Most will agree moving house can be a stressful experience. It takes lots organisation and preparation, but when you are moving 19 Chimpanzees it involves years of meticulous planning and a specialist team of removalists including the primates’ dedicated keepers, veterinary staff, animal behaviourists, exhibit designers and tradespeople. It also involved anesthetising the animals and managing complex animal reintroductions. So why did Taronga do it?
Taronga's chimp community is considered to be one of the most successful groups living in a zoo anywhere in the world. They interact and live in a natural group situation, just like they would in the wild, and for that reason, they’ve been studied by renowned primatologist Jane Goodall.
The chimp group are part of a conservation breeding program for their species, which is endangered in the wild. This functions as an ‘insurance’ program or a safety-net against the decline of chimps in the wild. For the program to be successful, the zoo’s chimp group is managed to ensure they remain genetically diverse and retain their wild behaviours.
Taronga needed to build a new sanctuary that would cater for the chimp group as it grew and evolved. The sanctuary would require added complexities, climbing structures and new exhibit ‘furniture’ for the males to use, and test their strength against when they displayed. The new design would also provide lots of areas where individuals could get out of the line of sight of other community members during disputes. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ pretty much sums things up for chimps, so the new exhibit was designed to support the social dynamics and relationships.
We also needed a sanctuary that in the future would allow us to introduce new chimps into our community, in order to bring in new genetic lines and continue the conservation breeding program. This would involve lengthy introductions as, just like humans, they don’t always get along, so the new exhibit was built with a special ‘mesh curtain’ that allowed us to divide up the internal space and manage introductions gradually. This area would also function to give some of the family members ‘time out’ from each other if the need arises.
When the sanctuary was finally completed, it was also given complex rope structures, high hammocks and nets. Finally, it was time to move the Taronga chimps into their amazing new abode. It’s all been worth it, as the chimps explore and interact with every aspect of their new sanctuary.