Archive for the ‘Chimpanzee Behavior’ Category

The Healing Touch

Saturday, February 17th, 2018

Even though the chimpanzees always live together as one group, Negra chooses to spend a lot of her time alone – often curled up in a big comfortable nest with a blanket over her head. She has a favorite spot on the catwalk of the playroom by the windows where she can lay in her nest and still keep an eye on things but remain out of the fray.

When she’s not in her nest, we frequently find her near her mound of blankets, looking out of the window. I see Negra gazing out of the windows in a way that I rarely witness the other chimpanzees doing.

She can spend long periods of time taking in the view that includes the cattle and horses on the neighboring property, the old highway, and the railroad. Negra exudes serenity in these quiet, private moments.


Even us introverts benefit from the company of others, though. Sometimes it helps to have a friend insist that you spend time with them. Missy in particular makes sure that Negra remains part of the social fabric. Missy is the self-appointed doctor of the group, examining every body part and tending to wounds. You might say that Missy has a healing touch.


After years of forced-isolation, the opportunity for Negra to develop long-lasting and trusting relationships with the other chimpanzees is one of the greatest gifts that this sanctuary has given.


Mysteries of the heart

Monday, February 5th, 2018

Foxie’s love of her dolls is an endless source of heart-melting joy, fascination and mystery to us. If you’ve been following the chimpanzees for awhile you are probably aware that Foxie’s love of her dolls (that we’re aware of) began shortly after the chimps’ arrival to the sanctuary in 2008 with her subsequent discovery of “Trixie” the troll doll. For several years, Foxie lived and breathed troll dolls and showed little to no interest in other dolls or forms of enrichment.

Then Dora the Explorer appeared on the scene and for reasons known only to Foxie, she was utterly smitten. Dora quickly raised through the ranks to join the status of the trolls. While we’ll never know what mysterious criteria Dora met, we were happy to see Foxie branching out with her interests. She became particularly enamored with France Dora. She definitely has a certain “je ne sais quoi” and to this day I think she remains Foxie’s most treasured of all the Dora dolls.

Fast forward a few years and Foxie branched out even further to include Dora’s friends:

It’s hard to resist wanting to interpret Foxie’s behavior with her dolls and in our curiosity to make guesses as to Foxie’s doll criteria, we thought maybe it was the combination of big hair and big eyes. Most recently she’s incorporated the new Strawberry Shortcake dolls. Big hair: check! Big eyes: check!

And then…Foxie threw us a curve ball by falling in love with the new old-style Strawberry Shortcakes. Big hair: meh, not so much. Big eyes: no, beady!

When Foxie adds another doll to her collection that doesn’t mean her trolls and Dora dolls lose their status. Her comfort level just seems to expand allowing her natural curious nature to investigate new things. And it seems her heart feels increasingly safer to let new experiences in. And we certainly know that our fellow animals experience the same emotions we humans do. That said, it’s tempting to read too much into Foxie’s behavior and it’s emotionally appealing and comforting for us to think her love for her dolls is all about a chance to be the mother she was never allowed to be to her four children she gave birth to in the labs who were stolen from her. After such incomprehensible trauma, it’s clear the dolls bring Foxie enormous comfort and joy and I think it’s safe to say she does engage in mothering behavior with them, but at the same time she often beats them up. And I mean beats.them.up!

And so as curious as we are and as well as we know Foxie, justĀ as with any other person, we can never know for sure what she is thinking. Nor would we be so species-centric if you will, to assume. And the thing is, it doesn’t matter. Foxie is Foxie and her happiness doesn’t need definition. Nor does our love for her. Her happiness and well-being, that’s the only thing that’s our business.

It’s been a few weeks since Foxie has received a new Dora and when we surprised her with one a supporter had sent, it was evident that Dora’s still got it. Whatever “it” may be.

You never know what the day will bring

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

Wednesday was an eventful day. The drain for the front rooms was clogged, so J.B. rented a plumbing snake to try to clear it. Jamie is always interested when there’s equipment around, so she was watching J.B. as he worked on the drain. Maybe she felt a little left out, or maybe she had been thinking about this for a while, but, for whatever reason, she decided to do some surface destruction to part of the wall in the playroom.

And there went J.B.’s plan for the day.

Volunteer Kailie was serving lunch in the front rooms when Jamie was doing her redecorating. With the added incentive of a few grapes, I was able to convince Jamie to come into the front rooms along with everyone else so that I could close off the playroom for J.B. to patch the wall. He wasn’t sure how long it was going to take to patch things up, but it was likely going to be a few hours.

They still had plenty of places to be – the front rooms, the greenhouse, and Young’s Hill (it was a mild, sunny day). But there had been some tension in the group lately, so I immediately started thinking about activities that might keep them busy and maybe out of each other’s way. I had a couple of things in mind and decided to see what they were up to so I could assess the situation.

Lo and behold, I found all seven chimpanzees occupying just a few square feet on the top of the structure of the green house! Negra was in her spot on the corner napping (she’s the only one you can’t see in the photo below), and the rest were huddled up in pairs grooming.


Perhaps Jamie had some sort of master plan to cause an incident so everyone would bond and work out the tensions they were having with one another. Probably not, but isn’t that a nice interpretation?

The chimps were not bothered at all by being locked out of the playroom. At one point, Annie and Negra were in the front rooms playing. Luckily, I was able to grab a camera and get some of their play session, which is one of the funniest things I’ve filmed in a long time. Be prepared to laugh out loud.



J.B. got the wall patched up in a few short hours and the playroom was ready for the chimpanzees to go back into after their dinner. They weren’t the least bit anxious to get back to that space – even Jamie, who I would have thought would want to inspect J.B.’s handiwork asap.

It just goes to show that the chimpanzees are not predictable, and sometimes an unexpected change to the routine can result in wanting to playfully push all of the air out of your friend (see video above).


Girl Gang

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

Today was for the ladies. I found Negra, Jamie, Jody, Foxie, & Missy all grooming each other while we cleaned the playroom (Annie was off doing her own thing), it could not have be a better time than to sit in a line and groom each other for an hour or so. Grooming is a very important aspect in chimp behavior and these ladies made sure to get their fill today!

Negra being groomed by Jamie:

Negra and Jamie noticed my presence and stared at me while I snapped some photos:

Jamie later had Missy tell me to get lost:

Negra, Jamie, Jody, & Foxie (Missy left shortly before this):

Well, of course Burrito wasn’t to far away:


Dizzy with Excitement

Friday, December 8th, 2017

At Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, we encourage all of our staff and volunteers to communicate with the chimps in their language as much as possible. This means that we adopt a submissive posture when the chimps are displaying, we cover our top teeth when we smile during play, and we pant hoot with the group when they are excited.

This last one can be difficult, though. Pant hoots, like many other chimp vocalizations such as breathy-pant greetings and laughter, require rapid breathing – as much as 10 to 15 times the normal rate. One minute you’re singing along with the chimps, the next minute you’re passed out on the floor. How do the chimps get away with it?

One interesting theory involves laryngeal air sacs, which are inflatable extensions of the vocal tract in the neck and upper chest of chimps and many other primates. I worked with chimps for a while without even realizing that they had air sacs, and they only came to my attention because they are prone to infection (airsacculitis) and occasionally need to be treated. They’re not noticeable in chimpanzees under normal circumstances like they are in some other species. Interestingly, humans and a few other primates lack them altogether.

So what function do they serve? No one really knows for sure. The most obvious answer would be that they make vocalizations more efficient, possibly by increasing amplitude, matching impedance with the surrounding air, or lowering their frequency so that they travel farther through forest environments. But this doesn’t seem to be true in all species. Alternatively, they may allow smaller primates to sound larger than they are for the purposes of mating or territoriality – much like the way that male dogs attempt to urinate as high on a tree as possible. Whereas dogs tag trees to say WATCH OUT – VERY BIG DOG WAS HERE, perhaps monkeys are saying BEWARE – YOU ARE ENTERING GIANT MONKEY TERRITORY. But again, the evidence is mixed.

Air sacs are thought to be associated with a few species-specific calls such as the siamang’s “ascending boom” and what is perhaps the best named primate vocalization of all time, the gorilla’s “sex whinny”.

My favorite theory – which does not make it true, by any means – is that these air sacs allow certain primates to produce rapid inhale-exhale calls without hyperventilating. The sacs expand during exhalation, which means that they fill with CO2-rich air, and then they collapse during inhalation. What do humans often do when we are hyperventilating? We breath into paper bags to rebreathe our own air and restore CO2 levels (don’t try this at home on my advice, as it appears some more serious conditions can be mistaken for hyperventilation and made worse by rebreathing). Chimps, it turns out, have the equivalent of paper bags built right in.

Air sacs may very well serve different functions in different species, or even multiple functions within the same species. The above theories aren’t mutually exclusive. But it’s clear that humans get along just fine without them – well, humans that don’t work with chimps, that is. Our ancestors most likely possessed them, so why would they disappear? It’s possible that when humans evolved ways to modulate our breathing and produce multiple phrases with each exhale we lost the need for them, and because they are prone to infection, they eventually disappeared.

Which means that we humans have to temper our excitement around the chimp house or else we’ll end up passing out before the party has even started.

The Other 5% of the Time

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

Are the chimpanzees at the sanctuary peaceful and quiet all of the time? This video starts to answer that question.



A Hug and a High-Five

Saturday, November 18th, 2017

Jody had some enthusiastic greetings for her friends this morning…

Mind Readers

Friday, November 17th, 2017

Most people accept that chimpanzees are intelligent, but can they read minds? Not in a Carnac the Magnificent kind of way, but rather, do they know what other chimpanzees may or may not know? Can they take the perspective of another individual and alter their behavior accordingly? In other words, do they have what’s known as a Theory of Mind?

If you spend time around chimps you probably wouldn’t doubt for a second that they do. But one of the roles of science is to challenge our casual assumptions and force us to abandon complex explanations when simpler ones will do. For years, scientists tried to determine whether chimps were truly capable of acting on knowledge of other individuals’ mental states. They ran experiments in behavioral laboratories to try to tease out the answers. For example, would chimpanzees understand that a blindfolded researcher was incapable of telling them where food was hidden because she could not see it being hidden? The results were often inconclusive and it’s not hard to understand why. How often does someone sit blindfolded in a chair in front of you while someone else hides food around the building? What a strange thing to do. And since humans are always in cahoots anyway, who’s to say they didn’t know where the food would be before putting the blindfold on? If the chimpanzees could read minds, they’d probably wonder how we lost ours.

Field experiments offer an alternative to the more contrived situations found in the lab. Recently, a group of researchers studied how wild chimpanzees in Uganda change their alarm calls based on whether they think those around them are aware of the threat or not (read a summary here, or go here for the full article). Not surprisingly, chimps that heard a resting call from a hidden loudspeaker prior to discovering an artificial snake on a trail made a greater effort to alert those around them than when they heard alarm calls from the same speaker. They assumed that other chimps would not make resting calls if they were aware of the snake, and as a result they issued more alarm calls and stayed longer by the snake to point out the threat to those who needed to be informed.

In others words, the chimps’ responses to the sight of a snake were not simply reflexive, the way we might scream when startled. Rather, they were calculated in such a way as to ensure that critical information was given to those who needed it. From one mind to another.

I have to admit that I do wonder about the ethics of exposing wild chimpanzees to fake snakes and recorded calls, and a quick check-in with a trusted friend in the field confirmed that these experiments can have a negative impact if not done correctly. You certainly wouldn’t want to desensitize wild chimpanzees to snakes or fill them with the fear that snakes suddenly lurk around every corner.

I mention all this because a) it’s in the news, b) it’s interesting, even if you already assumed that chimps had this ability, but most importantly, c) it’s a great excuse to update our compilation of chimps reacting to snakes as CSNW:

Walking with Jamie and Burrito

Saturday, October 21st, 2017

The day after the success of Giving Day for Apes was a beautiful fall day at the sanctuary. I joke that the chimpanzees are truly Pacific Northwest chimps because they seem to love cool overcast days the most.

Whenever I go up to the chimp house, I expect that I will go on a walk with Jamie – it’s what she likes to do. On this day, Burrito was even more eager to walk than Jamie! In fact, as the video reveals, the three of us did three rounds around the hill, with some meandering in between for those two.

I know that Burrito had no idea we were promoting his story and people were donating in his honor, but it was fitting that he was in such a great, enthusiastic, full-of-life, mood.

Thank you again for everyone who donated and helped exceed our goal!

Enjoy your walk with Burrito and Jamie!



Crisp days and spooky nights

Monday, October 16th, 2017

We’ve already seen some snow in the surrounding mountains and apparently have a long stretch of rain on the way, but for now the days have been dawning with beautiful blue skies and crisp, frosty mornings. Despite being able to see our breath in the morning air, the chimps have been loving being on Young’s Hill and waiting to warm up in the bright sun:

Peas-in-a-pod, Annie and Missy, climbed up together to enjoy the view in the cold autumn air:

Jody sat for ages in the morning sun then ventured up the hill for a snack to bring back to the top of the greenhouse where she could warm up:

And much to my surprise, when Jamie and I were returning from a walk around the hill, I spotted Negra of all people enjoying the sun and the view despite the cold temperatures:

I think Foxie was just as surprised to spot Negra out on such a brisk morning and decided she and her current favorite doll would check in on Negra:

Double-decker chimps:

In other news, Jamie has been doing something new this year! As a little background, if you’ve been a follower of the blog for very long you are probably aware that Jamie often enjoys late evening strolls with her caregivers. After dinner, after the other chimps have gone to bed, and past the time that her caregivers are supposed to go home for the day. We can’t blame her, evenings at the sanctuary are lovely, peaceful times and during summer a welcome relief from the heat of the day. We’ve adjusted our schedule so that we all rotate to cover PM on call in the evenings and two of us can be with her in the event that she (or anyone else) chooses to stay out past the end of our shift. This is one of many beauties of sanctuary; the chimps get to choose when they want to come in for the night. And it’s really a heartfelt joy and honor to be able to provide such a home for them.

Up until this year, we knew that even if Jamie wanted to stay out late, once it got dark she was ready to come inside. Well, that’s no longer the case! Back in August, and again last night, Jamie decided to brave walking around the hill with us in the pitch dark! The first time Jamie did this she was clearly nervous, but clearly wanted to go so Kelsi and I grabbed the spotlight and scanned the hill for her so she could see everything and know she was safe. It took her awhile to build up her courage, but once she made up her mind we were off! Kelsi held a light for us to see where we were going while I held the spotlight just ahead of Jamie to light her path. At every corner of the perimeter we’d stop and I’d light up the entire path ahead of her to remind her she was safe and then we’d venture on.

It’s phenomenal to me when I think how much courage this took for her to do. Not only is it entirely unnatural for a chimp to be on the ground outside in the dark (let alone one who spent three decades in a small cage in biomedical research), but she had to trust us enough to hold the light for her all the way around and not leave her. But once we made our way safely around she was thrilled, ready to go again! We walked around and around that night, carving a path with the light until 10:30!

So last night Jamie decided she was ready for another brave adventure. In the spirit of spooky, magical autumn nights and the month of Jamie-ween (we celebrate Jamie’s birthday on Halloween) here is Jamie in the pitch dark of the green house last night gesturing for Kelsi and I to put on the cowboy boots and get ready to run around the hill again. To say she was thrilled with the evening is an understatement. You can see the light from the chimp house through the doorway behind her where everyone else was cozy and asleep in their night nests. And what better way to celebrate Jamie’s birthday month and get into the spirit of Jamie-ween than a photo a little reminiscent of the “Blair Chimp Project”: