3 Feb 2012

Raising Baby Chimpanzees

Before I became a writer, I worked in a Primate Center raising baby chimpanzees. It was one of the most interesting things I have ever done. Ultimately, I left because the chimps were used for medical research purposes and because I believe that no animal should be kept in captivity. But, while I cared for them, I was able to help them live relatively happy lives. With a degree as veterinarian assistant, and a little bit of experience caring for monkeys in the U.S., I was hired in The Netherlands to coordinate a newly established infant center. The Primate Center had quite a large number of adult chimps but no experience in how to handle their offspring if rejected by the mother. I learned that motherhood is not necessarily an instinct, but largely learned behaviour, taught by example during a normal, natural life in a peer community. But when a chimpanzee had been raised in complete isolation, she did not always know what to do with the small thing to which she just gave birth. In order to save their lives, babies whose mothers did not hold and feed them, where taken away. These infants had to be cared for by someone. That someone became myself and two other young women. We embarked on a steep learning curve. I corresponded with well known chimp expert Jane Goodall who helped to establish the proper feeding mixtures and schedules. The bottle fed infants, lacking the natural protection offered through mother’s milk, were susceptible to human diseases, especially respiratory tract illnesses. Hence, the caretakers wore a mouth mask when handling newborns.
Like human babies, the chimps slept in incubators and wore newborn size diapers. Human contact was very important so we carried the babies all day, encouraging them to cling to our clothing rather than supporting them as you would a human baby. As they grew, the chimp toddlers were a handful. Like their human counter parts, the 2 year olds were full of mischief. One of their favourite games was playing hide and seek. Without having to be taught, they would hide under piles of clothing, peek out at us and giggle as we frantically looked for them. Did you know that chimps have sounds similar to those of humans when they laugh and giggle? Once you get to know individual chimps, they don’t look alike at all and have many different facial expressions. Chimpanzees, like human, are apes. Apes also include bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. Characteristics of apes include nails (rather than claws), opposable thumbs, colour vision and no tail. It is interesting to note that chimps still have a ‘belly button’ on their tail bone. Humans have lost that particular feature on their next step up the ladder of evolution. But we do remain closer related to chimps then to any other animal. We took sick chimp infants to the children’s hospital because the specialists there knew better how to treat them than the veterinarian did. Their blood, their lungs and other organs are more comparable to humans than to other animals. I loved summers, when the chimps were able to romp outside in the grass. We gave them tubs of water and hoses and they splashed and played just like human children. They loved painting, making a mess of their food and a hug and a kiss when they needed to be comforted. One young chimp was emotionally unstable and I obtained permission for him to come home with me at night so that he would have company 24 hours a day. At home, my dog took one look at the chimp. It was love at first sight. Those two became inseparable, playing, hugging, sitting and sleeping together. It offered the chimp just the kind of security he had been craving, and my dog a new, albeit unusual playmate.
Medical research is important. Thanks to the animals, doctors were able to perfect skin grafting and other treatments that have, undoubtedly, benefitted many humans. But to me it did not feel right that these amazing animals were used to our benefit. Chimps need to live in their natural habitat in Africa, in healthy mixed age groups. Yet I treasured my time spent with these amazing creatures, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Margriet Ruurs Author of 27 books for children. Her very first book, published in The Netherlands, was titled Baby Chimps.

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