Animal Tales

Great Care for Great Apes


Photo by Richard Taylor

Tommy the orangutan knew just what to do when he found a pair of glasses accidentally left in his exhibit by a zookeeper. Keepers have trained the Milwaukee County Zoo’s apes to hand over items they don’t want the apes to have in return for a treat. So when Tommy realized the keeper wanted the glasses, he gave them back – in pieces. “He figured he’d get one treat if he gave back one pair of glasses, so he’d get lots of treats for returning lots of pieces,” Ryan Strack, Zoo primates supervisor, recalls with a laugh.

Primate keepers are full of stories like this that show the apes’ intelligence. The Milwaukee County Zoo has three of the four species of great ape – bonobo, orangutan and gorilla. Every animal at the Zoo is unique, and keepers must tailor their care to the animal’s personality and species traits. But primate keepers say caring for some of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom – and the closest biologically to humans – presents its own set of challenges and rewards.

“It’s the intelligence factor,” Strack says. “They know they can outsmart us sometimes.” When Strack first started as a primate keeper 15 years ago, he would put food near an exhibit door to entice an ape to move from the exhibit to its off-exhibit quarters. But if he turned his back for a moment, the ape would grab the food and race back into the exhibit. Sometimes one ape would hold the door open as another ape grabbed the food. The apes love to take advantage of new keepers, says Cassondra Manteau, a primate keeper. “It’s like kids with a substitute teacher.”


Photo by Richard Brodzeller

Apes have complex social needs. Orangutans are semi-solitary in the wild but still like to socialize. The Zoo has two orangutans: Tommy, who was born at the Zoo in 1982, and Rayma, who arrived last summer. “They enjoy being together, but they also enjoy their time apart,” says keeper Dawn Kruger. Most of the gorillas, on the other hand, stay together as a troop, led by the silverback male, Cassius. The troop includes three adult females and 2-year-old male Sulaiman. “We generally let them alone to be a family together,” says Claire Richard, lead gorilla keeper. “That’s especially important with the little guy because he has to learn those social dynamics.” Two other gorillas, Hodari and Maji Maji, are bachelor gorillas, and they spend time with each other and on their own.


Photo by Richard Brodzeller

By far the most complicated social dynamics in the Zoo happen among the bonobos. The Zoo has 22 bonobos – the largest zoo bonobo population in the world – including several babies and adolescents. Keepers constantly mix them up in different groups for the indoor exhibit, outdoor exhibit (during warm weather) and off-exhibit areas, tracking each day’s groupings on a large magnetic board. They have to know each bonobo, who it gets along with and how it normally behaves to make sure the groups stay peaceful. Sometimes the bonobos might get along fine one day but need a break from each other the next. The keepers look for small signs, such as facial expressions or where the bonobos are sitting, to let them know when something’s wrong. “Sometimes silence is pretty telling,” says Mark Scheuber, another primate keeper. “If those guys are too quiet in the morning, something might be amiss.” The keepers generally prefer to let bonobos work out conflicts on their own. “The reconciliation process is very important for them, and the keepers only interfere if the situation would become dangerous,” says Stacy Whitaker, lead bonobo keeper. “The mixing and matching needs to be on their terms.”

The apes need plenty of enrichment, which is activities, items and strategies the keepers provide to stimulate the animals and encourage their natural behaviors. Each species – indeed, each animal – has its favorite forms of enrichment. The orangutans, for example, love sheets. They often hide under them the way orangutans in the wild hide under large leaves when it’s raining. Tommy enjoys watching videos on an iPad, especially of other animals at the Zoo and painter Bob Ross. Keepers sometimes set up party lights outside the bonobo exhibit, and the bonobos seem to enjoy watching the light play off the wall in different ways. They also like iced treats and rolls of butcher paper they can carry around, crumple or tear. Scheuber remembers the first time the keepers gave the bonobos chalk. Several bonobos tried to eat the chalk, but one, Laura, immediately started drawing on the floor and then herself. “She’s creative,” Scheuber says. The keepers try to rotate toys and activities among the apes to keep them engaged.

Gorilla Ultrasound

Photo by Mark Scheuber

Apes even participate in their health care, more so than many of the animals at the Zoo. Some of the apes have been trained to undergo ultrasounds, blood pressure checks and blood draws without anesthesia, reducing the risk of complications for simple medical tests. Many are able to present certain body parts for injections, such as medicines or vaccines, or go on a scale to get weighed. Because the apes’ biology is so close to humans, the Zoo often brings in human medical specialists such as dentists, neurologists and psychiatrists to consult with the Zoo’s veterinarians when an ape has a problem.

“A lot of days it’s mentally draining,” Richard says of trying to stay one step ahead of the apes. But she and the other ape keepers say they wouldn’t change their jobs. They enjoy the challenge and building connections with the animals, although they always remember that the apes aren’t children or pets. “It’s great when you come in the morning after a few days off and go see the bonobos,” Kruger says. “They come up to the glass and greet you because they haven’t seen you in a while.” “They’re always doing something new,” Strack adds. “You’re always learning.”

By Stacy Vogel Davis