Henry was the first chimpanzee I had ever seen outside of a zoo. On a sultry fall day at Chimp Haven, I looked into an enclosure and saw him across from me, perched high on a post, surveying the world around him. He looked like he ruled the place.
Photo: Chimp Haven
That was my first visit to Chimp Haven, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana. Among the things I learned about chimps during that visit was that Henry was an alpha male—so it turns out he pretty much was the boss, after all.
Seven months later I was back on the same rooftop observation deck, looking into the play yard where a few chimpanzees were anxiously circling. They knew something was up. Standing next to me, Mike Sweeney had his camera trained on a hatch door that opened into the play yard. We knew what was about to happen—at any moment, a new group of chimpanzees was going to come bursting through that door.
We were about to witness an "introduction." A group of new arrivals at the sanctuary were about to meet their future chimp family. I'd been told by the sanctuary's behaviourist Amy Fultz about what kinds of things to expect, but really had no idea what I was in for.
Four chimps came bolting through the hatch and in a matter of seconds, it was a head-spinning shock.
Shrieks, hugs, aggressive charges, "kisses" that turned to bites, copulating, screaming, beating, pleasure panting—all of it meaning something. It wasn't just frantic behaviour brought on by anxiety. These chimpanzees were wasting no time in communicating what they thought of each other, and where they felt each should be in the pecking order.
Photo: Chimp Haven
Chimpanzees are complicated beings. They live by the rules of their social structure. In a setting like Chimp Haven a chimp’s place on the social ladder begins to gel during an introduction like the one I was watching. Some of these chimps might become life-long friends, others might upset the apple cart and take over as the alpha, just as Henry must have done. Others might never fit in.
Within 15 minutes of these chimpanzees meeting one another the play yard was calm—for about a minute. In no time, the whole gang was revved up again. I thought, this is how Henry must've first met his mates. It’s a stressful ritual that all chimps arriving here have to go through. But I know that this sanctuary will give them a better life than what they've had up until this point—which for many was in a research lab.
I'm going back in September and will get to meet even more of the amazing residents at Chimp Haven. You can meet some of them next winter on The Nature of Things.