July 21st, 2017 by J.B.

The Cle Elum Seven fight a lot. You probably don’t get that sense from reading this blog. It’s not a conscious decision of ours to downplay their aggressiveness, but I do worry sometimes that our inclination to share mostly cute, funny, and uplifting stories leads us to unintentionally misrepresent the nature of chimpanzees.


Don’t get me wrong – relative to all the other things they do, like eating, resting, playing, and so on, fighting occurs infrequently. Chimpanzees are by and large peaceful and cooperative. But for most groups, all that peace and cooperation is punctuated on a fairly regular basis by terrifying bouts of screaming, hitting, clawing, and biting.

This morning, Jamie got upset when she missed an opportunity to steal food at breakfast. Jamie has a hair trigger temper – if she thinks she wasn’t given the deference she deserves, she reacts by screaming bloody murder. Her screaming gets the whole group upset and before long Burrito begins to display. With Jamie screaming and Burrito flying around like a Tasmanian devil, it’s only a matter of time before contact is made and a fight begins – sometimes between two chimps that had nothing to do with the cause of the disorder in the first place.

Most fights end without injury. In fact, this fight at breakfast ended quickly without incident, and the chimps returned to their meal. But Jamie held a grudge. She was probably stewing inside all morning. In fact, I know she was, because she took it out on me.

Captive chimps love to redirect their aggression (one of the many unflattering traits we share). Why pick a fight with another chimp, who could bite you back, when you could direct your aggression toward a human? Caregivers are at times the chimps’ unwitting therapists, allowing them to release pent-up frustrations in a safe space. Hence the high-velocity feces that grazed my head as I let the chimps onto Young’s Hill this morning. That was just Jamie’s way of coping, as were the threat barks directed at us by Negra, Missy, and even Annie (!) throughout the morning.

But hurling feces wasn’t enough for Jamie. As we were cleaning the playroom, we saw her walk into the greenhouse with a full closed grin (a misleading term for a facial expression that includes baring both the top and bottom teeth in fear or aggression) to round up other chimps. When her backup arrived, she ran into the front rooms to confront Burrito. Burrito suddenly found himself trapped on a bench where he had been resting, surrounded by five of his family members all lunging and swinging at him. Burrito had to decide….should he fight back and risk escalating the situation while greatly outnumbered, or try to escape? He chose the latter and managed to get away with only a small bite to his foot. Jamie had made her point. He was chastened.

Fights are unsettling to the whole group because social instability is a threat to everyone. Following a fight, the chimps groom intensely to repair and restore relationships.

Burrito’s go-to grooming buddy is Foxie. Even when she is his antagonist in the fight, he still goes to her for comfort. This afternoon, they groomed on the greenhouse deck for at least 30 minutes.

Foxie & Burrito:

This kind of grooming has nothing to do with hygiene. It’s all about closeness and physical connection.


Eventually, Missy approached and Burrito turned to groom her as well.

But Foxie wasn’t done with Burrito, and she cajoled him into returning with a smile, a poke, some head nods, and a series of breathy pants.

Some scientists think that captive chimpanzees have a greater propensity to reconcile after fights than their wild counterparts do because of the nature of captivity – in captivity, you can’t run away from your problems. If someone beats you up, you are probably going to have to sit with them at lunch an hour later. So your best bet is to take out some of your frustration in whichever way floats your boat – charging through the playroom, smashing a toy into a million pieces, spitting on your caregivers, or initiating a CODE BROWN on an innocent and unsuspecting Co-Director – and with that out of the way, get to work making up with your family.



18 Responses to “Reconciliation”

  1. CeeCee says:

    Oh that devilish Jamie !
    I like the term CODE BROWN, very funny.
    In that last picture, I can almost see a Halo, with little devil horns going through it.

    • Ally says:

      Code Brown is a familiar term used by healthcare providers working on hospitals. We often had to clean them up or jump out of the way if it happened when we were walking someone on the way to the bathroom!

  2. Kathleen says:

    This was so interesting J.B., thank you. I know I have said this before but I am always curious about their disputes and fights as well as their making up sessions. You have a gift of expressing the true nature of the chimps and their individual personalities so we can all better understand their complex nuances.

    Who was Jamie hoping to steal food from and, if you had to guess, was Jamie mad at herself because of the missed opportunity or did the other chimp thwart her efforts making Jamie mad at them? Did Jamie settle down and have grooming session (like dear Burrito and his friend Foxie) to reconcile the morning activities and if so, who did she groom? Also, did Jamie start the grooming or, because she’s The Boss, did someone come to groom Jamie?

    Oh, I could ask a hundred questions! What I would give to attend a class taught by you. 😁

    Thank you again! A wonderful, insightful post.

    • J.B. says:

      Hi Kathleen – I wasn’t at breakfast when it happened, but I think she was hoping to steal food from Burrito. Jamie seems to follow the general rule that if food is already in someone’s possession, it’s not worth trying to steal it from them. But if she sees someone about to take food that she thinks should be hers, she will scream to keep them from taking it. This can happen during a forage when food is on the ground, when food is put into puzzles, or even when caregivers are handing the food directly to the chimps. There’s a brief moment when the food is still up for grabs, and her goal is to scare or distract whoever it is from picking it up.

      My guess is that the food she wanted made it into Burrito’s possession (or whoever it was) before she could confront them. At that point, it wasn’t worth fighting them for it, but that didn’t mean that she was going to be OK with it.

      Jamie was largely absent from the big afternoon grooming sessions. That’s not unusual – in fact, we’ll have to write blog post soon about that work that one of CSNW’s graduate student volunteers is doing to map out the social relationships amongst the Cle Elum Seven. Jamie may rule the group, but she does it without much social support. Kind of like a tyrant…

      • Kathleen says:

        If Jamie screamed at me I would drop said food instantly. I would think after steaming away over her missed food opportunity, grooming it out with a family member might make Jamie feel better. It is very interesting to hear she has a different style. Oh Jamie, you an enigma.

        And “Yes Please!” to a future post on the findings from the graduate student volunteer on social relationships amongst the Cle Elum Seven. That would be enlightening.

        Thank you J.B. for your time and your detailed reply. Much appreciated!

  3. Lisa Grillo says:

    Thank you for the transparency. We understand that the chimps lives are not always utopia. We are so grateful for your expertise and honest representation of their behavior. The photos speak volumes as well!

  4. Cherie Erwin says:

    A young mother told me once, “as long as they’re alive at the end of the day, I’ve done my job.” That seems to be the bare bone basics: anything above that flies with angels…

  5. Vicki says:

    Oh my… love to hear that they are like most families…tho the family may not have been of their choosing
    Such interesting reading your posts? Thanks for sharing with us!❤️

  6. Leslie Sodaro says:

    as always, even though i know that chimps are so very much like us,
    i am still stunned at how so very much like us the are

  7. Tammy R says:

    Thank you so much for sharing I love reading all the posts there a wild animal they will fight

  8. Elaine Reininger says:

    Your description made it all seem so vivid and real, JB. Loved the taz devil bit.

  9. Chris says:

    Yup! I can see why you would never, ever cross the boundries! I’m not so sure a human…even one they know…would come out alive! Just the screaming and displaying would be so unnerving to witness. Poor Burrito..always getting picked on by all those mad ladies! 🙂
    Thank-you again for your honest and realistic description of some of their behavior that is not all cute stuff. It makes understanding all sides of their nature better.
    That Jamie…she is force to reckon with, I’m sure of it!

  10. Merle Rosenzweig says:

    Life lessons for humans.

  11. Ginny F. says:

    Ya know……..everyone does the same on social media with posts of their children or even pets. They only write about the happy/funny things. Any parent (or sanctuary caregiver) knows there is a balance in real life.

  12. Carla René says:

    Hey, Jeeb,

    Love this post, although you’ve alluded to the severity before.

    What I find interesting through all of this is that they never seem to learn from their mistakes. You’d think as many times as they fight and have to make up, the chances of physical danger/hurt would decrease their propensity for fighting to begin with. Do you think they’re incapable of evolving that way? Can they ever learn from their mistakes, or will they always just repeat them? Why, with their higher reasoning skills, is this not an intuitive leap for them?

    • J.B. says:

      We can look to human behavior to see the limitations of the prefrontal cortex as a moderating influence when it comes to things like dominance and sex 🙂

      I say that jokingly but it’s probably the best explanation I can give. Most primates do exhibit the behavior you suggest; in fact, this is basically what a dominance hierarchy is. I’ve lost 5 out of 6 competitive encounters with you, so on the 7th I will submit to you to save energy and reduce the risk of injury from a fairly predictable loss. But hierarchies are dynamic so there are many opportunities for miscalculation. In our own society, we rely on culture to manage aggression though rules and rituals. Chimps raised in labs never get to experience this advantage. And when you combine early childhood trauma/deprivation with an unnatural physical and social environment, the deck seems stacked against them.

      • Carla René says:

        Wow, what a great reply.

        I keep hearing how Chimpanzees (well, and other great ape species to some extent) are extremely calculating, manupilative, planning each and every move like a Chess Grandmaster, having to think five and ten moves ahead, but I don’t think I’ve ever really seen a great example of that and how it functions and unfolds. I didn’t realise that the structure of a dominance hierarchy was centred around championship bouts of infantile behaviour. ;P I guess I naively thought that they knew who the leader was and they left it alone; the fights and struggles after that were about petty things, like the food and space. But placed within your context, those things ARE huge, and demonstrate their struggle for that ever-elusive leadership role.

        I know this will require an intuitive leap on your part, but in your expert opinion, do you EVER think that any one of these bouts could become so srs that it would result in someone’s death?

        I don’t think you’ve ever mentioned any one of these guys constantly gunning for Jamie’s position. Would you say that’s a fair assessment? I wonder if that, too, is a function of their dysfunctional childhood. I wonder if maybe if they’d learned the rules from their mums, even if they were later deprived of socialism with other chimps, if they would still put them to use and instinctually struggle for that leadership.

        When you think about it, and remove the obvious hell induced by their situation, and only focus on the mental and emotional requirements for surviving as a chimpanzees, it’s really a wonder that ANY of these guys have made it this far. 🙁

        Thanks for the reply.

        • J.B. says:

          Lethal intra-group violence is rare, most likely because: 1) the benefits of cooperation outweigh the potential gains and associated risks of lethal competition, and 2) information gleaned from competitive interactions reduces uncertainty, which reduces the need for further competition (i.e., dominance hierarchies and ritual replace aggression).

          My understanding is that the most frequent cases of lethal intra-group aggression in the wild involve the competition for alpha male status. Why? Probably because the consequences of losing the alpha spot are so grave – many former alphas are reduced to the lowest spot on the hierarchy or are cast out of the community altogether, which itself can be deadly. There’s not much negotiation to be done – either keep your spot or lose everything…

          In captivity, lethal aggression is most common during social introductions – which, when you think of it, is more similar to an intergroup encounter in the wild, especially with males who would normally remain in their natal group for life (females emigrate upon reaching sexual maturity). However, any shakeup in group stability, such as the natural death of a group member, can upset alliances and trigger increased aggression.

          I don’t know if anyone is gunning for Jamie’s position per se, but there are certainly some chimps that stand up to her from time to time. And interestingly, while Jamie is dominant when it comes to aggressive competition, she does not exhibit any other signs of traditional social dominance (such as grooming partnerships). More on that to come soon in another blog post.