< link rel="DCTERMS.isreplacedby" href="http://caltechgirlsworld.mu.nu/" /> Not Exactly Rocket Science: Common Sense, please!

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Common Sense, please!

Howdy y'all I'm back. Even just for a minute.

This was too much to pass up.

A lot of people are hand-wringing about this, but I wanted to point out a few things so that we all understand that this was totally not the chimps' fault. I used to want to work with chimps and bonobos, so I had to learn a few things about working with them or being around them. I have been the recipient of an "bonobo shower" (a threat display I'll explain at the end), and seen the kind of violence that apes will perpetrate on others because of a percieved threat or stress to the troop.

So with that in mind, here are some facts I'd like to point out:
1. Chimps spook easily. When their environment is altered or their family group is changed, things can be tense, especially for young males (teens and 20s, the age of the attackers). These chimps were out of the cage and isolated from the remaining members of the troop. Four got out, but there were more still in the cage.
2. Chimps have different signals for fear and aggression than humans do. A smile at a chimp can bring on an attack, since chimp smiles are fear/aggression signals. Quick movements can be perceived as a threat.
3. Size matters. Even just standing tall can make a chimpanzee nervous, it can be considered an aggresive threat. By all accounts the guy who was hurt is a big dude. Notice how the chimps went after the man and not the woman? She was smaller and female, and therefore less of a threat to their dominance. She only got hurt trying to help her husband.
4. Chimps are 99.8% identical to humans in their DNA. Their brains are the same size. The only reason they can't talk is that the structure of their skull won't allow them to shape sounds the way that humans can. They do have rudimentary language capability and the intelligence of a young child. So you essentially have the reasoning and determination (read: stubborn fury) of a five year old in Arnold Schwarzenegger's body. When you have that combination driven by pure testosterone without reason, it can be extremely dangerous.

The main problem is that even people who have raised chimps can be lulled into a false sense of security. People who are not familiar with adult chimpanzees think of them as the cute diaper wearing babies on TV and in the movies. People who raised or lived with them can be fooled by the sweet disposition of their former pets, forgetting that chimps, like humans have many different personalities. Some are sweet, some friendly, and some are violent.

So in case you're still paying attention, here's the story of the "bonobo shower". I was interviewing to study with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (then at GSU), who is one of the lead researchers in ape language in the world. She works with Bonobo Chimpanzees who have learned to communicate using a symbological language. These apes not only communicate rudimentary statements, they demonstrate new learning, and have been observed teaching the symbols from the "keyboard" to their offspring. Pretty cool.

Anyway, I was visiting, and so Sue and the grad students took me out to the yard to meet the apes. Kanzi, the male, decided he wasn't happy that there was a new person there, so he did a typical "display" dancing, hooting, beating on his chest, etc. Then he went into the "pool" with his sister, Panbaneesha, and while we were sitting next to the enclosed pool area, Kanzi sucked in as much water as he could hold and came over to the fence near us and let loose. I don't know how much water he spit on us, but I was soaked. I was the new person, the threat. I have no idea what he might have done if he easn't behind a fence. They told me that it's common for new staff to have to stay outside the fences for months.


At Wednesday, March 09, 2005 11:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LW here: Thank you so much for posting this! Not one of the handwringers, for even a dog can and will snap if pushed. You have to understand and listen to their language, body and otherwise. Will admit though that I like the wolves, for they usually tell you to stop or whatever (often several times) before going off on you. Very Victorian in many ways. Only thing that you do have to be very careful about is the male puppies: they are always loaded and be careful about pointing them at yourself or others as they can get good range on the pee. :)


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