Open Thread - Thurs 30 Mar 2023: Learning in the Zoo

Learning in the Zoo: Cobby Taught Me!

Many years ago, in the mid 1980's, I was very tiny part of the start of a study on captive chimpanzees. This study was called Chimpanzoo and it was created under the auspices of Dr. Jane Goodall. It is still continued to this day, after beginning in 1984!

Chimpanzoo recruited(s) volunteers from amongst anthropology students and graduate students to go to their local zoos and observe the chimpanzees in those zoos, using methods similar to those used by Dr. Goodall in her studies of chimps in the wild. We, because I was one of those volunteers, took observations of what the chimps under study were doing, every minute. This was an attempt to quantify how the behaviour of captive chimps varied from that of wild chimps, amongst other things.

The zoo I went to was in San Francisco. In the mid 1980's the zoo did not have a modern chimpanzee enclosure, although the zoo did have a brand new Gorilla enclosure, which was amazing, and the smaller monkey enclosures at the zoo were pretty nice too.

The chimps, however, had the standard enclosure of the time, a concrete 'island' with a 'moat' to keep the chimps away from the crowds of humans watching them (or vice versa, to be honest). There was a toy or two, a hanging car tire to play on, a piece of dead tree, some carted in pieces of branch and leaves, and a shade area. It was standard for most of the zoos of the time. It was drab, it was depressing and I hated that the chimps were stuck in it. It was SO BORING.

Observing the chimps' behaviour was always interesting, and always educational. I quickly realized that chimps and humans are bunched together on a simple continuum of life and behaviour. It was obvious that we are almost the same, that it's gradations of difference, not huge canyons of difference, which separate us (ohh and that damned moat, that separated us too). For more on this, see Franz de Waal's recent book (2017), Are we Smart enough to know how Smart Animals Really Are?.

There were four chimps at the zoo: one male, named Cobby, and three females, Minnie, Tallulah, and Maggie. They all had different, interesting, personalities. Much of the time they were active, although often they seemed to be bored. Cobby did what all male apes do, he looked over, protected and took care of his females. He was very kind to them in his chimp way.

But, what was there for him to protect his female chimps from? Well, sometimes that crowd of human chimps, the ones standing on the other side of the moat and to the side of those little lady human chimps who sat on the bench behind the hedge of bushes, watching him and his women intently, with pencils and notebooks in their hands (in other words me and my fellow volunteers at Chimpanzoo). The human chimps in the crowd, not always but far too often for my liking, male and female, would hoot and holler, point and laugh and mock Cobby and his ladies. The male human chimps were especially mean and rude. They would march around, acting as they thought Cobby did, but not realizing the reasons he did it. They would hoot and huff, and scratch under their arm pits. They would raise their shoulders and make gestures with their hands. They would say things like, 'Stupid monkey… dumb-ass… ugly bastard…'.

The male humans' gestures and words made me angry. And the simpering of their wives and girlfriends, the laughter of their children, just made it worse. I'm pretty sure Cobby felt the same. Cobby would respond, because, you know, those human chimps were talking in his language, making his gestures and he knew what they meant. They were threatening him, mocking him. Some of those humans would throw little rocks or stones at him. This was against the zoo rules, but the humans still did it.

And Cobby would get angrier and angrier, rightfully so. He'd stomp around the island, making his own gestures and calls. He'd throw the rocks back at them. The male humans would laugh, their women would twitter and giggle, and the male humans would imitate Cobby even more.

After a while, maybe 5 or 10 minutes, it was too much for Cobby. He'd look around, pause and furtively squat, with his hands under himself. We Chimpanzoo observers would immediately duck down behind the hedge, with just our eyes showing above it so we could do our work. Cobby would glance at us. Was it in approval? I don't know. Unbeknownst to the male human chimps, Cobby was squatting to crap in his hand.

And so, there Cobby was with a handful of poo. The next hoot, the next mocking stomp, the next tossed rock, was met with a forcefully thrown handful of chimpanzee poo. He usually hit some of idiots in the crowd, and they'd stagger away, gagging, their female companions giggling and laughing at them. The current idiots would quickly disappear, but new idiots always seemed to show up soon enough, unfortunately.

Cobby threw his ladies' crap as well. If he could find something that he could throw, he'd throw it. But the best was when it was his own, personal, steaming, crap. It made me proud of him, in a weird way, proud to realize how he was trying to protect his 'people' in whatever way he could. And the humans' actions made me disgusted. Mocking animals shows how stupid we are at times, I think. Cobby, Maggie, Minnie and Tallulah taught me so much about the dignity, the worth, the intelligence of other animals.

I never forgot all that they taught me. Because of Cobby and the others, I am able to see my farm animals as individuals worthy of respect and love and attention. Because of them, I learned to see the whole world that way.

Cobby passed away about two years ago. He was 63, older than I am now. Thank you Cobby, thank you. I'm so glad your life was long, and full, and San Fran treated you well.

So, thanks for reading and here's the open thread - and remember, everything is interesting if you dive deep enough, so tell us about where you're diving!

13 users have voted.


Sima's picture

Yesterday was marvelous, warmish, sunny, nice for being outside. So I was! Spring has definitely sprung, even if it's a bit colder than normal here. Jaska is really improving, walking eagerly, if like an old dog, which she is. She limps but it doesn't seem to stop her, I think it's 'just' arthritis now. She even jumps up on things some times, and here's the cutie proof!
Jaska did this on her own, jumping up and sleeping on 'her' chair. She hasn't been up there since the leg infection! I dunno if this will be regular, she is really weak now, like all old things. But, she's happy and she's jumping!

Hope the day and the week have gone well for everyone. Post whatever you are thinking/doing/learning below, we wanna read it!

Edited to Add thanks to joe shikspack for posting the outcome of the lawsuit against the Internet Archive to Monday's Evening Blues. It's a sad outcome, but not unexpected. Let's keep fighting for the archive!

12 users have voted.

If you're poor now, my friend, then you'll stay poor.
These days, only the rich get given more. -- Martial book 5:81, c. AD 100 or so
Nothing ever changes -- Sima, c. AD 2020 or so

usefewersyllables's picture


about Jaska. All our pets are older critters, and they are all slowing down noticeably- the 16-year-old cat can still run rings around the 13-year-old dog, though.

I'm very bummed about the Wayback Machine. Funny bit of synchronicity: Brewster Kahle was a classmate of mine in college, and we carpooled to our co-op engineering jobs at the same company during the summer break for a couple of summers. He went to Thinking Machines right out of school, and then left them to go do the Wayback Machine. I haven't talked to him in *years*, and really ought to give him a call and see how he's doing. He's a good guy, through and through...

6 users have voted.

Twice bitten, permanently shy.

Sima's picture

Very cool. I bet there's some good memories there! Thanks for sharing that info. It's so neat to find out some broader connections, and to know that people I 'know' now are very good and hung out with very good people.

Jaska just had her small portion of my ham sandwich. She is now having a nap. Of course! Our cats are a little older than Jaska, and they too run rings around her! Reyna, the dog we had before Jaska, was basically guided around the farm, to all the inetresting areas such as the compost heap, by our very old cat (at the time). The cat would push the dog in whatever direction the cat wanted to go, by rubbing on the dog's front legs. Worked every time!