Going Ape, Part II

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Karyl shadowed the Zoo’s primate keepers during a Visit-A-Job program. Be sure to read Going Ape, Part 1.

Another interesting aspect to a zoo keeper’s job is “shifting animals,” where you bring the animals that are out on exhibit inside, and send out the group that has been off exhibit. Sounds easy, right? I went to bonobos to see how it’s done.

The trick is to keep the animals’ lives as positive as possible, giving them pleasant, upbeat associations with doing your bidding, particularly when the animals are unbelievably smart, incredibly strong, and look suspiciously like you. Brief positive reinforcement training sessions in holding areas, which reward the animals for desired behaviors like presenting an arm or shoulder, also gets the animals where you want them to be. It was astonishing to watch. Not easy by any stretch, but quite effective.

Sometimes more than one bonobo would scamper into the holding area at the same time, and the keeper could tell if “these two would get along” in the closed quarters for a minute or two or not. Each presented its shoulder for a finger poke, then an empty syringe poke, and a treat. They seemed to enjoy this bit of interaction, and it will pay off for staff when the bonobos are desensitized to “pokes” and can accept shots and blood draws in a stress-free manner. Like their human caregivers, bonobos (and other primates) get annual TB tests, so it is helpful when they can just present an arm for the procedure.

Meanwhile, the group that came inside was rummaging around for treats and enrichment items, and in the excitement they were all communicating loudly at an ear-splitting pitch. The keeper looked on calmly, watching the group mingle and move (they have a fission-fusion society) with his hands on a wheel that will bring down hydraulic gates to separate them in different areas. It is better if they are good friends with all the group members, rather than BEST friends with one other animal, as that will invite aggression and the potential of an inseparable duo ganging up on others. Keepers do their best to let the animals’ natural behaviors shine through and make their lives as positive and interesting as possible. Often the biggest challenge is keeping these intelligent apes engaged and challenged every day. I was dazzled by the keeper’s deft talent for shifting the bonobos quickly and safely.


We then headed back up to orangutans to see if Karen had yet cracked the code of the hot wire to tear up the plants we’d put in that morning. Smart, dexterous, and patient, an orangutan can really give their keepers a run for their money, and it is so interesting to see the big “red apes” cogitating some riddle (like how to touch the newly planted shrubs), then see them methodically solve it. We arrived to find Karen lying on her belly, stick in hand, poking between the charged wires to touch the new foliage. Clever primate! (See post Karen: Will She or Won’t She?)

Time to finish off the day back at gorillas and say farewell to my buddy, Frank. His troop was off exhibit that day, so we went to the bedroom areas where the family was hanging out, resting, nibbling biscuits, and relaxing. (Everything but checking their e-mail!) Frank came over and began swinging from his rope with one hand and beating his chest with the other hand. I swear he was grinning.

At the risk of being a champion for the obvious, gorillas (and all apes) are incredible primates that deserve our utmost respect and conservation efforts. Gorillas are blessed with more strength than they need, enough social graces to get along in groups, and a calm intelligence that has kept them moving through African forests for millions of years. They are fearless when necessary and rely on convincing displays of their brawn before coming to blows. As humans, we should take note. I thought about the oil mess in the Gulf of Mexico, the bushmeat trade in Africa, the ways we are trashing the planet with pollution and overpopulation, and, looking at little Frank, I felt deeply ashamed as a human about how we treat our collective, finite “nest.”

“We’ll do better,” I whispered to him. “I promise, Frank, we’ll do better.”

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for the San Diego Zoo.