The Fascinating Chimpanzee
By Awake! correspondent in Sierra Leone
I WAS new both to West Africa and to this home to which I had been invited. Suspecting nothing, I entered the living room and took a seat. Suddenly there was a furious scampering in the hallway. And without further warning a hairy creature—a blur of motion—bounded into the room. With two mighty leaps it touched down once in the middle of the floor and then thudded solidly and heavily in my lap! Flinging its powerful arms around my neck, it froze—lips pouted and eyes staring piercingly into my eyes. I was thunderstruck. But the other people in the room laughed heartily. In a dramatic, unforgettable way, Chippie, a pet chimpanzee, had introduced himself.
Sitting there nose-to-nose with one of the most popular and versatile of all animals, the only thing I could think of was, ‘What’s he going to do next?’ Chippie, however, moved on to other matters, allowing me to regain my composure.
Since my first simian encounter, I have learned that about 3,000 years ago King Solomon imported “apes”—perhaps including chimpanzees—to Jerusalem. (1 Kings 10:22) However, it wasn’t until the last three centuries that primates began to be carefully studied and classified. In 1738 a specimen was brought to England from Africa. It was called by an Angolan name, chimpanzee, or ‘mock man.’ The name stuck.
Plundering the Wild Population
Though some chimps are bred in captivity, the majority still have been brought in from the wild. During the past decades, equatorial Africa has been the source of thousands of them. Since foreign markets want young chimps, capture methods involve shooting or poisoning nursing mothers and wresting infants from their arms. Casualties are high since not only mothers but also males and even infants are sometimes gunned down accidentally. More die while being transported. Indeed, according to Dr. Geza Teleki, primatologist and special adviser on conservation to Sierra Leone, for every chimpanzee that arrives safely abroad about ten others die.
But demand is great, and profit incentives are high. West African dealers pay local suppliers as little as $30 (U.S.) for an infant chimpanzee, whereas the price tag in the United States or Japan soars to $10,000 or more!
Recognizing the value of preserving the remaining, but threatened, wild populations, governments have imposed restrictions and bans on poaching and trade. Despite this, however, the chimpanzee is now listed among the growing ranks of endangered animal species.
Chimps in Man’s World
Chimpanzees are of great value in scientific fields. A chimp named Ham preceded man into space. Chimps also helped pioneer the way for astronauts by being used in experiments designed to investigate the mental and physical effects of weightlessness, partial vacuums and extremes of heat and cold.
The chimpanzee is perhaps best known, however, for its dynamism and disposition. Young chimps in captivity are sociable, responsive and quite bright. They are extroverts who so love to play before an audience that some have become “superstars” in the entertainment field. A chimp named Cheetah thrilled millions as he swung through the jungles with his man-friend Tarzan. Chimp antics continue to delight crowds at circuses and roadshows. And, oh, what manners they show at zoo tea parties!
Chimpanzees have also been trained to work in bars, pouring drinks and carrying them to the customers. They can eat and drink at tables, put on clothes, sweep floors, and wash dishes. Crude pictures painted by chimp “artists” have even been sold. They ride bicycles and motorcycles.
One should not conclude, however, that the chimpanzee is almost human. Like a lot of other animals the chimpanzee responds to its surroundings. It can observe that certain actions produce certain results. By repetition it can be taught that by going through certain motions, certain results can regularly be attained. Thus it can learn to perform many routine actions. But it cannot reason like a human. It cannot discern principles of operation and then apply such in other fields of endeavor. And most certainly it cannot apply moral principles.
The amazing feats that are performed are by the youngsters—usually under ten years of age. But as they reach maturity, captive chimpanzees may become mean, introverted—and dangerous. What does one do with them for the remaining 30 or more years of their lives? Zoos have limited space. Rehabilitation to the wild is beset with problems. So at times experts give a sad piece of advice: “Kill them.”
Man in the World of Chimps
Extensive studies of how chimps react in the world of man have revealed much about their disposition and versatility. Nevertheless, the chimp is as much out of his element in man’s world as a man would be in the chimp’s. Researchers thus realize that in order to understand the chimpanzee fully, studies must be made in the wild.
Possibly the first attempt to do this was during the late 19th century. Zoologist R. L. Garner entered the field equipped with a very large cage. Only the cage wasn’t for the apes he hoped to study; it was for him! Safely locked inside, he observed animals as they passed by. Though his findings were limited, it was nevertheless a genuine effort to study apes in their native habitat.
Though another brief study was made in 1930, it was not until the 1960’s that further field studies began. Dr. Jane Goodall, a researcher operating in Western Tanzania, did not sit in a cage. Her idea was to approach and observe chimps at close quarters, to be accepted by them. It wasn’t easy though. At first they would flee at the sight of her, but patience and perseverance were rewarded, and within a year she was sitting in their midst.
During the next two decades, Dr. Goodall learned much about chimpanzee behavior as well as their social and family structure. Chimps also have intriguing ways of interacting with one another. After being apart for some time, they may greet by clasping hands and kissing. They also groom one another, removing burs and ticks. But, alas, chimpanzee interaction isn’t always so altruistic! At times they kill and eat one another.
Dr. Goodall was recently interviewed by WWF News (World Wildlife Fund) and she said that studying chimps ‘has helped her to realize, perhaps more than anything else, just how different we are from them.’ When asked to be specific, she said: “Humans have more sympathy. In the chimp you have sympathy between a mother and a child but you seldom find it anywhere else. Sympathy is a very, very human characteristic.” After living with chimps for 22 years, she and her colleagues are still learning new things about them.
No doubt about it, wherever you find them, whether in man’s world or in their own, chimpanzees are truly remarkable animals—a fact you won’t need to be reminded of if one ever lands in your lap!
[Blurb on page 26]
The chimpanzee can learn to perform many routine actions, but it cannot reason like a human
[Blurb on page 26]
Studying chimps ‘has helped me to realize, perhaps more than anything else, just how different we are from them.’—Dr. J. Goodall