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Behind the Scenes with Chimpanzees

Discover the Chimpanzees of Lion Country Safari

Driving slowly through the Hwange National Park preserve at Lion Country Safari, guests can peer out the car windows and see groups of chimpanzees playing on the islands they call home. Small, glass enclosures and ridiculous costumes are nowhere in sight. At Lion Country Safari, the chimpanzees are observed naturally, which is something Tina Cloutier-Barbour, Primate Curator at Lion Country Safari, is very proud of.

“They aren’t here entertaining us; they are just being chimps,” said Cloutier-Barbour.  “We really hope that our guests get to watch them be chimps in a healthy environment and we hope it will give them a better appreciation of the animals in both the wild and captivity.”

However, maintaining a preserve that simulates a wild existence for these chimpanzees takes a great deal of work and patience. Cloutier-Barbour shares her experience working with these unpredictable and unique individuals.

The thought of keeping track of 18 chimpanzees may be daunting to most people, but for Cloutier-Barbour, each chimpanzee stands out.

“They are just like people to me, they look as individual to me as any two people do,” said Cloutier-Barbour. “Their personalities are very distinct and their behaviors are very distinct.”

It is these exact individual identities that can make grouping the chimpanzees such an intensive progress.

Every day three groups of chimps are relocated to a different island, but when a group needs to be reworked for whatever reason, they go straight to the Chimp House.

Groups can be reworked for a number of reasons. Cloutier-Barbour recalls a recent switch made when Bamboo, a 13-year-old male chimp, was hormonal and trying to establish dominance unsuccessfully.

The staff pick out chimps to form a new group based on individual personalities and pre-existing relationships between chimps, both good and bad.

Once relocated to the Chimp House, an indoor housing facility, the chimps are slowly and safely introduced to each other and monitored.

“It is a lengthy process, it’s not something you want to rush, because chimps are very strong and very aggressive sometimes,” said Cloutier-Barbour. “So it can take months for all of this to happen but it is worth it because you end up with very nice family groups after.”

This process can be especially tricky as the chimps are very quick to catch on to the process.

“Chimps are very smart; they know our routine almost better than we know it. They are always looking for ways to be difficult, depending on their personality,” said Cloutier-Barbour. “So finding ways to work around the games they play with us is always a challenging part of my job. It can psychologically be challenging, but that is why I enjoy it so much, because every day here is different.”

As mischievous as the chimps can be, it is their wit and big personalities that makes Cloutier-Barbour’s job so entertaining.

“We have unique and funny interactions with them almost daily,” said Cloutier-Barbour. From Melody’s distinctive side smirks to Peter’s clapping, each chimp has their own interesting way of interacting.

“Any time I have interaction with the chimps is a really special time for me,” said Cloutier-Barbour. “We see the chimps really as part of our family, so it’s like getting to spend quality time with a brother or sister or niece, it’s really fun.”

Cloutier-Barbour’s hope is that guests will see how lively the chimps are while living in a natural environment, rather than being forced into the entertainment industry or kept in tight enclosures.

“To be put in that environment, they have to be taken from their mothers at a very young age and it’s really sad. It is not psychologically healthy for these guys, so we try to sort of create a sanctuary for them here for after they retire,” said Cloutier-Barbour. “We keep our chimps very psychologically sound; they’re very happy animals here.”


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