We’ve made a lot of progress on Young’s Hill recently and it looks like we might be able to wrap things up in just a few short weeks. It’s hard to believe that the chimps will soon be wandering around their new, two-acre enclosure.
With construction in the final stages, it was time for us to begin fence training with the chimps. To do this, we built a small section of temporary electric fence just outside of the greenhouse, which the chimps can reach through the caging.
Teaching the chimps about electric fencing before letting them out onto Young’s Hill is important for two reasons. First, it is much safer for the chimps to learn about the fence in controlled conditions. The temporary fence ensures that their first contact with the wire will be with a fingertip and not some other, more sensitive, part of the body, and that they will be standing safely on the ground when they receive the shock. Second, the temporary fence allows us to separate the negative experience of their first shock from the experience of going outside for the first time. Because the temporary fence is just outside of their current enclosure, the chimps are able to retreat to a safe and trusted part of their home if they feel scared.
We began fence training on Monday. The chimps are naturally curious, and anything new in or near their enclosure becomes the object of intense examination. Jamie, of course, was the first to touch the wire. She screamed and jumped back. The other chimps came to see what was going on. As far as we know, the Cle Elum Seven have never experienced electric fence before, so the other chimps didn’t seem to know what to make of Jamie’s reaction. Soon after, Jody and Foxie both touched the wire. While Jamie stayed outside and kept an eye on the fence, Jody and Foxie retreated to the doorway.
Burrito was next to approach. He fiddled with the fence, touching the insulators and the post itself. Since we started this project, I had toyed with the idea of touching the fence with the chimps watching me. I mostly wanted to know what the chimps were going to experience, and I also thought it could serve as an additional opportunity for the chimps to learn about the fence. So, with Burrito in front of me, I touched my hand to the wire. This goes without saying, but the chimps are a lot tougher than me. While they screamed and ran away, I screamed and fell down. My knees literally buckled. While the shock was unpleasant to say the least, it only lasts 1/1000th of a second, and before you know it, everything is back to normal. But you have learned that you never want to touch the fence again.
Unfortunately, Burrito did not learn the lesson that I tried to impart, and he too received his first shock. By this time, the chimps were starting to understand what was going on. Missy, Negra, and Annie kept their distance. But later in the day, Annie’s curiosity got the best of her, and she touched the wire. The following day, Negra did the same. Missy still hasn’t touched it. It is possible that she learned from watching the others. The temporary fence will remain live until Young’s Hill is ready, in case she does want to learn for herself.
To be honest, I was dreading this part of the project. No one wants to see their friends upset. But it went as well as we could have hoped for – the chimps seem to understand and respect the fence, and no one has been traumatized. In fact, Foxie has been more playful this week than ever! Now that the training is out of the way, we can focus on the day when the chimps will experience the great outdoors for the first time.