July 1st, 2011 by J.B.

You may have noticed in photos and videos over the last year or so that Jamie has resumed overgrooming her belly. In the lab, she picked all of the hair out from her chest down to her waist on her right side. She stopped as soon as she arrived at the sanctuary. We were delighted, of course, and as her caregivers we patted ourselves on the back for a job well done.

Then, last summer, she began to pick at her belly again. It coincided with a brief illness, and while she recovered from the illness quickly, the overgrooming persisted.

It’s possible that the discomfort of the illness played a role in reviving an old habit, but it may have just been a coincidence. Perhaps the novelty of sanctuary had worn off and she was seeking more stimulation. Or maybe it was stress. Or anxiety. The staff and volunteers created new enrichment programs to try to keep her occupied, but the overgrooming continued.

Overgrooming is a fact of life in captivity. Not all chimps will do it, but for some it is a lifelong habit (in a recent study, overgrooming was found to be one of the most widespread abnormal behaviors in zoo chimpanzees). Normally, we wouldn’t be too concerned, because habits by definition are persistent and do not always reflect an individual’s current state. Both Annie and Jody overgroom their arms, but both were stolen from their families, raised without a mother, imprisoned in tiny cages for decades, and subjected to medical experiments. With a history like that, I would be surprised if someone didn’t have a lifetime of behavioral issues.

But trauma is only one part of the problem – captivity itself is the other. Chimpanzees are incredibly smart, and they evolved to live in dynamic environments and in complex social systems. Even the best zoos and sanctuaries are dull and predictable in comparison. Captivity also restricts a chimpanzee’s ability to make her own choices. We often take this ability for granted, but it is extremely important to our well-being – similar to the way we don’t appreciate the air we breathe until we are without it. I imagine that for a person like Jamie, captivity must literally feel suffocating at times.

Jamie’s behavior is only unusual in that she did stop, only to resume two years later. What changed? We may never know.

Just to be clear, Jamie is fine. She is healthy and doing all of the same things that she has always done. But we want to be as open as we can about life at the sanctuary, and that includes all of the difficulties and frustrations of caregiving as well as the positive, uplifting stories.

9 Responses to “Overgrooming”

  1. Cindy says:

    Just wondering – could it be something to do with all the construction outside, a big change coming and what might it mean? And will the behavior stop when her world enlarges? Just wondering??? As Jane Goodall once said – what she wouldn’t give to just be able to crawl into a chimp mind for 5 minutes!!

    • J.B. says:

      Good questions. It started last summer, so it preceded construction by a good six months. And obviously we don’t know what will happen when the chimps get to enjoy two acres, but my hunch is that it won’t affect her overgrooming. Or if it does, it will be temporary, just like when she arrived at the sanctuary. But I can’t wait to find out!

  2. Candy (Tyler, Texas) says:

    Thank you for being forthcoming, good article, as usual, JB. I know the ‘boss lady’, as Marie calls her, is well cared for and loved. Even though she’s been in sanctuary, 3 years now, she has had decades of pain that she’ll have with her the rest of her life.

  3. marie cross ( uk ) says:

    thank you JB for all this info , Jamie is one complicated clever chimp , who knows what goes on in her head ? i wondered does she spend much time grooming any of the other chimps ? some of the chimps at monkey world esp in Hananyas troop can be very over zealous with their grooming and there are often lots of bald arms and necks , but this is social grooming which is much more normal than self grooming . but we know our boss lady is a happy girl and is getting the best care and stimulation she could wish for , i do hope you guys dont see it as a reflection on yourselves , you all do the most fantastic job 24 7 for your chimp family xxx

    • J.B. says:

      Thanks, Marie. Jamie does engage in social grooming, but not quite as much as some of the other chimps.

  4. Theresa says:

    Interesting blog entry, J.B. Chimpanzees are complex and very intelligent as you know. Jamie seems to need more complex enrichment to keep her mind occupied. I know the caregivers and staff must have spent many hours discussing what would keep Jamie stimulated. I have limited knowledge of chimpanzee behavior but I have to wonder if Jamie’s illness may have put her back, psychologically, in the lab when she was feeling ill so often from the things done to her. Memories can bring back a host of emotions, conciously and subconciously. Physical illness can precipitate emotional illness and vice versa. PTSD is real and complicated. I hope Jamie will find some peace at Young’s Hill and it will help the memories of her days in the lab fade even more. I hope you don’t see her resumption of over grooming as any failure on your part. You all have given these chimps such a better life and the love they never received in their past. The fact that they are playing, laughing and enjoying life again is no small accomplishment. Over grooming pales in comparison to that. Thank you for everything each of you do each day to make their lives better. You are healing them and some healing just takes time.

  5. Jeani Goodrich says:

    JB, Thank you for all that information. I had noticed Jamie’s belly and was wondering what was going on. As most have already stated, it would be wonderful to get inside jamie just for a few minutes to understand her. Memories come and go and we don’t have much control of them at times. I would imagine Jamie has memories that would make most of us go insane. So keep on doing what you all are doing…giving all the chimps wonderful care, enrichment, thoughtful consideration, and lots of love. She still may overgroom but it will be from the memories, not from the present care.

  6. Chris says:

    I agree with all the above comments and couldn’t say it better. You guys are doing what most of us just dream about…working your hearts out to give these chimpanzees the best life in captivity they could have…especially after all they have been through! We are all immensely grateful for what you do and although extremely rewarding, we can imagine, frustrating and rack your brains, challenging every day!
    Your dedication to these chimps is truly admirable and amazing and we can’t thank you enough!