The Oakland Zoo functions in much the same way that my family does…or perhaps it’s my family that functions like a zoo. In any case, a new family member is always cause for celebration whether it involves a wedding, a birth or an adoption, and the zoo is no different. When an animal comes to us from a different facility, it is much like an adoption, there is a lot of paperwork and a huge adjustment period for both the animals and the keepers. There is also a strong desire for the new member to integrate into the group and become a full fledged family member. Most often, those new family members come from another zoo where they have full medical records, and experience dealing with humans and other animals, however, sometimes we make the decision to accept animals from other, often private, situations with less certain histories. No matter what the animal’s history is, the most important consideration is their welfare.
Because of the our strong commitment to animal welfare, the Oakland Zoo opposes using animals in entertainment, yet thousands of animals are still in these situations in circuses and private ownership throughout the country. This situation is hardest on intelligent and social animals like apes and elephants. In fact, in a study published in Science in 2008, the proliferation of chimpanzees in film and TV has the led the general public to mistakenly believe that chimps are not endangered (www.chimpcare.org.). In 2009, more than 30 chimps were being trained and used for entertainment in the United States. In 2010, thanks to the Oakland Zoo, Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan (SSP) and the Houston and Maryland Zoos, that number is now down to 19.
At the end of 2009, the Oakland Zoo was approached by the Chimp SSP about adding two new male chimps to our current group. They were retired entertainment animals whose owners had decided it was time to place them in a permanent home. One of the primary concerns for the Oakland Zoo was that we did not want our acceptance of these two chimps to create more space for new animals to be brought into an entertainment situation. Many entertainment animals are pulled from their mothers at an early age and not allowed regular contact with members of their own species. Fortunately, the couple that owned this group was knowledgeable about chimp behavior and socialization and all fourteen of their chimps interacted daily with other chimps. The couple started their collection with unwanted chimpanzees from other places and turned to entertainment as a method for supporting their growing brood. Recently they decided to get out of the entertainment business entirely and find permanent, acceptable homes for all 14 of their chimps. While chimps in film and TV may be contrary to the Oakland Zoo’s view, we nevertheless applaud the couple for their commitment to ensuring that all of their animals will be taken care of for the rest of their long lives by making the difficult decision to give them up and place them in AZA accredited zoos.
Another consideration for us was the welfare of the group of chimps already living at the Oakland Zoo. Chimps in the wild live in large groups composed of both males and females of all ages. Studies indicate that males interact more with each other than females do or even males and females together. Our current group was composed of one male with four females, so adding additional males would create a much more natural group for our chimps. But adding additional animals is never taken lightly, the keepers, supervisor, and curator all met with the couple and the SSP chair and visited the chimps before making any commitment. Once we felt that this was something that could reasonably be taken on, the Oakland Zoo vets arranged dates with the vets from the Houston and Maryland Zoos to perform physical exams on all of the couple’s chimps to ensure that they were healthy and didn’t carry any foreign parasites that could make our zoo chimpanzees sick. Additionally, our maintenance department worked hard to create safe crates to transport the chimps and the plans were finalized in the spring for each group going to the various zoos.
In May of 2010, Eddie and Bernie arrived at the Oakland Zoo, excited to begin their new lives! Eddie is 20 years old and the dominant of the two brothers. He is clearly the peacekeeper in the group and values social structure. He has quickly earned the respect of his new family and has become best buddies with Moses, who is thrilled to have some male companionship.
Bernie is 16 years old, he is highly intelligent and outgoing. He doesn’t share Eddie’s confidence, but enjoys interaction with his keepers as well as the other chimps. Bernie and Moses got off to a rough start, but Eddie has done a great job of facilitating interactions between the two of them and they are quickly becoming friends.
Blending two groups of chimpanzees into a single family is more difficult than you might think. Introductions, or “intros” as we call them, can be very risky and there is always the chance that an animal can be seriously injured. To reduce this risk, the chimp keepers did mountains of research, talking to other chimp keepers and sending out surveys. We had more planning meetings than I can possibly count, sometimes as often as twice a day! Our final plan involved each of the chimpanzees meeting one on one to give them some time to get to know each other before bringing the group together as a whole. This was really our chance to see each animal as an individual and observe how they would relate to each other. Just like some people relate better to each other than others, so do chimpanzees. The process took more than two months to complete during which the chimp keepers worked harder than they ever have before. Each and every one of them came in early, stayed late, and gave up days off and some even spent a few restless nights sleeping at the zoo, all to ensure a smooth transition for all the chimps. I am so proud and honored to work with such dedicated people! The end result is a more natural group of chimpanzees including several males and several females which means a more natural social structure and increased welfare for all! Welcome to our family, Eddie and Bernie – it’s your zoo now.