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L.A. Zoo chimp killing: A Q&A with primatologist Craig Stanford

June 27, 2012|By Jon Bardin, Los Angeles Times / For the Science Now blog
  • The mother and infant chimp together in May. On June 26, a male chimp killed this baby.
The mother and infant chimp together in May. On June 26, a male chimp killed… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

On Tuesday, an adult male chimp killed a baby chimp in their enclosure at the Los Angeles Zoo. I spoke with Craig Stanford, co-director of USC’s Jane Goodall Research Center, about how common this behavior is and what its likely cause might be.

How common is this type of thing among chimps?

It is important to know that this is something that happens in the wild also. Male chimps are prone to taking babies and killing them, usually babies they are very confident are not their own babies. It’s shocking for a visitor to see, I know, but it’s something that primatologists are accustomed to seeing regularly. It’s definitely not a result of captive confinement or anything like that. It’s part of their behavior.

Is there a likely explanation?

Exact circumstances are known only to the chimps themselves, but it’s likely due to the normal politics of that chimp group, the relationships among the different animals. This is something that, unfortunately, it does happen. It could be because the male views the baby as future competition.

The most frequent scenarios in the wild are, one, a male who is from another community kills a baby that is attached to a female. The male encounters the female, a mom, at his territorial border and he kills it, and sometimes he even eats it. But the most common way it’s seen is that females will sometimes take and kill each other’s babies. But this scenario [at the L.A. Zoo] was a male.

How does it appear the zoo has done in its handling of the situation?

The L.A. Zoo staff are extremely skilled at slowly introducing new animals to the group. It could just be that the male had an animosity toward the female. Fights break out all the time in chimp groups, both in captivity and in the wild.

The other interesting thing is that the keeper put the baby back with the mom. The interesting thing there is that in the wild mothers whose babies die will carry the baby for days or weeks while they grieve and try to understand what’s going on. It’s so prolonged sometimes that there can be a terrible odor. I don’t know how long the zoo will let her have the baby, but I think it’s very healthy to let her mourn as she might in the wild.

Anything final to add?

I think one general comment is that this was done by an adult male chimp. They can be very nasty animals, they abuse females and they attack babies. They are dangerous animals, for their own species and for people. We lose track of that because when we go to the zoo we see them as caricatures of us.

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