Antwerp Zoo denies a subscriber who had a ‘relationship’ with monkeys entry to the park: “Her behavior is harmful to the animal” (Unknown)

The caretakers notice that the chimpanzee Chita is heavily influenced by the outside and that he cannot maintain his status in the group. To counter this, there have been warnings for years that visitors must not contact the apes.

“We have been trying for years to make this subscriber realize that her behavior is harmful to the animal she says she has a relationship with. Keepers, biologists and other visitors alike have already tried to bring her to her senses, she listens unfortunately not to anyone. After all the previous warnings and efforts, she leaves us no other choice,” says Ilse Segers. “It is the first time in the Zoo’s history that someone’s subscription has not been renewed for reasons of animal welfare. Previously, people were – including subscribers – rejected due to violence or other incidents against our employees.”

Thirty years of research

“It is very important to understand how the political world of the chimpanzees works and to emphasize that the animals must be able to focus on their own society,” explains Ilse Segers. “For over thirty years, our gardens have extensively researched the behavior of great apes in general and chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas in particular.”

“As a result, we know that chimpanzees engage in politics every day: forming coalitions, bonding, bluffing and networking. These are core tasks for any chimpanzee to maintain group harmony. As a zoo, we must do whatever is in our power to give the animals every opportunity to survive in that group.”

crazy

“It’s obviously not about children standing by the window and looking at the monkeys and doing something crazy,” she clarifies. “We even welcome that. Visitors who come to our animals to see how they live, how they work together, or how they incite a fight and make amends. It is different from consciously seeking intense interaction. It’s not like we put our caretakers on the lookout all day to tap visitors. 99.9% of visitors respect the animals, only in this exceptional case do we have to act. Despite all our attempts to understand. We are not renewing this subscription, and this lady is also no longer welcome with day tickets.”

Chimpanzees Mia and Marit groom each other. © Antwerp ZOO/Jonas Verhulst

In a chimpanzee society, there is always work to be done: the animals are constantly fighting to reach the highest rung of the hierarchical ladder. And that’s why networking is very important. “Little monkeys must continuously build and strengthen their own relationships,” says zoological director Linda Van Elsacker. “They do this, for example, by picking fleas or sharing food with each other. There is also another important factor at play. Each chimpanzee monitors the relationship between other individuals. Who makes room for whom? Who fleas who? And is it cared for itself? Who has the biggest nest? Who will scrape up the remains? By discovering the political structures, they know themselves who they like best or how they can improve their position.”

Cutlery and yogurt

A chimpanzee who is too distracted from the group and its politics ends up at the very bottom of the social ladder. “For us, it’s Chita, the outsider of the group. As a young teenager, he arrived at our zoo thirty years ago,” says Van Elsacker. “His human foster parents found it no longer possible to keep him in their home. In his rucksack were his cutlery, his toothbrush, his yoghurt for the evening, his toilet bowl. He had never had the chance to be a chimpanzee in his formative early years.”

Chita really had to learn from scratch to be a monkey and that among a group of monkeys that had been together for a while. “It was a difficult process. Ending up in such a society as a stranger takes a lot. The other chimpanzees also notice that Chita is different. He had to find his place by trial and error. We are happy that he has managed to last himself after all these years,” explains Van Elsacker.

Jamie the chimpanzee. © Antwerp ZOO/Jonas Verhulst

Although Chita continues to struggle with the temptation to hang out with people. “It is very understandable if you look at his history, it is a very big obstacle in his life as a chimpanzee among chimpanzees. When a human interacts with a chimpanzee, it distracts him or her from what is going on. And that has an impact, because that way the animal can miss signals from the group.”

“When disputes or misunderstandings arise in a group of great apes, the animals must be able to use their good relations not to take a hit and lick the wounds,” says the zoo director. “As a chimpanzee, you cannot count on that connection from the outside in conflicts. Because the visitors come and go, but the chimpanzees live together permanently. In short: If a chimpanzee begins to make connections with someone from the outside, then he or she has invested in the wrong relationship. We have to protect Chita from that.”

For privacy reasons, we do not disclose the identity of the subscriber in question.

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