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Hanging With the Chimps

Jane Goodall and other visitors to the L.A. Zoo, in town for a primate conference, visit the chimpanzee enclosure.

October 02, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Dozens of animal lovers and academics communed up close with chimpanzees at the Los Angeles Zoo on Sunday morning, peeking behind the scenes of their modern exhibit and wending their way through play areas under the apes' watchful eyes.

The tour of the Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains exhibit, which opened eight years ago, was part of a weekend conference on chimpanzees organized in part by the Jane Goodall Institute, with Goodall delivering talks and checking out the chimps' quarters.

The zoo's chimpanzee area, which includes extensive indoor and outdoor sections and a 1,500-square-foot "penthouse" with fire hoses and plastic barrels for the chimps to climb on, opened with much fanfare in 1998.

The new, naturalistic environment replaced a barren concrete expanse ringed by a moat with two tiny barred rooms for 13 animals to sleep in.

Visitors still ooh and ahh over the changes.

"Here they can actually move," said Mark D. Bodamer, a psychology processor at Pacific University in Oregon who studies chimps every summer at a Zambian sanctuary.

On Sunday, half a dozen chimps lounged on the large rock outcropping in the middle of their grassy one-acre habitat, fiddling with one another's hair, munching on leaves or wearing bits of cardboard atop their heads, a waterfall whooshing in the background.

Primatologist and conservationist Goodall told those gathered at the conference's Sunday morning session that there are limits to what a zoo can achieve.

"There's all the difference in the world between a group of captive chimps and a group in the wild," she said. "By and large in the wild, a chimp is free to make his own choices. In a captive group, however good the environment is, they cannot make those choices ... [their] whole life is ordered."

But Goodall acknowledged the dangers chimps face outside of captivity, including destruction of their natural habitat and meat hunters, and said zoos play an important role. "Those chimps have a good time, for zoo chimps," Goodall said of the facility's chimpanzee area. "It's a lot better than some."

Although some zoos have more spacious enclosures, she added, the L.A. Zoo does a good job of stimulating the animals.

Small groups of ape enthusiasts and zoo volunteers from California and other states trooped through the indoor network of play areas, where giant bins of shrubbery clippings sat for keepers to distribute.

Volunteer Joy Shneider placed cereal, nuts, sunflower seeds and mustard in cardboard paper towel tubes. A plant shoot poked out of each tube for the animals to use to fish out their treats.

As animal keeper Tami Goodson described the chimps' spacious digs, the apes hooted and swung from the bars of the original tiny sleeping quarters, thumping the walls. The animals were brought down to the rooms during the tour.

Amid the din, Ripley the chimp poked his lips through the bars and spit on an unsuspecting visitor, who took the spritzing in stride. You aren't an animal person if you haven't been "christened," said Gail Nelson, who runs a nature nonprofit in Redondo Beach.

She said the zoo has evolved into "something that can be truly loved and respected versus exploitative." The apes can move between different sections of the $5-million exhibit, which includes sprinklers and misters for hot days and heating for cool ones.

On Sunday, guests largely concurred that the zoo's chimpanzee exhibit still deserves high marks.

"The chimps here have so much freedom," said Kathleen Bethel, who drove her daughter Liz from Tucson to the zoo on weekends over four months to observe the chimps for a science project.

The prize-winning effort, in which Liz identified a new type of chimp vocalization, is funding her studies at the University of Arizona.

With submissive and dominant families comprising a miniature chimp culture, said Susan Pearson, a longtime zoo volunteer, the exhibit is "as close in captivity as you can get to a natural situation."

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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