Since my graduate student days in the 1970s, we have learned a lot about our nearest relatives, the great apes. Long-term studies of lowland and highland gorillas, chimps and bonobos in Africa and of orangutans in Asia have revealed a fascinating diversity of behavior, ecology and culture.  Observations and studies in zoos and other facilities have illuminated genetic diversity, the inheritance and heritability of different traits, and apes’ capacities for language. We know so much more than we once did about how these amazing animals behave in response to ecological, social, medical, and educational events – with creativity, intelligence, social bonding, and problem-solving abilities.

I think it is time to ponder, seriously, whether such animals should ever be in captivity.

In recent years, there has been a spate of attacks on humans by great apes (most commonly by chimpanzees).  Mostly these occur when a captive animal attacks its owner, the owner’s friend, or a visitor to a facility. Following one of these – a brutal attack in 2009 by a pet chimp – primatologist Frans de Waal was asked about attacks by chimps in captivity on humans.  He characterized them as “definitely common,” adding

“Most of the time they attack through cage bars. They bite off fingers. It happens more often with people they don't know very well and people who aren't familiar with chimpanzees. But it has happened to many of the best scientists and researchers, who are now missing digits….”

Some zoos also have serious problems. Santino, a male chimp, was transferred to Sweden's Furuvik Zoo in 1983. Twelve years later, at sexual maturity, Santino killed the only other male chimp in the zoo. Then he began stockpiling and hiding stones which he threw at zoogoers, who are behind a 5’ fence, across a moat, and 30’ from the island on which the chimps live. When the zoo is closed over the winter, Santino stopped stockpiling rocks, showing it is the presence of the visitors that disturbs him and provokes the aggressive behavior. He has now been castrated and seems less disturbed by the visitors.

Zoos are not the only facilities to experience extreme chimp aggression. In 2012, a horrific attack occurred at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden in South Africa.   Since the Institute is associated with one of the foremost chimp researchers of all time, I expect that the animals were very well cared for, though many had been abused prior to reaching Chimpanzee Eden. While taking visitors on a tour of the facility, a male graduate student from Texas was seized by two male chimps that dragged him under an electric wire fence and attacked him savagely. He will live but his recovery will be slow; he lost body parts. He was not taunting, abusing, or in any way challenging the chimps that savaged him.  What he was was available, within reach.

Thus the problem is not simply one of chimps kept under bad conditions by poorly-trained caretakers or harassed by ignorant visitors. Nor is it simply aggressive chimps that exhibit such behaviors. “Peace-loving” bonobos have attacked humans as well, notably at the Bonobo Hope Project (formerly the Great Ape Trust). The problem may lie with keeping such animals in captivity at all.

Now that we know these are sensitive, intelligent, immensely strong, and potentially dangerous animals, what excuse is there for condemning them to a life behind bars – even one with food treats, games, toys, devoted caretakers, and plenty of room? Can such conditions ever be good enough to justify imprisonment?

An attention-grabbing investigation of the care for the bonobos at the Great Ape Trust (aka the Bonobo Hope Sanctuary) was started recently after a group of employees resigned en masse and sent a letter to the Board of Directors charging that Savage-Rumbaugh was no longer competent to oversee the facility or be alone with the apes.  The Bonobo 12, as they are known, cited a series of problems including unexplained injuries to the apes requiring surgical or veterinary intervention, incestuous copulations and miscarriages, attacks on a graduate student and a caretaker requiring medical intervention, apes left with access to the outdoors overnight, near-escape of one of the bonobos, and exposure of the apes to visitors without proper vaccinations.  The facility is no longer accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

Savage-Rumbaugh has been intensely involved with these apes since their childhood or, in some cases, birth. No one doubts her concern for their well-being. In addition to documenting their language and tool-making abilities, she describes the group as being on the verge of a new hybrid bonobo-human culture. She has also made other unusual claims, such as that some of the bonobos are now speaking English. She is hand-rearing baby Teco, having removed him from the other bonobos, claiming he is autistic. If Savage-Rumbaugh’s understanding of this group of bonobos is accurate – and several primate researchers have told me she is extremely insightful about them – how can she condone keeping them in a facility that resembles a grim maximum-security prison?

If her understanding is seriously flawed, how can she be left in charge of the care of seven members of an endangered species?

These bonobos cannot be set free in Africa, no more than Santino in Sweden or other apes from high-quality zoos can be, nor can other chimps seized from circuses, private homes, and roadside zoos. Obviously, these animals don’t have territories to reoccupy and they lack necessary survival skills. Once in captivity, they are stuck for life and they appear to be angry and disturbed by their situation. Dangerously, they have no fear of humans. 

It has been reported recently that wild chimpanzees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have begun attacking humans. Local media cite as many as 10 human deaths and 17 attacks in this troubled area, calling them revenge attacks for human brutality and mistreatment. The attacks occurred in a war-torn region adjacent to the Virungu National Park, where mountain gorillas were once a major tourist attraction.

It is not that I am opposed to all zoos or facilities that hold animals in captivity. Some are excellent and educational.

But I am against torture. I am beginning to think confining these animals even in the best of circumstances is just that.

About the Author

Pat Shipman, Ph.D.

Pat Shipman, Ph.D., is a writer and paleoanthropologist who writes about science and evolution for non-scientists.

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