Lift the suffering:  Chimps in Captivity




Rethinking how we house chimpanzees in captivity: a naturalistic approach

By Jade Patterson


Chimpanzees are kept in captivity in a variety of contexts that range from zoo exhibits, to research facilities, and sanctuaries that rehabilitate and house retired chimpanzees. In the past chimpanzees were housed singly or in small groups. This type of arrangement was advantageous in that it increased human control over behaviour and nutrition, reduced the incidence of fighting and social tension and improved hygiene. It is now widely accepted that chimpanzees are extremely intelligent and that their impressive mental abilities have evolved partly, as with humans and other primates, to cope with complex group life. Psychological well-being is characterised by the presence of behaviours that typify the intelligence, curiosity and social interactions of the species, as well as the absence of abnormal, stereotypic behaviours. The aim of this work is to discuss ways in which the "psychological well-being" of captive chimpanzees can be improved.


There are two schools of thought that influence design and operation of animal care and exhibition facilities (Coe et al., 2001). The homocentric view holds that research and technology, properly applied, will meet all animals' needs. The biocentric view holds that because very little is known about animals' needs, we are better able to meet them if we recreate the social and environmental conditions in which the species evolved (Coe et al., 2001; Pruetz and McGrew, 2001). Currently the homocentric approach dominates both animal-care operations and facility design. By adopting a biocentric approach and designing enclosures that function naturalistically we can provide chimpanzees with more choice regarding their environment (Coe et al., 2001). There is increasing evidence to suggest that animals that exercise greater control over their environment suffer fewer stress-related syndromes than animals without such control (Bloomsmith and Barker, 2001).

The provision of elevated sites for nesting (up to 10m off the ground) and the availability of nesting materials are extremely important given that chimpanzees in the wild spend more than half their time sleeping and resting. The security of sleeping in an elevated nest and the comfort of bedding material probably significantly contributes to the quality of sleep that captive chimpanzees experience (Pruetz and McGrew, 2001) (Coe et al., 2001).

In the wild, chimpanzees live in highly fluid "fission-fusion" societies made up of shifting associations among individuals within a relatively stable unit-group. Interactions among males differ significantly from those among females, with a higher frequency of multi-male groups and affiliations (Fritz and Howell, 2001). Facilities and groups should be arranged to allow mixed-age and mixed-sex social groups, with room for sub-grouping, isolation and cooperation among members (Coe et al., 2001). Compatibility of individuals is important to consider. Mother-offspring associations should be maintained for as long as possible (Pruetz and McGrew, 2001). In the wild, offspring stay with their mothers for over 5 years. The mother-offspring relationship is the most stable and enduring in chimpanzee society, yet is often cut short in captivity (Bloomsmith and Barker, 2001).

The absence of the fluid fission-fusion social structure that is characteristic of chimpanzees in nature may underlie many behavioural abnormalities in captive chimpanzee behaviour. Some examples that may indicate problems with social group composition and stability include: reduced sexual activity, excessive levels and intensity of aggression, abnormal patterns of behaviour and long periods of inactivity (Bloomsmith and Barker, 2001) (Coe et al., 2001) (Fritz and Howell, 2001).