Monday, June 18, 2007

Chimpanzee Enculturation

Whatever one's ethical/political position about using chimpanzees in cognitive studies, it is undeniable that the former OSU chimpanzees have shed light onto the chimpanzee mind. The recent publication “Raking it in: the impact of enculturation on chimpanzee tool use” shows how living in a highly enriching, socially stimulating environment can enhance the mental capabilities of our closest living relatives.

The paper (which appeared in Animal Cognition and was based on data collected before it was submitted in June 2005) establishes that the “enculturated” OSU chimpanzees outperform both sanctuary raised chimps and typical lab chimps on a tool-use task, while the sanctuary-raised chimps only outperform the lab chimps.

This research supports the view that the former OSU individuals are quite different from other chimpanzees, a view that is shared by most people familiar with the range of chimpanzee behaviors and personalities and who have the pleasure of meeting Darrell, Sarah, Sheba, Keeli, Ivy, Harper and Emma.

While housed at OSU, the chimps were immersed in human culture and encouraged to actively engage with their captive environment. Their caregivers treated them as intentional beings. The chimps lived in mini fission-fusion groups to promote social interactions, received enrichment as often as three times a day, and had a diet full of fruits and vegetables. Their needs were carefully monitored and attended to, and they were given the respect that they deserve as unique thinking and feeling individuals.

The quality of life the chimps had at OSU was on an altogether different order than that of a typical lab chimp and far superior to the care given to chimps at “pseudo sanctuaries” such as PPI, where ideologies, rather than chimpanzee needs and interests, set the standards of care.

PPI did not believe in enrichment, did not provide the chimps with fruits and vegetables and believed the animals should be left alone. Their failure to attend to the differences between chimpanzees -- differences that result from various experiences in assorted environments and can generate unique sensitivities -- is a form of negligence that ultimately led to Bobby’s death and the death of others.

Excellent captive chimpanzee care begins with understanding chimpanzees as individuals who have different personalities, different responses to their experiences and very different kinds of experiences. It requires an ability to see each chimp for who he or she is, not as some projection of an idea of what chimpanzees should be. Excellent care requires adopting a flexible approach to caring for these unique animals. It requires time, it requires patience, it requires openness to the expertise of others, and it requires a set of commitments that has yet to emerge from the new PPI.

Building a new enclosure does not constitute excellent, not even minimally appropriate, care for the OSU chimpanzees. Indeed, that the new PPI is threatening to sue to move them back to a place where they were traumatized for 8 months suggests that the current board at PPI, much like the old PPI, does not appreciate what caring for individual chimpanzees means.

Thankfully the former OSU chimps are safe and well cared for at Chimp Haven, a facility that understands chimpanzees and truly strives for excellence in chimpanzee care.

Happy Birthday Keeli (11) and Emma (7)