: chimps in a world of their own?

One of the most thought-provoking discussions at the meeting has been on the welfare of captive non-human primates. We share an undeniably close kinship with these animals, particularly in the case of chimps, but interpreting their behaviour and trying to act in their best interests seems as thorny as ever. Some experts argue that, if we give them the chance, the chimps will tell us exacty what they want. But the problem is that in learning to communicate with us, the chimps must necessarily adopt a more human lifestyle than they would otherwise have.


In the 1960s, Allen and Beatrice Gardner of the University of Nevado, Reno, began a project to raise chimps in exactly the same way as human infants. Over several years they taught these ‘crossfostered’ chimps to use American Sign Language, and watched as they developed the ability to communicate, use doors and light switches, and even help out with household chores (the project did not last long enough to see whether the chimps would become typical sulky teenagers).

Several of Gardner’s lab members were at the meeting to present images and movies from the project, which as ever made fascinating viewing. And there is perhaps no better indication of chimpanzee intelligence, and the ‘humanity’ of which they are capable. But it tells us next to nothing about how chimpanzees actually live. What would a wild chimp make of a cross-fostered one? What does cross-fostering tell us about the best way to make chimps comfortable in captivity, whether they’re in zoos, sanctuaries or research facilities? Not much.

Part of the problem with addressing primate welfare in captivity is the wide range of different circumstances in which they live. Chimpanzee sanctuaries often house chimps rescued from the pet or entertainment trade, and view any further human interaction with them as ‘unnatural’. In zoos and research institutions, apes live in much closer proximity with humans. And in research institutions, other primates such as rhesus monkeys are housed for invasive experimental procedures. Welfare considerations are important in making them as comfortable as possible, but the issue is clouded by the fact that many believe that such animals shouldn’t be living there at all.

The best clues to how best to provide for an animal’s welfare are gained by observing the animal itself. As the biologist Robert Trivers put it, “animal behaviour is a guide to what’s important in the animal’s life”. Terry Maple, president of Florida’s Palm Beach Zoo, outlined some of the obvious steps that can be taken to safeguard animals’ welfare, such as enriching their environment with novel items, providing adequate social opportunities, and avoiding ‘hard’ architecture (a case in point being London Zoo’s infamous art deco penguin enclosure).

But when it comes to chimps, with their almost human-like qualities, the issue can be clouded – they can begin to ‘want’ things that they wouldn’t even know existed if it weren’t for their artificial association with humans. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh of the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, which runs a bonobo sanctuary, told the meeting about her work with bonobos that live in a ‘Pan-Homo culture’ and can even understand spoken English, and reply using a chart of symbols. She spoke of the idea of referring to male and female chimps as ‘men’ and ‘women’, and the fallacy of assuming that they don’t know they are in captivity, and don’t yearn to see the world.

But when asking these chimps what they want out of life, they begin to ask for things that humans value, such as travelling in cars and watching television. That might indeed make life more bearable for a captive chimp, but it doesn’t get to the root of chimpanzee nature. It seems that great ape experts have a similar problem to that encountered by quantum physicists grappling with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – as soon as you try to measure something, you alter what you’re measuring.

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