Chimp Challenge: It’s Play With A Purpose For Non-Human And Human Primates

Chimp Challenge: It’s Play With A Purpose For Non-Human And Human Primates
Annette Abramson, Joanne Oliva-Purdy, Annette Blank, Susan Grady, Beth Penn, Mary Ellen
Smith, and Donna Young
The Baltimore Zoo
Baltimore, Maryland

Chimp Challenge: What is it?

Chimp Challenge (CC) is a Behavioral Enrichment Program for our seven member chimpanzee troupe and an Educational Program for our zoo visitors.

The chimps come by choice to the exhibit’s viewing windows to see the various toys and objects that we have.  They often watch with intent curiosity and even interact with the toys and with us. The chimps have some  control over each session as they can choose the toys that they want to be shown. They receive the environmental enrichment of exposure to novel stimuli and the presence of more choices in their environment.

CC provides us with a perfect forum to educate our zoo guests on environmental enrichment, behavioral research, and conservation. The positive interactions that occur during CC between the chimpanzees and zoo visitors enrich the chimps and enhance the visitors’ experience. This year round program continues to meet the four basic goals of our zoo: to promote education, entertainment, research, and conservation. It is indeed “Play with a Purpose” for both species.

Chimp Challenge: How did it begin?
In the winter months, the chimps seemed to notice us more and come up to the exhibit window to see what we were doing and what we had. During winter months the chimps see few visitors in contrast to the thousands that pass through in the summer and due to cold temperatures, they also do not have access to their outdoor exhibit. So, we became their enrichment. They seemed to like when we pulled things out of our pockets and we began taking various objects to show them and we were interested in their reactions. We wondered, which of our chimps would be most interested and how long would they stay with us? Without the chimps actually being able to manipulate the toys themselves and without having direct physical contact with us and without being able to offer food rewards, we wondered if their interest would wane. A two month pilot study in winter of 1997 indicated that all of the chimps showed interest with two often staying for 30 to 40 consecutive minutes.

So, we thought it was very worthwhile to further develop the program and it has been an ongoing zoo program ever since. Though it was originally thought to be just a winter enrichment, the program created a great opportunity to educate the many summer visitors about conservation and enrichment. The program has developed into formal sessions in which we can enrich the chimps and educate the visitors at the same time.

Our Chimpanzees
We have a seven member chimpanzee troupe consisting of six females and one male as follows: Raven, age 6 (daughter of Rustie); Renee, age 9 (daughter of Joice); Bunny, age 11; Carole, age 13; Rustie, age 16; Joice, age 29; and Harvey, age 42. They’ve all been housed at the Baltimore Zoo since 1995. While Raven was born in our zoo, the other females came from Yerkes Primate Research Center and Harvey, originally wild caught, came from the Toledo Zoo.

The Exhibit, Cc Set-Up And Volunteers

The exhibit consists of an indoor area of over 600 square feet and an outdoor area of over 1200 square feet. The keepers decide whether the chimps will be inside or outside on any given day. Both exhibits have lots of  intrinsic environmental enrichment opportunities such as ropes, hoses, perches, bedding, logs, barrels, plastic items and paper.

Both exhibit areas are designed as to allow visitors and volunteers direct access to the viewing windows.  Visitors and chimps are only glass thickness away from each other. Along the viewing windows, there is a five inch wide ledge built in at about 3 feet high on which we place the toys. During a CC session, we rope off an area approximately 15 feet long and 3 feet wide. This provides us with a `stage’ to work and provides good crowd control. We also put up signs, “Chimp Challenge In Progress”.

Each CC session is one hour long and is run one to two times per week. Session are held during mid-afternoon when there is a need for extra enrichment. Ideally, the program is run by four people in the busy summer months and three in the winter. The team consists of a trainer, an interpreter, a data collector, and a crowd controller.

Chimp Challenge Toy Collection

Our collection of toys includes but is not limited to the following:
puppets books
BarbieTM dolls
blocks mirrors
animals silly

We also use these items that the chimps have daily access to in their enclosure: boxes, paper towel rolls, wood, wool, and paper.

For each session, we choose ten of the approximately 80 toys in our collection. In an effort to maintain novelty,
the toys are rotated so that the chimps see the same toys once per month. We are constantly adding new toys and removing those toys with which the chimps have lost interest.

Behaviorally Enriching The Chimpanzees

Chimps are innately curious and in the wild would be exposed to new stimuli daily. CC enables us to increase  this species typical behavior by stimulating their curiosity and challenging them mentally. It also gives them another choice of what they can do within their exhibit. They come to the window by their own choice to see what’s new. As we manipulate the toys, they visually explore the items and often interact with them and with us.

For example, Bunny, an adolescent female, was completely captivated by BarbieTM dolls. For 30 minutes or more she’d watch our CC volunteer or zoo guest dressing and undressing the dolls and moving their limbs. Our goal is to elicit a physical interaction from the chimp, to get them excited about a toy and to get them to respond to it. For instance, when we use the puppets, the chimps have offered them something to eat, directing their food right to the puppet’s mouth. The chimps are very responsive to a beach ball. When we’d toss it at the window, many would slap back at the ball as it bounced off the glass. Several of our chimps are very responsive to a mirror. They’ll look at themselves, groom their faces, pay attention to healing wounds, and inspect their teeth. Recently, the chimps have been intrigued when we draw on the window with shaving cream. They follow the evolving pattern with their finger on the glass.

Research has suggested that when an animal has control over the enrichment and the enrichment responds to the animal, more of the animals will use the enrichment and will use it longer. So, we try to get the chimps to choose a toy they want to see and then we reward them by making that toy `actively responsive’. For CC, it’s our volunteers’ responsibility to make the toy active. For instance, if the chimps go to the puppet, we put it on and make it `come to life’ with talk and dance. If they go to the BarbieTM, we can dress/undress it, make it walk and move about. We had several pop-up toys where if they chose them, we pushed a button and a character popped out.

We encourage the chimps to choose by placing three toys on the ledge spaced approximately three feet apart. When a chimp approaches a toy at the window, the trainer reinforces that behavior by quickly touching the glass above the toy and immediately manipulating that toy. Our goal is for the chimps to move to a new object and then touch or tap the glass above that object indicating their toy choice. Bunny readily moves from toy to toy and she carries her plastic stool with her to sit on in front of each toy. Two of the chimps, Bunny and Raven, often slap the glass above a toy when they move to it.

Since we want to encourage control over the enrichment, our trainers will try to engage the chimps to make a toy choice. If the animal is watching but does not seem too interested, the trainer will move to another toy and begin to play with it to entice the chimp to follow. Sometimes, if the animal has been extremely interested in a toy for 5 minutes or more, the trainer will put the toy down and move away to another toy to encourage the animal to indicate “come back to this one” or the chimp can follow the trainer to the new toy.

When Bunny was extremely interested in her BarbieTM’s and seemed willing to follow them anywhere, we were able to further mentally challenge her. We had three different color bags and showed her they were all empty and then we put her doll in one and moved all the bags away from her and apart from each other. In one session, she moved and chose correctly the bag containing the doll on four out of five trials.

We also try to get them to model our behavior using some of the enrichment toys that they have access to in their enclosure. For instance, using paper towel rolls, we would put our eye up to one end and look at them through the tube. Several chimps would put their eye up close to the other end and stare right back. After several sessions of this, Bunny and Joice were seen picking up the paper rolls and putting them up to their eye and soon after, the keepers said the chimps started viewing them through the tubes.

Another example of modeling is when we clean the glass on our side, Joice, our adult female, will clean the glass on her side when she has a paper towel available in the enclosure.

Sometimes we use some of their plastic toys like a see-saw and we have visiting children play on it in front of the chimps. The chimps were very curious when they saw one of ‘their’ toys on the visitors’ side. Though using one of their toys usually gets a great reaction from them, we have not yet seen them model the children’s see-saw behavior. We plan to introduce a Sit and SpinTM in which visiting children can model how to use it and then it will be given to the chimps for their use.

For the last five minutes of a session, the trainer may opt to put the toy choices away and take out something bigger like a Hula HoopTM, beach ball, jump rope, or see-saw. Since these toys require more movement and action on our part, it often really gets their attention and chimps that have left the window often return.

While the main goal of CC is to stimulate the chimps’ natural curiosity, we expect to see other desirable results such as an increase in positive social interactions with the public, an increase in object manipulation, and a decrease in undesirable behaviors such as coprophagy (eating feces).

Educating Visitors On Enrichment, Behavioral Research And Conservation
Providing enrichment in front of the public creates a great forum in which we can teach our visitors about the chimpanzees, their plight in the wild, the concept of behavioral enrichment and how the zoo implements it into exhibits. Our trained CC docents give talks on a microphone during a CC session. They explain to zoo guests what we are doing and how it is beneficial to the chimps. We talk about the chimps’ behavior in the wild and ways we encourage these species typical behaviors in the zoo, even if we have to use unnatural objects to elicit natural behaviors. Docents get visitors involved, especially the children. We ask them how they think they would feel if all they had in their room was a bed and a dresser, no toys, books or video games. They get the idea quickly. After explaining enrichment, we ask them to point out other things that are forms of enrichment in the exhibit. During each session we will ask for visitor assistance in which they can help the trainer to enrich a chimp. The toys encourage the chimps to come right up to the glass allowing the visitors to get up close and ‘personal’ and to have the most rewarding experience of interacting with a chimpanzee. When a child has the interest or interaction of a chimp, they receive a button to wear that says “I Challenged a Chimp Today!”

Since we have a person collecting data during the CC session, our interpreter talks about research and the importance of scientifically evaluating the effectiveness of enrichment. Visitors are very interested to know what we are writing down. We stress the importance of maintaining and monitoring behavioral health.

Once we get visitors interested and interacting with the chimps, they begin to see and appreciate the many similarities between the chimps and themselves. We use this opportunity to speak on conservation and endangered species issues and the importance of saving the chimpanzee.

The visitors often seem so surprised by the chimps’ reactions to the toys and to them. Most of them comment on how curious and attentive the chimps are and when they interact with or move to a new toy, the visitors get very excited. When the chimps use the mirror, guests can see firsthand that the chimps have self-recognition. With the hiding of the toy in the bag, we can demonstrate object permanence. When children see the chimps interested in toys that they play with at home, it seems to create a heightened appreciation for this species so like our own.

Overall the ‘visitor experience’ is enriched and enhanced by their CC experience. A visitor study conducted by an intern has shown that visitors spend significantly more time at the exhibit and significantly more time seeking information when CC is in progress than when it is not.

Evaluating Chimp Challenge

During each session, our data collector records the chimps’ response to the enrichment. We want to document which chimps are interested, how long they stay, which objects they are interested in, and how they respond to the toy. We rate their level of interest in the toy and their ability to choose between the toys. Our rating scale is from 1 to 6 as follows:
1 – animal walks by where the toys are but only glances briefly without stopping to look
2 – animal shows passive but distracted interest
3 – animal shows intent interest and curiosity
4 – animal is interacting with the toy
5 – animal moves to a new toy when encouraged by the trainer
6 – animal chooses a new toy on its own

This information enables us to review and compare CC sessions. We will learn if the chimps habituate to it over time, if their interest level changes with age, and if there are differences in their interest based on whether they are inside or outside. Though our data has not yet been statistically analyzed, all seven of our chimps have shown some interest in the toy enrichment. Sometimes there may be one chimp at the window with us and sometimes up to five. They often leave and come back throughout the hour. Of our seven chimps, we feel Bunny, age 11, and Joice, age 29, are getting the most benefits from it as they stay, on average, 20 minutes with intent interest and involvement on a regular basis. It is worth noting that Bunny is nearly deaf and may benefit more from this visual enrichment. Harvey, age 42, though visits infrequently, has stayed for up to 20 minutes as well. The other chimps make frequent visits but do not stay during any single visit for long.

There seems to be a personality component for preference of this particular enrichment. This is why it’s so important to have many types of enrichment and choice. Within CC, different chimps respond to different toys and when we know what they like, we are able to target individual animals.

All of our CC docents and volunteers have felt the program to be of continued benefit in enhancing the psychological well-being of our chimpanzees. It also continues to be of extreme value in educating our visitors and enhancing their visit at the zoo. They like the interaction with the docents and the chimps and they stay at the exhibit longer when CC is in progress. Their involvement brings about greater appreciation and understanding. As Jane Goodall has so eloquently said, “Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help will they be saved.”

Chimp Challenge at Your Zoo?

The CC Enrichment Program may be very adaptable to other facilities and other primates. The program can be applied informally with two volunteers or keepers out in the public area showing animals various toys and objects while explaining enrichment. Our CC has developed into a formal session held in a roped off area with one docent giving presentations while others manipulate the toys and assist the crowd. A sign may be posted at the zoo’s entrance to let visitors know of this special enrichment event in which they may get a chance to participate.

The chimps at the Baltimore Zoo are exposed to a variety of enrichments and they have shown interest in CC as a source of additional enrichment. While we stress the importance of providing enough different types of enrichment (objects, foraging devices, etc.) to meet the needs of individual animals, CC may prove to be even more of a beneficial enrichment source to animals in facilities where enrichment and variety are limited, especially where there is a need for social enrichment. Keepers, in any spare time, can easily apply CC where there are moated exhibits or off exhibit areas.

Safety, cost, and staff time considerations are minimal. Since most of the enrichment toys we use are never put in with the chimps, safety is more of a concern for the visitors than for the animals. We are therefore able to expose the chimps to much more stimuli then they can get in their enclosure. Our costs are minimal as most of the toys have been donated by zoo volunteers, retail stores and visitors. Also, CC is run by zoo docents and volunteers. We rely on our marketing and public relations staff to promote CC with signs, giveaways and press releases. The chimpanzee keepers are invited to join us whenever their schedule allows. We coordinate the CC schedule with the keepers and we help to keep them informed of the chimpanzee’s behaviors by providing them with notes and general behavioral information from each CC session.

Chimp Challenge Meets The Four Basic Goals Of A Zoo

The response of this program has been very positive from both the reaction we have seen from the animals and the zoo visitors. As for the chimps, after three years, there does not seem to be any decrease in interest level from any of the chimps. As for the guests, CC has made a lasting impression by involving them in the enrichment experience and increasing their awareness of conservation.

Sometimes we wonder “who’s enriching who?” We benefit from the interactions just as much as the chimps.

While the program began as extra seasonal stimulation for the chimps, it has grown to a year round event that meets the four basic goals of our zoo: to promote education, entertainment, research, and conservation.

It is indeed “Play with a Purpose” for both species.

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