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April 16, 2013

Haven Can't Wait, Page 4

Chimpanzees' intelligence and sense of humor inspire devotion from their caretakers

All Animals magazine, May/June 2013

  • Ladybird plays on a jungle gym at Chimp Haven.  Michelle Riley/The HSUS

(page 4 of 5)

Planet of retired apes

While these politics play out, Chimp Haven’s caregivers keep busy with the immediate business at hand. On an early morning in February, buckets are rapidly filling with sweet potatoes, purple cabbages, red apples, and bananas. Dayshift crew members pull on rubber boots and don scrubs in preparation for cleaning detail, and a worker gathers Kong toys filled with frozen fruit and sugar-free pudding. In the medical suite, Connie has just undergone her annual physical. She lies sedated, belly up, hairy limbs stretched end to end on the exam table.

Outside, 135 chimpanzees greet the day according to mood and preference. Those not partial to the cool weather hang out inside communal bedrooms or quietly groom each other in sheltered corners of their play yards. Others scamper across the metal chutes that act as overhead walkways, vaulting up 20-foot tall jungle gyms and across hammocks fashioned from donated fire hoses. Quiet stretches are interrupted by low, breathy whoop-whoop-whoops—called pant hoots—that build to excited screeches.

In one play yard, Cody pushes a plastic barrel around the perimeter like a hyperactive toddler with a shopping cart. In the distance, Henry, the neighborhood busybody, sways in a pine tree high above Habitat 2. And in a few hours, Julius and his group will be released to a play yard, where for the first time in more than four decades, they will look up at a sky without bars.

The humans will spend much of the day cleaning, feeding, and doing seemingly endless loads of laundry. But they walk with a sense of purpose and excitement, their walkie-talkies crackling.

“Each day has new surprises,” says LaBarbera. “I kind of look at it as a game of ‘Are you smarter than a chimpanzee?’ And some days we win, and some days they win.”

Asked why the chimpanzees inspire such devotion, their caregivers rattle off a list of attributes: their intelligence, their sense of humor, even the cunning and ability to deceive that keep staff members on their toes.

And there’s the undeniable “humanness” of them—the feeling, as primatologist Geza Teleki once wrote, of seeing “my species inside the skin of another.” They’re highly political but devoted to their friends. Males develop crushes on females, who typically don’t reciprocate. Many chimps lavish attention on a beloved stuffed animal or doll—what scientists call “attachment objects” but staff refer to as “their babies.” The chimps who know sign language may ask for your boots or comment on your new haircut.

But what’s truly awe inspiring, their caregivers say, is the animals’ resilience and ability to forgive.

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