Human Moms Teach Chimps It’s All in the Family

A nursery school at the Yerkes Primate Center gives lessons to the offspring of lab chimps on how to live like their wild-born relatives

Developmental psychologist Kim Bard and her assistants at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta are raising 22 baby chimps ranging in age from a few days to 4 years. All the chimps are orphaned or rejected offspring of laboratory animals. Bard's program has been initiated to teach captive-born chimps how to act like their wild relatives. There is a growing consensus that chimps in the wild may disappear within 20 years, so how we care for captive chimps has increased importance.

Bard wants to create chimps who feel at home with their own kind. To accomplish this, she has spent the past eight years learning how chimpanzees communicate with one another using body language. Now she and her assistants are teaching ape social skills to orphaned chimp babies. There are approximately 2,000 chimps in captivity in the United States and many are in the care of researchers like Bard. In the wild female chimps learn from their mothers; in captivity, orphaned chimps have no role models so when they grow up they are afraid of their own kind and don't know how to behave. In teaching chimps to be chimps Bard responds not only to the physical demands of the infant chimps but to their emotional needs as well.

Bard is devoted to the effort of raising well-adjusted animals, and so far it's working. The chimps that have graduated from her primate program are now part of chimpanzee social groups and some live with a minimum of human contact in large animal compounds at the Yerkes field station. Eventually, Bard hopes, a project like hers will no longer be necessary because all captive chimps will be well balanced enough to raise their own offspring.

"What I want is no more orphans," Bard says softly. "No more laboratory nurseries. I'd love it if chimpanzees could just be chimpanzees, and I could put myself out of business."

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