Give the Chimps, and the People, a Break : L.A. Zoo: Animals need stimulating settings, which also adds to our enjoyment of them.


A $25-million Los Angeles Zoo renovation plan has sparked a debate about spending priorities: grand projects versus enhancement of the animals’ environments. I have logged hundreds of hours observing the behavior of the zoo’s 11 chimps, as well as the behavior of thousands of visitors. There is no doubt to me that the animals’ needs should come first.

Because of the chimps’ deplorable enclosure--one that is entirely concrete except for some ropes and a hammock--they usually have little to do. So visitors see them looking terribly bored, if not severely depressed, as they lay idle, stare at seemingly nothing, eat their feces, repetitiously pull out their hair, groom obsessively or anxiously pace. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that whether people respond with expressions of disappointment, pity, sadness, anger or disgust, or whether they clap, shout or throw things to try to “wake up” the chimps, visitors invariably beat hasty retreats.

Yet, thanks to the dedication of zoo staff and volunteers, enriching materials are routinely placed in the enclosure that allow the chimps to use tools, build nests, play with objects, explore or forage for food; that is, to develop some of the skills for which their wild counterparts have become famous. When provided with such opportunities, the chimps come alive and demonstrate the high levels of intelligence that they possess. And the people grow more fascinated, ask questions and learn.


The problem is that the current chimp enclosure was never designed to maintain the kind of constantly varying stimulation that chimpanzees’ minds require. So their reprieve from monotony is always short-lived as the concrete enclosure must be routinely raked clean and hosed down, necessitating the removal of all materials that they might find interesting.

Unlike 27 years ago when this enclosure first opened, we now know how to design naturalistic captive habitats that do provide the kinds of ongoing stimulation needed by chimps if they are to maintain their mental health. We also know that such habitats simultaneously serve as the most powerful educational laboratories available to people--short of trips to wild animal parks or to Africa itself.

I hope that those who decide how to spend the $25 million allocated to the zoo will ask themselves: What good are a new entrance and educational center when zoo visitors see real chimps who are so bored that they eat feces and pluck themselves bald? I am convinced that people do not want to see depressed animals. I suspect that those who do don’t come back. Surely this isn’t good for the bottom line.

The truth is that the chimps at the L.A. Zoo make up one of the largest and most socially sophisticated chimpanzee groups in the country. They represent a species that shares almost 99% genetic similarity to humans, more than any other living species. Isn’t it time that visitors see just how remarkable they are? And don’t the chimps deserve the opportunity to show us simply by being allowed to live better?

So, yes, let there be a new educational center at the zoo. Indeed, let there be many and let them consist of intelligently designed naturalistic habitats that will allow all the zoo’s residents to develop their full genetic potentials and that will allow the people to learn by watching them do so.