Fission-Fusion: Giving chimps choices

Zookeeper Will Bookwalter guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Keepers and animal management staff always look for ways to improve the welfare of the animals we care for — that’s our job! We work with zoos and animal experts from all over the world to stay ahead of the curve with our animal management programs.

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Young Kona watches on while Mookie eats. Waiting for a bite perhaps?

Recently, the Dallas Zoo chimpanzee keepers have embarked on a new challenge to help enhance the lives of our chimps, keep a healthy social dynamic, and, most importantly, let the chimps make decisions.

“Fission-Fusion” is a fancy title for how chimpanzee troops function in the wild. Troops can range from 25-100 chimps, and throughout the course of the day they will split up (fission) and come back together (fusion). There are a few reasons why this happens, but the biggest one is simply this: resources.

Think of it like this: You made lunch for five of your friends, but 25 show up. You can’t feed everybody, so most of those friends will have to split up into smaller groups and go find their own food.

Chimps also will split up so males can protect the troop. They’ll patrol the perimeter of the territory, making sure the troop is safe and that no rivals are invading. Throughout the day, the whole troop will split into smaller factions and spend the day doing what chimps do best —eating, sleeping, grooming, and playing. The most important thing for chimpanzees is their social bond with one another. Spending time together grooming, sharing food, playing, and helping to raise the kids keeps relationships strong and peace in the troop.

Six-year-old Kona joins mom Ramona and little brother Mshindi on their favorite tree branch.

Six-year-old Kona joins mom Ramona and little brother Mshindi on their favorite tree branch.

With chimpanzees being so socially motivated, it can sometimes be tough to keep that peace. Chimps have a very complex social dynamic, and that often can lead to conflict. In recent years, some zoos in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (our accrediting organization) decided to try something different: letting the chimps decide where they want to go.

The normal morning routine is a gentle wakeup call from the keepers, and once we’ve checked on everyone, each receives a multi-vitamin and anything else they need. Then keepers clean the habitat, make sure everything is safe and in working order, and scatter their morning diet across the habitat. Then the chimps are sent out to eat, play, and relax with the troop.

This system has worked well, but when we heard about the success other zoos had with Fission-Fusion, we decided it was time to give it a try.

Mookie receives a kiss from Ramona.

Mookie receives a kiss from Ramona.

The way a Fission-Fusion system works in a zoo is similar to how it works in the wild, the only difference being that keepers need to help the chimps get where they want to go. Instead of sending all the chimps out together, some chimps may rather spend time with a different individual. Or perhaps they don’t feel like being around other individuals in the troop, so they can decide not to be.

The chimps tell us where they want to be by going to a certain area, or hanging back when the rest of the troop moves. For example, we know that if Mookie and Doyle, two of our adult males, don’t want to come in with the troop that evening, they’ll wait next to a different chute. Then they can come in to the other side of the building for some peace and quiet. In the morning, Mookie and Doyle will go back with the troop.

We decided to begin using this system is to help our eldest chimps, Bon Bon, Missy, and Doyle, get a break from our rambunctious youngster, Kona. At 6, Kona’s quite a handful, and while the older chimps spend lots of time playing with the youngsters, sometimes they need a break. So under Fission-Fusion, each morning we let the chimps decide if they want to stay in with a couple of others, or go out to the habitat.

50-year-old chimp Missy basks in the sun.

50-year-old chimp Missy basks in the sun.

The chimps who stay inside have access to our patio for some sunshine and plenty of activities to stay busy. And it lets keepers spend lots of time training. Training is one of the most important things we do with our chimps. We do simple things, such as asking the chimps to present different parts of their body, all the way up to really complicated behaviors, such as holding still for an ultrasound of their heart or belly.

Every training session helps keep these behaviors sharp, meaning we can always ensure the best care. The chimps who go out on habitat get plenty of perks, too. They can forage for food and browse, enjoy the sunshine (and the shade), and play, groom, and relax with the troop.

At nearly two-years-old, Mshindi will remain close to mom for the next few years.

At nearly two-years-old, Mshindi will remain close to mom for the next few years.

We’re so proud of how quickly our chimps caught on! Basing our expectations and our initial plans on what the other zoos had experienced, we expected it to take six months for our chimps to learn the system, and we expected a few hiccups along the way. The No. 1 rule with primates is adaptability, and we were ready for anything.

However, as primates always seem to do, they threw the one curveball we never thought we’d see: they learned to make their own choices on who they wanted to spend their time with in a little over two weeks! We weren’t sure how to react, so we decided to go with wild excitement.

This system is ever-changing. No two days are the same here at the zoo, and the animals are very good at keeping us on our toes. Being primates ourselves, we must always be ready to adapt, solve problems as they arise, and come up with the best solutions. One thing’s for sure: With help from our awesome chimps, the Dallas Zoo can continue to raise the bar and help other zoos all over the world create the best possible environments for the animals.

Categories: Africa, Chimpanzee, Zookeepers | Leave a comment

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