The caretakers notice that chimpanzee Chita is very influenced from the outside and that he cannot maintain his status in the group. To counter this, there have been warnings for years that visitors are not allowed to contact the great apes.
“We have been trying to make this subscriber realize for years that her behavior is harmful to the animal she says she has a relationship with. Both caretakers, biologists and other visitors have already tried to bring her to reason, unfortunately she does not listen to anyone. After all the previous warnings and efforts, she leaves us no other choice,” says Ilse Segers. “It is the first time in the history of the Zoo that someone’s subscription has not been renewed in the interest of animal welfare. Previously, people – including subscribers – were refused due to violence or other incidents against our employees.”
Thirty years of research
“It is very important to understand how the political world of chimpanzees works and to emphasize that the animals should be able to focus on their own society,” explains Ilse Segers. “For over thirty years, our gardens have been extensively researching the behavior of great apes in general, and of chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas in particular.”
“As a result, we know that chimpanzees engage in politics every day: forming coalitions, forging ties, bluffing and networking. These are core tasks for every chimpanzee to maintain harmony in the group. As a zoo, we must do everything in our power to give the animals every opportunity to survive in that group.”
“It’s obviously not about kids standing at the window looking at the monkeys and doing something crazy,” she clarifies. “We even applaud that. Visitors who come to our animals to see how they live, how they work together or how they stir up a fight and make amends. That is different from consciously seeking intense interaction. It is not that we put our caretakers on the lookout all day long to tap visitors on the fingers. 99.9% of visitors respect the animals, only in this exceptional case we have to act. Despite all our attempts at understanding. We are not renewing this subscription and this lady is no longer welcome with day tickets either.”
In a chimpanzee society there is always work to be done: the animals are constantly fighting to reach the highest rung of the hierarchical ladder. And that’s why networking is very important. “Great apes have to continuously build and strengthen their own relationships,” says zoological director Linda Van Elsacker. “They do this, for example, by fleas or sharing food with each other. There is also a second important factor at play. Each chimpanzee monitors the relationships between other individuals. Who makes room for whom? Who fleas who? And is it groomed itself? Who has the biggest nest? Who should scrape up the leftovers? By discovering the political structures, they know for themselves who they should like best or how they can improve their position.”
Cutlery and yogurt
A chimpanzee who is too distracted from the group and its politics ends up at the very bottom of the social ladder. “For us, it’s Chita, the outsider of the group. As a young teenager, he arrived in our Zoo thirty years ago,” says Van Elsacker. “His human foster parents no longer found it feasible to keep him in their home. In his backpack was his cutlery, his toothbrush, his yogurt for the evening, his toilet bowl. He had never had the chance to be a chimpanzee in his formative early years.”
Chita really had to learn from scratch to be a monkey and that among a group of monkeys that had been together for a while. “That was a difficult process. To end up in such a society as a stranger is asking a lot. The other chimpanzees also notice that Chita is different. He had to find his place by trial and error. We are pleased that he has managed to hold his own after all these years,” explains Van Elsacker.
Although Chita continues to struggle with the temptation to hang out with people. “That’s very understandable if you look at his history, it’s a very big hurdle in his life as a chimpanzee among the chimpanzees. Whenever a human interacts with a chimpanzee, it distracts him or her from what is going on. And that does have an impact, because that way the animal can miss signals from the group.”
“When disputes or misunderstandings arise in a group of great apes, the animals must be able to use their good relations so as not to take a hit and lick the wounds,” says the zoological director. “As a chimpanzee, you can’t count on that connection from outside in conflicts. Because the visitors come and go, but the chimpanzees live together permanently. In short: if a chimpanzee starts forging links with someone from outside, then he or she has invested in a wrong relationship. We have to protect Chita against that.”
For privacy reasons, we do not disclose the identity of the subscriber in question.