Chimp Care

If you know someone who works or has worked at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, you may have heard the term “chimp care” before. This title is given to someone who has gone through extensive training to directly care for and interact with the chimpanzees who live at CHCI.

Our first priority at CHCI is the health and safety of the chimpanzee family. A human who is interested in participating in the care giving for this family has to be able to provide safe care and show commitment and dedication to the program and – more importantly – to the chimpanzees.

Everyone who works at CHCI has a great deal of commitment to the family, but individuals have different levels of training. Someone starting out as an intern in the back is first trained how to be a “clean and berm” person – someone who spends about 4 hours a week cleaning, taking notes on berm and performing miscellaneous tasks around the building like meal preparation and laundry. CHCI depends on the clean and berm individuals so much – without them we would be lost. Cleaners help make sure that the chimpanzees are given a clean and safe home everyday, and berm observers ensure the chimpanzees’ safety when they are in their outdoor enclosure. Clean and berm interns contribute a great deal of time and energy to all of the research that goes on at CHCI (helping code videos, entering sign logs, etc.)

But what are the other levels of training? Well, an ambitious clean and berm intern who is so inclined can start taking “sign reliability” tests for each of the chimpanzees. These are videos assembled by the technicians that are clips of the chimpanzees signing. To pass these tests (or rather, to be reliable) requires a score of 85 percent or higher – which can be pretty difficult at times. After a while, you learn that the chimpanzees all have unique accents to their signing, and they all have their own pace that they sign at. The tests are just a means of making sure all the caregivers are able to correctly identify the signs when conversing with the chimpanzees. Someone who has finished sign reliability may receive an invitation to begin chimp care training, although it is not guaranteed. Obviously, it’s important that the chimpanzees respond well to the person being considered. The person also must commit to at least 18 months and show a lot of hard work and dedication to caring for the chimpanzees. At that point, someone might be invited to chimp care training.

The training is different for everyone – but for all it is a rigorous process that prepares the interns for eventually interacting with the chimpanzees alone. On average (although, as stated before, it’s different for everyone) training takes about 4-6 months. The training experience has several different stages, which help transition the caregivers into a position where they can make safe and flexible decisions on their own.

The first stage is strictly observational. For three meals, a new chimp care trainee watches a trainer, who is always a hydraulic operator (a chimpanzee caregiver with even more training and responsibilities) to see how the meal is served. The trainer shows the trainee how to serve different aspects of the meal, talks about the basic routine of every meal, and instructs on the importance of safety. No one at CHCI ever enters an enclosure, and we never stick our fingers through the fencing, but we can still have very rich and direct interactions. The trainer guides the trainee on how to do that safely. The next stage is assisting, and this is when the trainee will help the trainer on serving and interactions. Everything is done in way that our fingers never penetrate the caging and our feet never step into what we call a “red zone,” which is simply a visual reminder of how far the chimpanzees can reach out of certain areas under the fencing. A trainee who has assisted several times and is ready for the next step gets moved to the stage where the trainer observes them. This stage is pretty strange for the trainee because up until this point, an experienced trainer has been by stuck to their side like glue and now the trainer will sit back and just watch. During the observed stage the trainer is there to answer any questions and help with any high arousal meals or new interactions.

Finally, when the trainee is ready, they get moved to serving alone – but not completely at first. The trainer will sit in the kitchen, remaining close by if the server has any questions but not directly observing the server at all times as was previously done. After a few weeks at this stage, the server can be moved to having the trainer in the building – which means that the trainer can be anywhere in the building, not necessarily in the kitchen. It also means that the trainee can enter the human cages for interactions without being accompanied by a trainer. I can relay from a recent personal experience – it’s very weird! Once individuals have been moved to this stage, they start signing up for their weekend shifts and can finally complete their training.

A fully trained chimp care person still has all the responsibilities of a clean and berm person, but in addition they directly care for, interact with, and serve meals for the three amazing and unique chimpanzees living at CHCI. Each meal the chimpanzees are first offered CRACKERS or protein biscuits as their first course. The second course is the main meal – which is fruit-based for breakfast, protein-based for lunch, and carbohydrate-based for dinner. Crackers are small, and can be served either through the caging or underneath the caging. The chimpanzees have prehensile lips, meaning that they can grab things through their caging with just their lips, and this way the servers never put their hands through the caging. Vitamins are also served this way (or underneath the caging to the chimpanzees’ hand if that is what they prefer). Fruit smoothies, which are a breakfast item, are served in a cup that has a pouring lip, and the server will pour the smoothie into the chimpanzee’s mouth at the speed each family member desires. Fresh fruit is served to their mouths through the caging or to their hands underneath the caging. Lunch and dinner are usually served in bowls or on plates, and the chimpanzees are given spoons to eat with if they want. Lunch is a bean-based blended soup and sometimes meat, accompanied by a vegetable of the chimpanzees’ request. Bowls are passed to the chimpanzees below the caging, in a manner that the server doesn’t allow their hands to cross the red zone. Dinner is always different, and is usually served in bowls or sometimes in plates depending on what the meal might be. Dinner is also a time for fiber, which can be given in tablet form, Popsicle form, or mixed in a sport drink (the latter is a huge favorite!). Blankets always follow the meal as well as some nighttime enrichment. Sometimes the chimpanzees may ask for TOOTHBRUSH or GUM which can also be offered the same way as fruit or vegetable through the caging.

Interactions are a time for several different enriching games, conversations, and imagination. Chase is a big hit with the boys, and involves lots of stomping, slapping, and play faces. Tug-o-war can be played with a hose (the strong chimpanzees give us weak humans a little break) through the caging, and putting a mask on to entertain the chimpanzees is another popular game. Tatu will often ask for SMELL and she almost always correctly identifies what we have just eaten based on the smell of our breaths. Loulis loves to play tickle, where he puts his fingers out and tickles the back of our hands (our fingers form a fist and never penetrate the cage) or our shoes. Dar loves to be groomed by pushing his back against the caging so that his hair sticks out a bit and then we can brush him with a hair brush or backscratcher. We can also flip through magazines and talk about the pictures, we can make paintings together, and the list goes on.

Every human who works and volunteers at CHCI – be it a clean and berm person, chimp care person, hydraulic operator, tech, liaison, or docent – show a huge amount of dedication and caring for this family of primates. I thank you all so much for everything you do for this family! And I encourage others to come to Ellensburg and join our program – apprentices, interns, graduate students, or docents – and learn how unique this family is.

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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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