Going Ape, Part II

Posted at 9:32 am June 18, 2010 by Karyl Carmignani


Karyl shadowed the Zoo’s primate keepers during a Visit-A-Job program. Be sure to read Going Ape, Part 1.

Another interesting aspect to a zoo keeper’s job is “shifting animals,” where you bring the animals that are out on exhibit inside, and send out the group that has been off exhibit. Sounds easy, right? I went to bonobos to see how it’s done.

The trick is to keep the animals’ lives as positive as possible, giving them pleasant, upbeat associations with doing your bidding, particularly when the animals are unbelievably smart, incredibly strong, and look suspiciously like you. Brief positive reinforcement training sessions in holding areas, which reward the animals for desired behaviors like presenting an arm or shoulder, also gets the animals where you want them to be. It was astonishing to watch. Not easy by any stretch, but quite effective.

Sometimes more than one bonobo would scamper into the holding area at the same time, and the keeper could tell if “these two would get along” in the closed quarters for a minute or two or not. Each presented its shoulder for a finger poke, then an empty syringe poke, and a treat. They seemed to enjoy this bit of interaction, and it will pay off for staff when the bonobos are desensitized to “pokes” and can accept shots and blood draws in a stress-free manner. Like their human caregivers, bonobos (and other primates) get annual TB tests, so it is helpful when they can just present an arm for the procedure.

Meanwhile, the group that came inside was rummaging around for treats and enrichment items, and in the excitement they were all communicating loudly at an ear-splitting pitch. The keeper looked on calmly, watching the group mingle and move (they have a fission-fusion society) with his hands on a wheel that will bring down hydraulic gates to separate them in different areas. It is better if they are good friends with all the group members, rather than BEST friends with one other animal, as that will invite aggression and the potential of an inseparable duo ganging up on others. Keepers do their best to let the animals’ natural behaviors shine through and make their lives as positive and interesting as possible. Often the biggest challenge is keeping these intelligent apes engaged and challenged every day. I was dazzled by the keeper’s deft talent for shifting the bonobos quickly and safely.


We then headed back up to orangutans to see if Karen had yet cracked the code of the hot wire to tear up the plants we’d put in that morning. Smart, dexterous, and patient, an orangutan can really give their keepers a run for their money, and it is so interesting to see the big “red apes” cogitating some riddle (like how to touch the newly planted shrubs), then see them methodically solve it. We arrived to find Karen lying on her belly, stick in hand, poking between the charged wires to touch the new foliage. Clever primate! (See post Karen: Will She or Won’t She?)

Time to finish off the day back at gorillas and say farewell to my buddy, Frank. His troop was off exhibit that day, so we went to the bedroom areas where the family was hanging out, resting, nibbling biscuits, and relaxing. (Everything but checking their e-mail!) Frank came over and began swinging from his rope with one hand and beating his chest with the other hand. I swear he was grinning.

At the risk of being a champion for the obvious, gorillas (and all apes) are incredible primates that deserve our utmost respect and conservation efforts. Gorillas are blessed with more strength than they need, enough social graces to get along in groups, and a calm intelligence that has kept them moving through African forests for millions of years. They are fearless when necessary and rely on convincing displays of their brawn before coming to blows. As humans, we should take note. I thought about the oil mess in the Gulf of Mexico, the bushmeat trade in Africa, the ways we are trashing the planet with pollution and overpopulation, and, looking at little Frank, I felt deeply ashamed as a human about how we treat our collective, finite “nest.”

“We’ll do better,” I whispered to him. “I promise, Frank, we’ll do better.”

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for the San Diego Zoo.

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13 Responses to “Going Ape, Part II”

  1. Carole in San Diego says:

    I absolutely love these blogs with human-ape interaction. Most entertaining. I particularly loved the phrase “look suspiciously like you.”

  2. Linda says:

    I can’t think of anything to add to what you whispered to Frank. (Sniff, wipe eyes.)

    You will need to add one more post to let us know if the flowers survived Karen’s carefully considered attention. (What a hoot!)

  3. Lee in Vancouver says:

    Fantastic finish to your shadowing the keepers Karyl. Thanks for including us in your special day.

  4. Chari Mercier says:


    Chari Mercier 😉

    St. Pete, FL

  5. Chari Mercier says:

    Hi, you all! I hope you had a very nice July 4th weekend with family and friends!

    I just caught the apecam before making this comment, and saw 2 siamangs roaming around their yard together. It’s not often that I catch orangs and siamangs on the apecam every day when I check it out.
    Well, not much else right now. Will check back in later on.
    Chari Mercier 🙂
    St. Pete, FL

  6. Vickie says:

    My last two visits to the zoo Clyde hasn’t been on exhibit. I was wondering if anyone could tell me if he’s alright?

    Animal Care staff responds: Clyde is fine. He is on exhibit every other day with Janey and Karen. There are areas in the exhibit that Clyde, as well as the other animals, have access to that are out of public view. Recently we did a study on how the animals spend their time on exhibit, and Clyde was out of view 33% of the day. The best time to see Clyde is first thing in the morning, 9 to 10, and then later in the afternoon. However, he can be active any time of the day.

  7. Vickie says:

    Thank you so much for responding to my question regarding Clyde. I’m so happy he is well. If I could ask one more question. I was wondering about the Mandrills. I talked to a keeper quite awhile ago regading the male Mandrill being off exhibit. I was told the Mandrill was very ill. The next time I went to the zoo only the females were on exhibit. I went this last weekend and no Mandrills were on exhibit. Can you tell me what has happened. Thank you.

    Animal Care Staff responds: PJ, the male mandrill, passed away. We still have females Dora and Angie, who are on exhibit daily. In the afternoon look for them on the far right-hand side of the exhibit.

  8. Vickie says:

    Thank you. I’m so sad to hear PJ passed.

  9. Jan in Richmond, VA says:

    Is there any chance that the Ape Cam will be upgraded like the Elephant and Polar Bear Cams? Also, it would be wonderful to get another close up and up personal with Frank with maybe a video to go along with it.

  10. Echelon says:

    I second that Jan!!! It would be wonderful to see our ape friends on a much needed, new and very much imroved webcam!! 😀 Every time i go to watch the Ape Cam I can never really see much :/

  11. El says:

    Since the wall photos are from years ago, how can my friend and i find the identities of current bonobos?

    Animal Care Staff responds: We are currently working on installing new graphics for the bonobos. The adult bonobos’ photos still accurately represent those individuals. The “kids” Mali, Tutapenda, and Kesi have grown up and are just bigger versions of their kid photos. And, just like humans, their facial features remain the same. There is usually a keeper in the area around 11 a.m who can help out with identification as well as some of the regular guests. Hope this helps!

  12. El says:

    Dear Animal Care Staff:

    Thank you. Carol & I will look more at the existing graphics and talk with a keeper, while you are installing the new graphics. {:-)

  13. Cynthia Jewell says:

    It was only recently I found out where the squirrel monkeys were–up on a cliff by the Kiwi’s. Many years ago I had squirrel monkeys and it was fun to see them again–also to see a baby on the back of a mother. I was wondering if somewhere tucked away, like the squirrel monkeys, you have capuchin monkeys. If so would you please tell me where.

    I second a good ape cam. I would like a gorilla cam but any of them would be fine as long as they are pointed so we can see them most of the time. I would like more cams and I would be willing to pay for good cams. I am sure a lot of us would be willing to pay for subscriptions to good cams. Cams behind the scenes so we could see the gorillas munching on biscuits and making their beds would be fantastic.

    I also miss the pictures and the ID’s of the gorillas. I used to take pictures of the the picture ID’s everytime I visited and then try to match them to the gorillas. Frank, of course, I couldn’t miss. And, Alvillia–cause she always sat away from the group. Unfortunately for some reason, she was not out when I was there the last time a month ago. She is ok isn’t she?

    Cynthia Jewell

    Moderator’s note: Our capuchin monkey is off exhibit. Regarding Alvila, she sometimes chooses to stay inside.