Hi, my name is Allan and I am a Senior Keeper working in the Primate section here at Taronga Zoo.
So what does Senior Keeper mean? Well, it means I’ve been here quite a while. In fact, I have spent over 20 years working at Taronga.
During this time I’ve seen some pretty cool things. I have hand-raised possums and one very special Squirrel Monkey, been involved in moving large animals including Kodiak Bears and Giraffes, and helped rescue a stranded Elephant Seal. I’ve cared for sick and injured animals at Taronga’s Wildlife Hospital, travelled to other Zoos around the world to learn from them and I recently went to Lisbon Zoo in Portugal to help one of our female gorillas settle in to her new home.
Even with all that, I can honestly say that the continuing highlight of my career has been caring for the Chimpanzee community here at Taronga Zoo.
Most people know that Taronga has Chimpanzees but few realise just how special our group is. Taronga Zoo’s Chimpanzees are considered a benchmark for other chimpanzee communities in human care and many zoos world-wide would love to have what we have.
Why is our Chimpanzee Community so special? Well it’s not just numbers, although having 19 Chimpanzees is something that many Zoos would aspire to. It’s the fact that Taronga’s Chimpanzees live as close as it is possible to the way Chimpanzees live in the wild.
Taronga’s Chimpanzees live in a large, complex, socially stable, multi-male, multi-female community, made up of different families.
The family unit is the basis of Chimpanzee society, just as it is with humans. We have six different families in our community. Chimpanzee communities are seething hotspots of complex social tension and politics and I often think that our Chimpanzees could make one of the best-ever soap operas.
One of the pivotal moments in any new Primate Keeper’s career at Taronga comes when they are able to identify the majority of the individuals in the group. Once this happens, all that blur of noise and action that visitors see daily starts to mean something. When you can identify individuals, make an educated interpretation of what and why things are happening, well… that’s when you are well and truly hooked.
Here at Taronga we’re about to embark on the biggest chimpanzee management operation since the group moved to its current exhibit in 1981.
In order to accommodate our constantly evolving and growing community we need to do some major redevelopment of their home, and while the work is going on the Chimpanzees will need to move out during September-October and live in the Zoo’s Orang-utan exhibit.
Any changes to the environment of our complex Chimpanzee group – even a new Keeper, as every Chimpanzee has their favourites – have a huge impact on the social and political balance of the group, so this move is one of the biggest challenges that the Taronga Chimpanzees have faced. We are starting to introduce the idea of the move slowly to the Chimpanzees by showing them some of the moving crates. Even this made the males a bit worried, and they had a bit of a screech and hugged one another. The females were much more sensible and just looked curious.
The Orang-Utans are going to be taking an extended holiday, to get some peace and quiet away from their noisy cousins in newly-built accommodation off-display, and have kindly agreed to lend the Chimpanzees their exhibit for the 18 month duration of the redevelopment.
We will soon probably be wishing they were on holiday along with the Orang-Utans, since the Orang-Utan house is also the office area for the Primate Staff and when having a family dispute, the Chimpanzees are never quiet about it! Without a doubt there’ll be exciting and trying times for all of us in the months to come.