Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Science proves it again

Study: Belligerent chimp proves animals make plans

By Malin Rising, Associated Press Writer – Mon Mar 9, 3:45 pm ET

STOCKHOLM – A canny chimpanzee who calmly collected a stash of rocks and then hurled them at zoo visitors in fits of rage has confirmed that apes can plan ahead just like humans, a Swedish study said Monday. Santino the chimpanzee's anti-social behavior stunned both visitors and keepers at the Furuvik Zoo but fascinated researchers because it was so carefully prepared.

According to a report in the journal Current Biology, the 31-year-old alpha male started building his weapons cache in the morning before the zoo opened, collecting rocks and knocking out disks from concrete boulders inside his enclosure. He waited until around midday before he unleashed a "hailstorm" of rocks against visitors, the study said.

"These observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way," said the author of the report, Lund University Ph.D. student Mathias Osvath. "It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events."

Osvath's findings were based on his own observations of Santino and interviews with three senior caretakers who had followed the chimpanzee's behavior for 10 years at the zoo in Furuvik, about 93 miles (150 kilometers) north of Stockholm.

Seemingly at ease with his position as leader of the group, Santino didn't attack the other chimpanzees, Osvath told The Associated Press. The attacks were only directed at humans viewing the apes across the moat surrounding the island compound where they were held.

However, he rarely hit visitors because of his poor aim, and no one was seriously injured in the cases when he did, Osvath said.

The observations confirmed the result of a staged laboratory experiment reported in 2006 by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. In that case orangutans and bonobos were able to figure out which tool would work in an effort to retrieve grapes, and were able to remember to bring that tool along hours later.

"Every time you can combine experimental and observational data and you get a consistent result, that is very powerful," said an author of the 2006 study, Joseph Call. "This is an important observation."

He noted that individual differences are big among chimpanzees so the observation might not mean all chimpanzees are capable of the same planning.

"It could be that he is a genius, only more research will tell. On the other hand our research showed the same in orangutans and bonobos so he is not alone," Call said.

Osvath said the chimpanzee had also been observed tapping on concrete boulders in the park to identify weak parts and then knocking out a piece. If it was too big for throwing, he broke it into smaller pieces, before adding them to his arsenal.

"It is very special that he first realizes that he can make these and then plans on how to use them," Osvath said. "This is more complex than what has been showed before."

The fact that the ape stayed calm while preparing his weapons but used them when he was extremely agitated proves that the planning behavior was not based on an immediate emotional drive, Osvath said.

For a while, zoo keepers tried locking Santino up in the morning so he couldn't collect ammunition for his assaults, but he remained aggressive. They ultimately decided to castrate him in the autumn last year, but will have to wait until the summer to see if that helps. The chimpanzees are only kept outdoors between April and October and Santino's special behavior usually occurs in June and July.

"It is normal behavior for alpha males to want to influence their surroundings ... It is extremely frustrating for him that there are people out of his reach who are pointing at him and laughing," Osvath said. "It cannot be good to be so furious all the time."

In Connecticut last month, a 200-pound pet chimpanzee once seen in TV commercials mauled a woman trying to help its owner lure it inside and cornered a police officer in his cruiser before he shot and killed it, authorities said.

The owner has speculated that the chimp was trying to protect her and attacked the woman because she had changed her hairstyle, was driving a different car and was holding a stuffed toy in front of her face to get the chimp's attention.


On the Net:
Study: http://www.current-biology.com

So here we are again, being told how much like us primates are, yet without ever mentioning that maybe, just maybe, we should adjust our treatment of these intelligent beings. Quite the opposite actually, as instead of suggesting that maybe Santino was not at all happy in his captive surroundings and should be able to live out his days elsewhere, they castrated him - not even knowing if that will make a difference or not, mind you. Trial & error with physical mutilation, all so people can safely gawk at the unhappy chimp.

And I love how they sort of soften the impact by calling the chimp "belligerent" in the headline. Yes, the word is technically accurate in describing the behavior of Santino, but it's also a word we commonly reserve for out-of-line drunks. It seems to me like using the word belligerent to describe Santino right from the start somehow makes it less offensive that we've imprisoned him for so long.

The article pretty clearly suggests that living behind bars with no real freedoms is what's causing Santino's behavior, but the article doesn't actually say it directly, nor does it suggest that maybe zoos are not the best place for an intelligent, thoughtful being who is born with the same right to freedom that we are.

And maybe it's not for science to decide that... maybe their job is just to deliver the facts.

So here's where you come in. A while back, after reading a previous post of mine about animals, a friend of mine asked "Okay, so now what do I do about it?" That answer is not always easy, and often times the only answer is to write to your representatives in government, support animal-friendly organizations, etc. But in this case, the answer is a bit easier. You don't have to do anything. What you can do is to not do something. Do not go to the zoo.

We've been told over and over that zoos are necessary, that they're there for the good of the animals, and that it's the best way for kids to learn about animals. I disagree. How many of you learned what you know about animals from zoos? Sure, you can learn some stuff, but most of our personal knowledge of animals did not come from viewing them at zoos. What you can learn there is how various animals react to captivity. Read any paper on animal behavior in zoos, and you'll start to understand that the behaviors you see there are a result of the depression that sets in when an animal is denied it's freedom.

So much more can be learned by watching programs like Discovery Channel's 'Planet Earth' series, where you get to see (in HD) animals in their natural habitat. Quality footage of an elephant herd roaming through the wild is so much more breathtaking than seeing one or two elephants wasting away in a small enclosure in a city zoo.

The other argument for zoos is that many of the animals are rescued and are incapable of living in the wild. Okay, so you did good by rescuing the animal, and then you stuck it in a prison cell. There are sanctuaries for every type of animal, and many of these allow visitors to view the animals, but in a more natural setting, with so much more open space for the animals to roam and live their lives. Zoos are not good for animals, and are not the best way to teach humans about animals.

So I'm asking you please, consider these things the next time you think about going to the zoo. Zoos are a business, plain and simple, and as a business, they will defend their actions with well-crafted messages designed to bring in more customers. But the truth is plain to see. I used to love the zoo when I was younger, but at some point, you just can't help but notice that none of the animals seem at peace.

So please, don't patronize a business that brings so much misery to the lives of animals who could so easily have a much better life. It's really simple this time. Just don't go to the zoo. Please.


  1. Excellent post. Well thought and thought provoking

  2. Thanks, Linda! I always love seeing your comments here, and especially on posts of this nature.