By: Sarah Nielsen
Life at Chimfunshi never ceases to surprise us. As a visiting researcher I was again reminded of the infinitely complex and intricate social structures in the life of a chimpanzee. Because social groups at Chimfunshi include chimps of all ages we are able to observe a more natural hierarchy with old and young chimps alike. Here chimps are allowed and encouraged to socialize naturally, sometimes in ways that may be unfit for a greeting card.
In this particular incident Zsabu the alpha male in enclosure two, grabbed an infant chimp by the ankle and dragged it viciously in a large circle for several long seconds. What ensued was mass panic and chaos. The mother, as well as a dozen others, chased Zsabu and the young chimp, screaming at the top of their lungs as only a frightened chimpanzee can. As soon as Zsabu let go, the mother flew past her infant and immediately presented her rear to Zsabu as a sign of submission, before returning to comfort her young one.
Fortunately, chimps are strong and resilient, so this little guy wasn’t hurt. While we were originally terrified by the incident, now we are fascinated. Wild chimps have been known to hurt and sometimes kill infants, but why did Zsabu do this? Did such a little chimp do something to offend him? Perhaps Zsabu used the infant as a tool to punish its mother. We can only speculate, but apparently it works for Zsabu. According to Innocent Mulenga who is the resident Primatologist, such a treatment has come to be known at Chimfunshi as “The Zsabu Special.” Innocent has observed this behaviour on several occasions.
This incident can serve as a powerful reminder of the strength and unpredictability of chimpanzees, as well as the importance of appropriate care. Unfortunately, such care is not available in private homes or the entertainment sector. That is why Chimfunshi is such a valuable place: truly a sanctuary for the chimps who call it home.