pygmy chimps


Primates: Quality Family Time

An orangutan takes a burlap sack enrichment item to be enjoyed from up high.

When I heard about the special Inside Look tour offered during Discovery Days: Absolutely Apes at the San Diego Zoo, it seemed like the perfect “experience gift” for my husband. Even though I work at the Zoo, we enjoy playing “tourist” sometimes…and with behind-the-scenes ape ops, well, it was the ideal Valentine’s gift!

The walking tour took us through Lost Forest (for the first time I didn’t get lost!) and our enthusiastic guide, Kindra, showed us some monkeys along the way and explained the Zoo’s participation in the national Species Survival Plan (SSP) and how we keep the lives of our primates interesting with a variety of enrichment items and husbandry training sessions. For instance, one female spot-nosed guenon is diabetic, and keepers are able to get her into a training chute, turn around, and present her leg or shoulder for an insulin shot. She is rewarded with Craisins.

On our way to the apes, we stopped to speak with Jackie, a keeper of 15 tufted capuchin monkeys. These house cat-sized monkeys are highly intelligent, incredibly dexterous, and can fly through the trees like wind. Speaking to their intellect, they have been described as “chimpanzees in little capuchin suits.” Jackie showed us how the alpha male, Ozzie, likes to trade things with his keeper, slipping twigs and other offerings through the mesh to get a nut from her in return. There’s no denying the capuchin’s clever, problem-solving capabilities!

There are no more than 60 bonobos in zoos in the U.S. and Europe.

Bonobos (formerly called pygmy chimps) are raucous, yet largely peaceable great apes that live in matriarchal groups. Our small tour group was on a platform above the exhibit with longtime bonobo keeper Mike, who shared the ins and outs of bonobo life and what it takes to look after this extraordinary primate.  “Being a bonobo keeper has made me a better dad,” said Mike, “and being a dad has made me a better bonobo keeper.” He proceeded to provide his charges with a “scatter” of food, which generated much vocalizing from the apes. I had never heard their deafening calls when observing them from behind the exhibit glass. Mike has a great deal of respect for the bonobos and shared how they are trained to place their arm through a tube and hold still so keepers can get blood draws or administer medicine when necessary. “In the old days, we had to knock down an animal when we needed a sample or a good look at them,” he said. “Now their lives, and ours, are less stressful thanks to training.”

Our next stop was gorillas. Giddy with excitement, we approached the barn-sized back gate and met keeper April, who ushered us to the gorilla bedroom area, where we peeked from a respectable distance at silverback Maka. I gasped with pleasure at the salty, earthy gorilla scent.  Despite a genetic anomaly that left him a bit smaller than most adult male gorillas, he was an imposing presence. April described the gorilla groups like she was talking about her extended family. There are two gorilla troops at the Zoo and lone male Maka who all take turns out on exhibit. The bedroom areas are spacious and bathed in natural light from several sunroofs.

Frank, our youngest gorilla, is now 3 years old!

April led us up to the roof, where we took in a bird’s-eye view of Paul Donn’s troop. She tossed raisins and broccoli into the exhibit as she “introduced” us to the group. Sweet-faced Imani is one of my all-time favorite gorillas. If I had more hair and was a better knuckle walker, I’m pretty sure we’d be BFF’s. And little Frank is not so little anymore, yet he still sports a white rump patch, the badge of a youngster, and is filling out into a robust little lad. He plays with and copies his mighty father, Paul Donn. I count myself fortunate to share the planet with such noble creatures as gorillas.

We concluded our special great ape tour at the orangutan exhibit, where Janey and company were celebrating her 50th birthday. Though in the wild orangutans would happily live a solitary existence, at the Zoo they seem to enjoy each other and even the lanky, long-armed siamangs that share their exhibit. Their fluid, agile brachiation through the exhibit reminds me how important forests are to more species than I can count, as well as to our closest living relatives, the great apes. This tour has been a glorious glimpse into the rich lives of our simian brethren. Hooray for quality family time!

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, A Keeper of Cats.

Take an Inside Look tour on your next visit to the Zoo.


Orangutans Inspire Visitors

I must say that Janey and Clyde, the orangutans, have been great conservation ambassadors during our daily keeper talks at the Absolutely Apes exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. Just under a year ago, I began to develop a conservation package that would some day becomepart of a pilot program for the rest of the great ape areas of the Zoo (see Juan’s blog, New Age Orangutan Conservation). Our conservation package includes materials and products that are made of sustainable and/or reused material; these were used as tools to show Zoo visitors options that we, as consumers, have for becoming more eco-friendly at home.

We also display a poster that illustrates an array of products, from cookies to cosmetics, containing palm oil as an ingredient. Deforestation for the production of palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia is the Number One threat orangutans face in the wild. With less than 65,000 Sumatran and Borneon orangutans left, it is critical that we help out by simply becoming more conscious consumers. With Janey, Clyde, and the rest of the orangutan family right on the other side of the glass during the presentations, guests walk away with an appreciation and respect for these complex creatures.

The San Diego Zoo will be celebrating Great Ape Awareness Days today through November 16, 2008. There will be six scheduled presentations daily at the orangutan, gorilla, and bonobo exhibits. Each presentation focuses on issues great apes face. Here’s the presentation schedule. We will see you there!

Juan Fernandez is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.