Berm Shifts

While passing the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute on your summer stroll, you might think you see a human standing behind the fenced area around the outdoor enclosure. No, you’re not seeing things; that really is a human there.

Between the fencing of the chimpanzees’ enclosure and fencing that borders the facility is an area that we call the “berm.” The berm is a barrier between the chimpanzees’ home and the public. One of the main purposes of that human is to enforce the barrier. To ensure everyone’s safety, no human at CHCI ever enters the enclosures with the chimpanzees. One of the reasons for this is the chimpanzees’ strength. Full grown chimpanzees are 8-10 times stronger than an adult human male and they can bite through bone. The person working on the berm helps to maintain the separation between humans and chimpanzees, ensuring that the public does not encroach on the chimpanzees’ area, and keeping both the chimpanzees and the public safe.

A caregiver will be “up on berm” whenever the chimpanzees have access to their outdoor area. We strive to give the chimpanzees as much choice in their lives as possible, and we like to keep the outdoor area available as a choice as often as we can. This means that, whether it’s 100 degrees and full sun, or 25 degrees with wind-blown snow, someone is always up on the berm. When the weather is good, we usually take 30-minute shifts (which can sometimes become hour or hour-and-a-half long when we’ve a skeleton crew on weekends). When it’s extremely cold or extremely hot, we try to shorten the shifts to 20 minutes or so.

The berm at CHCI is a pretty wide area that allows for both a gravel path for a human caregiver to walk on and a garden full of yummy vegetables, plants, and flowers for the chimpanzees to enjoy. If the berm person has undergone the extensive training required to safely interact with the chimpanzees, he or she can provide enrichment for the chimpanzees by playing games, or conversing about the day, about the activity inside and outside the chimpanzees’ area, or about the garden. Sometimes, the chimpanzees might even convince a caregiver to give them some tasty ONION GRASS (the chimpanzees’ sign for chives).

Most of the time, you’ll see the berm person holding a clipboard. They are adding to the longest running observational log of chimpanzee behavior at CHCI, what we call the “Field Log.” It is the compilation of notes taken during the day, every day, for the last 14 years.

Since the berm person is trying to capture all the activities and behaviors of the chimpanzees, it’s quickest to write in abbreviations. We also have the enclosure divided into eight different “zones” for easier location identification. An example of an everyday berm experience might look something like this in the field log notes:


2:30 New D = DM
     W SU OWPF Z4
     TA LD OTERR BEL LDG Z5
     L SU ICS Z8 OT LT OUT
2:32 DAR QPW out A
     DAR QPW Z2 OT Z4
     DAR CLB OWPF Z4
     DAR SU OWPF Z4
2:34 DAR SWG OFH Z4 OT LDG Z6
     DAR SU OLDG Z6 OT LT OUT
2:37 L BRH OCC Z8 OT Z4
     W HUG-LOVExB/ OT LT L
     L SU OWPF Z4 BS W
     W GR L

Which roughly translates to: “A new data collector (DM) came up on to the berm at 2:30 p.m. At that time, Washoe was sitting up on the wooden platform in the middle of the enclosure, in Zone 4. Tatu was lying down on the terrace in Zone 5, directly below the cement ledge. Loulis was sitting up in the climbing structure (called the “shaky tree”) oriented toward and looking toward the area outside the enclosure. Two minutes later, at 2:32, Dar came out and walked quadrupedally from Zone 2 to the wooden platform in Zone 4, which he then sat up on. Another couple of minutes went by before Dar got up and swung on a fire hose from the wooden platform to the cement ledge of Zone 6, where he then sat up and was oriented toward and looking toward outside. At 2:37, Loulis brachiated (fancy word for swinging one hand after another) on the cage ceiling from Zone 8 to the wooden platform in Zone 4. As Loulis was approaching, Washoe signed HUG-LOVE/ repeatedly with both of her hands oriented toward him. Loulis then sat beside Washoe and she proceeded to groom him.

Again, this is just an example, but you can definitely get an idea of why we use abbreviations!

Studying field records (like the hypothetical example above) from 2001 and 2002, student and faculty scholars at CHCI we able to determine that the chimpanzees spent more time each day in the outdoor area when it was warmer outside than when it was colder (Puffer, Jensvold, Fouts, & Fouts, 2006). However, the research also showed that the chimpanzees spent at least a portion of every single day outside, when we were able to provide them access (we only had to close off the outside area for eight days out of the 365-day period studied). No matter whether Ellensburg is providing rain, snow, wind, clouds, or sunshine, the chimpanzees will trek their way outside. Our philosophy focuses on meeting the needs of the chimpanzees, and allowing them access to the outside enclosure during any weather is just one thing we do to make CHCI an enriching home for Washoe and her family.

So the next time you are walking around north campus and pass our building, you can certainly imagine one of us up there, taking notes, maybe haggling with Tatu over some ONION GRASS, and always protecting the unique chimpanzee family that calls CHCI home.

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About Debbie Metzler

Debbie began working with chimpanzees in 2005 while she earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Central Washington University. She continued on to earn a master's degree in primate behavior, and after graduation joined the adjunct faculty in the primate behavior department. Debbie is an experienced coordinator for education, outreach, and advocacy programs. Currently she is working toward putting an end to the exploitation of non-human apes everywhere.
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