Tag Archives: apes

A bright, sun-shiny day

It would not be inaccurate to describe me as having a bleeding heart when it comes to animals.  It’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t make a great field researcher.   The natural world, as Tennyson wrote, is often “red in tooth and claw,” and although I have recently fallen off the Vegetarian wagon I am not well-suited to the more brutal aspects of ethology.

Orangutan rehabilitation/reintroduction centers, on the other hand, lift my spirits.  Although their existence stems from unfortunate circumstances — most of the resident apes are rescued orphans — their mission is one founded in hope.

So imagine my delight today when I saw this news story about surgeons in Sumatra who restored a blind orangutan’s sight.  The 40-year-old female was blind in both eyes as a result of cataracts, but will now be able to see the babies she gave birth to last year.

Sober and her babies.

Gober and her babies.

Some scientists probably question the legitimacy of this intervention.  As the news story notes, Gober was captured from the wild in 2008 “for her own safety,” despite the fact that the potential danger of her situation was not man-made.  Had people not stepped in, she likely would have died before reproducing again, removing her genes from the population.  And in theory one could make an objective scientific argument in favor of that sequence of events: “That’s natural selection, folks.  Who are we to interfere?”

But here’s the thing.  The news story also notes that Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered.  In fact, both Sumatran and Bornean orangutans are endangered, and could entirely disappear from the wild* within our lifetime.  The combined threats of illegal logging, expanding palm oil plantations, hunting, and the illegal pet trade have drastically reduced their effective population sizes, and conditions show no signs of improving.   Without human action, there soon won’t be any orangutans for objective scientists to study.

It’s not an easy situation to address.  But in this case human action resulted in the birth of two orangutans, and gave their mother the ability to see (and presumably help raise) them.

That’s a bleeding heart intervention I can easily get behind.

*The captive orangutan population of North America numbers a little over two hundred individuals. I offer no comment on orangutans living in captivity elsewhere, as I am not as familiar with the zoos of Europe, Asia, Africa, or other places.

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To learn more about about orangutan rehabilitation projects, visit the following websites:
Orangutan Care Center
Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre
International Animal Rescue

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Nim and Jennie

Let’s face it: baby chimpanzee are adorable!!  Those big eyes, those silly ears, those gangly limbs….Just examine the following photographic evidence:

Who wouldn’t love to dress up one of these little guys in a pair of overalls and raise him just like a human baby?

The correct answer is YOU.  Despite the cuteness quotient, it is a very bad idea to attempt to raise a chimpanzee in a human home.  They may be undeniably charming as infants, but they mature more quickly than people and are much stronger and more destructive than your average toddler.  The truth is that anyone bringing a baby chimp into his home is simply asking for drama, and is likely to get a healthy serving of trauma to go with it.

This is amply demonstrated in a book I recently read, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.  In it, author Elizabeth Hess chronicles the life of the titular ape who, born in the early 1970s, was taken from his birth mother after only a few weeks and placed into a human home in New York as part of an experiment designed to challenge linguist Noam Chompsky’s theory that language is inherent only to the human species.

Bizarre as this may sound, such “human- fostered ape” language experiments were not uncommon in the 1960s and 1970s.  But as Hess’ book clearly shows, these experiments frequently revealed more about their human participants’ ignorance than about a given ape’s ability to learn ASL vocabulary words or grammatical structures.  In Nim’s case, his caretakers were mostly well-intentioned, but they had no grasp of the emotional and cognitive complexity of a chimpanzee.  They simply did not understand that removing him from his mother and the companionship of other chimpanzees and repeatedly changing his living situation and daily routine would profoundly impact Nim’s psyche and behavior.  They did not predict that he might have abandonment issues, or that he would have difficulty integrating with other chimpanzees after years of exclusively human company.  It seems hard to believe, given how much we now know about chimpanzees’ inner lives, but as recently as 30 years ago people still viewed individual chimps as essentially interchangeable — and disposable — research subjects.

All of this is encapsulated in Hess’ narrative, but for those interested in reading more about the human (and simian) drama involved in this  kind of ape language experiment, I actually recommend a different book: Jennie, a fictionalized version of the stories of Nim, Washoe, Viki, and others.  Though it takes some factual liberties, I found Preston’s novel both more readable and more affecting than Hess’ chronicle.  In fact, I have recommended it to several people (including non-specialists) over the past several years, and have always received positive feedback.

So don’t be too upset that it’s best for everyone to keep adorable baby chimpanzees (or other primates) out of your home.  There is plenty of opportunity to house them on your bookshelf.

The Full Spectrum

Let’s talk for a moment about the special status that humans have in the natural world — or rather, the special status that we often accord ourselves.   Though most people no longer think of the world in terms of Aristotle’s scala naturae, we still have a tendency to consider ourselves unique, separate from and far more advanced than the rest of the animal kingdom.  And it’s true that humans do lots of things that other animals don’t: we  build cities, we fly airplanes, we write books (and blogs) and create works of representational art.  As a species, our accomplishments are substantial.

But if there’s one thing that modern ethological research has demonstrated, it’s that many of our abilities and behaviors can be found at least to some extent in other species, especially in the primate family.  Since Jane Goodall’s early observations of tool use among wild chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park led her academic adviser, paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, to comment that “now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human,” several once-vaunted hallmarks of humanity have been eliminated from the list of defining characteristics that separate Homo sapiens from other species.  Primatologists have provided evidence that chimps hunt, participate in campaigns of organized aggression toward neighbors, maneuver for status in Machiavellian ways, and reconcile following conflict.  Research on language use by great apes similarly suggests that in many cases the difference between humans and our closest relatives is one of degree rather than kind.

The existence of this behavioral spectrum  has been illustrated yet again in the new issue of the journal Current Biology, in which anthropologists Richard Wrangham and Sonya Kahlenberg report that young chimpanzees in Kibale National Park in Uganda carry and play with sticks in a manner similar to children with dolls.

chimpanzee-stick-doll

A female chimpanzee holds a “stick doll” between her leg and body. (Sonya Kahlenberg)

Examples of play among juvenile animals are not new.  But it is intriguing that these researchers identified a sex-based bias in their data: as in humans, female chimpanzees were more likely to carry stick dolls.  Does this mean that young females are simply practicing for the future by imitating the mothering behaviors they observe within a group?  Or might it suggest innate psychological differences between young male and female chimpanzees?  In either case, how do these data pertain to studies of sex/gender differences in humans? Nature/Nurture debaters, start your engines!!

Whatever the long-term implications of this new study, it serves to illustrate that the more we learn about the behavior of other animals, especially apes, the less reason we have to consider ourselves wholly separate from them.  Of course, this isn’t to say that you should expect to see orangutans in Indonesia building treehouse cities anytime soon.  But try not to be too taken aback the next time you read a story about a wild animal doing something “surprisingly” human-like.
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To read more about play-related sex differences in non-human primates, click here.  And don’t forget to subscribe to The Tinkering Primate if you want to get emails about new posts.  Just click the “Yes Please” button underneath the chimpanzee on the site banner.