Caring for Primates During a Global Pandemic

November 5, 2020

Written By

Steve Ross, Ph.D.

Director of the Lester Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes

Among the most frequent questions I get about my work at Lincoln Park Zoo in the context of the global pandemic is, “Do the chimps miss guests?”. I find it a curious question given that in the previous two decades during which I have worked at the zoo, the questions tend to be along the lines of, “Aren’t the chimps stressed out by all the visitors at the zoo?”.

But I suppose this accurately represents the complicated nature of visitor-primate interactions that are a daily part of primate life in zoos around the world. Indeed, there is a robust literature on the topic, with studies from the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes here at the zoo, showing very little effect on the resident chimpanzees and gorillas.

In pre-pandemic days at Lincoln Park Zoo, the chimpanzees and gorillas were visited by more than 3 million guests annually, so it’s difficult for me to imagine that they did not notice when virtually overnight, and now for the most recent 6+ months, those millions of visitors simply stopped coming. But those are not the only changes they have experienced as a result of the pandemic. For two decades, the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes has conducted what is among the longest running consecutive studies of zoo-based primate behavior, collecting systematic behavioral observations virtually every day. Such observations ceased when zoo scientists began to work remotely in March. Perhaps even more impactful was the cessation of our daily cognitive studies, in which the chimpanzees, gorillas, and Japanese macaques regularly voluntarily participated in a variety of touchscreen-mediated research. Such studies have taught scientists a lot about how primates think, learn and feel, but also of their ability to enrich the lives of the apes in the zoo’s care.

Due to the pandemic, most zoos were closed to the public for many months, causing these accredited institutions to pause scientific, education, and/or conservation initiatives as a result of reduced or absent staffing. Unlike some institutions, zoos were unable to turn off the lights and send their staff home. Unlike field sites, the primates at the zoo remained dependent on Animal Care and Veterinary staff even when the scientists had to leave.

Lincoln Park Zoo is appreciative of the dedicated essential staff who continue to provide excellent care to the species at the zoo. It’s been tremendously difficult for our scientific staff to be away from the primates with whom we collaborate, but we are grateful that they are still thriving and receiving the best possible care, positive reinforcement training, and enrichment they deserve.

Recently, I returned to the zoo briefly and saw some of my old ape friends and got a taste of an answer to the question posed to me so often. Each ape reacted a little differently to me when I approached their indoor-outdoor habitat. Some excitedly rushed outside when they spotted a familiar but long-absent face. A female gorilla named Rollie whom I have known for 20 years, and who has excelled in our touchscreen studies, seemed especially excited to see me. Others only turned a brief glance in my direction and then went back to patrolling the perimeter of their yards or drawing jelly from their artificial termite mound. Like for us humans, the circumstances imposed on us by the pandemic have affected each individual primate differently.