A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Why Baby Chimp Died at Zoo

Baby Chimpanzee Killed
Photo by Sharon LiVisi

Los Angeles Zoo officials insist that when a big male chimpanzee killed a three-month-old baby chimp last week, it was just, so to speak, one of those things.

Zoo patron Victoria Pipkin-Lane, who is director of L.A. County’s Quality and Productivity Commission, says she was at the zoo a few days earlier. She noticed that trouble was brewing in the form of a 10-minute tussle between chimps, one of whom seemed to be trying to protect Gracie, the mother, and her baby.

“It was scary,” she told the L.A. Times, after demanding that the mayor launch an investigation. “Those of us that were near the compound were like, ‘My God, why aren’t they going to do something about this?'”

Zoo officials say there was nothing they could do. “Policy does not allow staff to enter the same space as these animals,” they said in a statement. “Chimpanzee behavior can sometimes be aggressive and violent.”

That’s certainly true, as we’ve just seen from the horrific attack that took place last week at a sanctuary in South Africa.

The zoo added that the chimpanzees live in “fission-fusion” groups. That’s typical of their nature, which includes endlessly shifting alliances that break up and re-form, depending on who’s getting on with whom, who’s rising in the hierarchy, who’s in, who’s out – just like office politics among us human great apes.

And males can be violent with babies who are not their own.

Yes, that’s all natural. But what’s not natural is when it’s brought into the confines of captivity at a zoo, where, in this case, Gracie had nowhere to go with her baby and her friends except to another part of their enclosure.

“This is going to be a big grieving period for a lot of the staff members,” a spokesman said.

Sure, the zoo staff, who know to keep out of the way of the chimpanzees, may be sad. But they will know nothing of the grief that Gracie is experiencing. They know enough to be “allowing” her to keep her dead baby with her for a few days. Then, if she still hasn’t let go, they’ll decide when to take the baby away. Gracie will not make those decisions for herself.

“[Chimpanzees can be very nasty animals,” said Craig Stanford, co-director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California. “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.”

Jane Goodall often says about her studies of our first cousins in the wild: “I used to think that they were just like us, only better. Now I know that that’s not the case: In fact, they’re just like us.”

And they don’t belong in zoos.