Monday, August 29, 2011

Cruelty To Chimpanzees

Perhaps you saw the heading in the Independent today "Zoo to breed chimpanzees despite cruelty warning" and their little follow up story "Leading article: Are zoos justified?"

Cruelty? Warning? Just what are they going on about?

Well it all stems from a little bit of research done observing 40 Chimpanzees in 6 collections. I have yet to discover which 6 collections but I did pick through the paper which you can read yourself here:

How Abnormal Is the Behaviour of Captive, Zoo-Living Chimpanzees?

I would like to thank The Independent for including the statement by Blair Drummond
head keeper Alasdair Gillies who said "There may be individuals in captivity who do display abnormal behaviour, but I think that is likely to be a result of their background. These abnormal behaviours could be learned culturally – chimps often imitate other chimps."
Now this is important. Scientists please note, because when we read the research we learn:

'Groups were either single-male (two groups) or multi-male (four groups, one of which was male only)'

'the sixth consisted of individuals who were all hand-reared.'

So two of the groups which were studied were completely abnormal in the first place. Read the report and you will see there were some rather odd group mixes there. The report states:

'Each of the 40 focal subjects displayed at least 2 abnormal behaviours'

'All 40 chimpanzees showed some abnormal behaviour. Across groups, the most prevalent behaviour (0.83) was eat faeces (Table 3; Figure 1). Six behaviours were present in all six groups (eat faeces, rock, groom stereotypically, pat genitals, regurgitate, fumble nipple) and a further two (pluck hair and hit self) were present in five of the six groups. Bite self was shown by eight individuals across four of the groups.'

I suppose that over the years I may have personally worked with 40 chimpanzees and have been thinking hard:

eat faeces - No
rock - yes in three hand reared animals, one of whom learnt it from the others. But they did not do it all the time.
groom stereotypically - yes in one animal with a rather traumatic past.*
pat genitals - No
regurgitate- No
fumble nipple - No
pluck hair - yes in the one animal with a rather traumatic past.*
hit self - yes in the one animal with a rather traumatic past.*
bite self - yes in the one animal with a rather traumatic past.*

* But an excellent mother and reared completely normal young

And the report concludes:

'Our data support a conclusion that, while most behaviour of captive chimpanzees is ‘normal’ in the sense that it is behaviour seen in their wild counterparts, abnormal behaviour is endemic in captivity. For some individuals it may dominate much of their activity, but for the rest it is a persistent element of their everyday behaviour despite living in social groups in enriched environments.'

Getting back to the Independent articles just a few minor points.

No one zoo has a 'Breeding Programme'. They may breed but a programme needs the cooperation of other zoos or the gene pool is too shallow.

"40 chimps in six leading but unnamed zoos in the UK and the US."

Who decides on what is 'leading'?

"found that all the animals studied engaged in abnormal behaviour, which included self-mutilation, repetitive"

Though self-mutilation was mentioned in the report there was not, unless I missed it any record of these particular researchers finding it. Please note that 'bite self' is not self-mutilation.

"It is very difficult to reintroduce chimps into the wild, which leaves questions over the usefulness of captive breeding programmes,"

This I reckon shows a complete lack of understanding as to the purpose of the good modern zoo. A read through a few zoo manuals and the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy would not go amiss.

So what about this document that the press are giving so much of their time to? Well no doubt it did turn up some interesting statistics remembering of course Benjaminn Disraeli's quote "there are lies, damned lies and statistics". Yes, chimpanzees need care and attention, they need suitable housing, they need enriching. Some zoos are better than others, some chimpanzee groups are better than others. I certainly would not damn them all based on this report.


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1 comment:

  1. I think you're sailing dangerously close to the wind with respect to quoting out of context, but I will agree that our PLoS One article is not, and should not be taken as, a "cruelty warning". It is a interesting and fairly detailed account of the level of abnormal ~behaviour~ in zoo-living chimpanzees.

    I also agree that the make-up of the groups was 'abnormal', but that is not the point - the point is that they are groups of chimpanzees living in captive conditions where we would expect to find very little abnormal behaviour (socially housed, enriched environments); we were surprised at the extent of it.

    If anything, out article in PLoS One should be taken as a call for more research into the reasons for the abnormal behaviour. I think it quite possible that some behaviours we label as abnormal could be part of a 'captive culture', and spread from one group to another - there is good evidence for social transmission of behaviour in chimpanzees. Background certainly seems to play a role, but we found it could not explain the patterns in our data, which is particularly interesting given the quite large variation in the makeup of our study groups (e.g. age/sex/background).

    We have deliberately withheld the names of the zoos that participated in this study because we do not, and did not, want some kind of witch-hunt, whereby those zoos become tarred with the 'mad chimp' label, while others are seen as having 'normal' chimps. It is important that that conclusion is NOT drawn - but that more work is carried out to address why abnormal behaviour occurs (and if you read our reply to the comments on our article, you will see our view on the term 'abormal') in captive chimpanzees.

    I stand by my comment that limited resources would be better spent on conserving wild chimpanzees.