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Czech Chimpanzees Use Video Calls to Fight Lockdown Blues

Zookeepers at Safari Park Dvůr Králové and a zoo in Brno set up daily video calls for their chimpanzees

As they have gotten more comfortable with screen-time, the chimps have shown human-like behaviors like bringing over food like nuts to snack on as they watch. (Photo by Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images)
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Chimpanzees are highly intelligent animals, so when they’re kept in zoo enclosures, zookeepers need to come up with all kinds of enrichment activities to keep them happy and healthy. Normally, chimps can get some of that entertainment from watching and interacting with the zoo’s visitors.

But as the Covid-19 pandemic has kept visitors away for the time being, a pair of zoos in the Czech Republic set up all-day video calls that let each zoo’s chimpanzees watch each other instead, Reuters reports.

Safari Park Dvůr Králové set up a large screen on the other side of the windows of the chimpanzees’ enclosure. That way, chimps can spend time at the edge of the enclosure, leaning on the wall or lounging on the ground, to watch how events unfold across the country at another zoo in Brno.

The set-up took some getting used to, but now the chimpanzees seem to enjoy it, Gabriela Linhartova, an ape keeper at Safari Park Dvůr Králové, tells Reuters. The video call programming will last at least until the end of March. Then, the zookeepers will evaluate whether to continue the project, or stop it, if the chimpanzees get bored.

"The campaign has been a great success, and we can't be happier and more proud," says Safari Park Dvůr Králové spokesperson Michal Šťastný to Harry Baker at Live Science. "Even other zoos have decided to take the concept and work with it."

The chimpanzees used to enjoy watching visitors on the other side of the glass-walled enclosure, Šťastný tells Live Science. But the Czech Republic recently instituted a new nationwide lockdown that only allows people to leave their homes for essential reasons, Jennifer Hassan reports for the Washington Post. So the chimps could no longer engage with visitors, howling at them, chasing them or imitating their gestures.

The new video call screen doesn’t include live sound, but it offers a widescreen experience of the other enclosure and the chimpanzees living there.

“At the beginning they approached the screen with defensive or threatening gestures, there was interaction,” says Linhartova to Reuters. “It has since moved into the mode of ‘I am in the movies’ or ‘I am watching TV.’ When they see some tense situations, it gets them up off the couch, like us when we watch a live sport event.”

As they have gotten more comfortable with screen-time, the chimps have shown human-like behaviors, including bringing over food like nuts to snack on as they watch. Zookeeper Radek Hlavka tells the Associated Press that the youngest female at Safari Park Dvůr Králové, named M, is the biggest fan of the new entertainment among the group.

Šťastný tells Live Science the chimpanzees seem to understand that they’re watching a video, and even that the chimpanzees and people on the screen can see them. Safari Park Dvůr Králové’s chimps will sometimes carry their food to the camera to show it off to the apes across the digital divide, which they would do to newcomers to their group. Sometimes they’re enjoying the show so much that they don’t want to leave the enclosure with the video feed in it when the zookeepers need to clean.

"The video streaming has been a big success, but in time, the chimp's attention is most likely going to fade," says Šťastný to Live Science. "That is why the keepers keep coming [up] with new ways of enrichment every day."

While the livestream is still available to the chimpanzees, the zoo will also host the video on its website from 8AM to 4PM local time, so any curious primate can tune in.

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