Chimpanzees in Zoos

If you have ever been to a zoo with your family you know that it is normally a very fun experience. A zoo, at its core, is a place where animals are held in enclosures, displayed to the public, and are heavily managed by zoo staff, but this definition has really come to change over the past several decades. With changes have come major improvements for the animals housed in zoos, which include chimpanzees.


In the past, Humans were often not able to care for the chimpanzees as much as they needed, and they often came from the wild. This means that they were captured from the jungles of Africa at a young age. Often mothers are killed by poachers and the babies get sent to zoos. Mother chimpanzees are very protective of their young, just like human mothers and would never allow their babies to be taken from them.


As demand grew for having chimpanzees in zoos, keepers and other zoo staff began to realize that care of chimpanzees needed to be improved for the welfare of the animals and to increase the popularity of the zoo. Previously, little was known about the biology of chimpanzees and what was needed to house them in a captive setting, but research has led to many zoo changes. Even though we may love to see chimpanzees in zoos we really need to think about what is best for the animal. If you truly love something you would never want to see it hurt.


Currently there are an estimated 1,000 chimpanzees kept in zoos around the world, however only a few hundred of them are kept in accredited institutions. This means that these chimpanzees have improved welfare, well-being, compared with the chimps of the past. Housing a chimpanzee in a zoo used to mean that chimps were kept in very sterile, small cages and were usually housed alone. This allowed the public a good view of the cage and they could even get up close or feed the chimpanzees. We have really come a long way from this. Cages have now morphed into lush enclosures that try to resemble the natural habitat. These enclosures now aim to keep humans and chimps distant from one another (to decrease disease transmission) as well as to give the chimpanzees a place to hide if they do not wish to be viewed by us. How would it make you feel if you were in your bedroom and hundreds of people kept watching your every move?


There were some positive things that came from having larger exhibits. One was the ability for multiple chimpanzees to be housed together, which is necessary when we consider that in the wild chimpanzees could always sit with a friend if they wanted to. Chimps, like humans, are social creatures and need social group to live in. Also, increasing the distance between humans and chimps means that feeding the animals in zoo has been discouraged. Modern zoos employ the knowledge of zoo nutritionists who plan the diets of all animals in the zoo. This is very important for their health and well-being.


In addition to having larger enclosures, less exposure to human traffic, and a better diet chimpanzees need to be mentally stimulated. Think about what your little brother or sister would do if he or she was bored and didnít have any toys to play with.  Chimpanzees have about the same mental capabilities of a 4 or 5 year old human and are very clever and inquisitive. This means that, just like your baby brother or sister, they need all sorts of toys and items to investigate and play with to keep them busy.


The people in charge of zoos never intentionally want to hurt their animals. In fact there has been a lot of effort to make the lives of zoo animals better. In the United States there is an increase in zoo membership to associations such as the AZA, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which imposes very high standards on zoos in order to remain accredited. This accreditation is like an elite club that zoos like to be in because it shows the public that the zoo is making an effort to be a better place.  In addition to accreditation, zoos that house chimps are required to pass inspection by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This much inspection ensures that chimpanzees are getting the best care we can give them in a captive environment.


As a result of the improved conditions chimpanzees have been more successful in zoos. By learning more about how to take care of the chimps in zoos people have become more aware of the need to protect the chimps in the wild.  More and more often zoos promote conservation efforts to try and help wild populations.  Zoos are also more aware of where their animals come from and so no longer take baby chimps from the wild, further endangering the species. Different zoos cooperate together to make sure that all their chimpanzees have a home.  This includes making sure the chimps donít breed unless the zoo can afford to take care of the new baby and the relocation of chimps to zoos that have more room for them.



Message from CAC'ers


We CACís loved to see chimpanzees in their natural habitat; they look so free and natural.  Sometimes it is sad to see such a majestic animal like a chimp in a zoo not being able to enjoy the same freedoms as a wild animal, but we understand that the animals in zoos are what we call ambassadors.  The animals in zoos help us teach people how to love animals and why we should do our best to conserve the wild places where each animal is native to.



Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.