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Chimps Benefit From Research Findings

Chimps from Wellington Zoo are leading more enriching lives thanks to research from a Waikato University doctoral student.

PhD student Melanie Vivian has developed techniques that are helping increase the amount of time the chimps spend performing positive and species typical behaviours while reducing undesirable behaviour that sometimes occurs with animals that live in captivity.

Zoo staff and Melanie have worked closely together, incorporating her research results into the zoo's animal management techniques.

Her doctoral research is an extension of her masters thesis in which she designed enrichment tools for the chimps to interact with.

One of the tools, a log puzzle, is fitted with half walls to provide a semi maze structure. Each puzzle has an opening at one end that corresponds to a slot in a log. Each morning, the puzzle is loaded with peanuts. The chimps can see the inside the puzzle and the maze, through a bulletproof Perspex top.

The chimps then make and use appropriate tools to manoeuvre the peanuts to the slot where they can be reached.

The aim of enrichment items like these, explains Melanie, is to increase the frequency of positive behaviour amongst the chimp group, and limit the amount of time they spend either inactive or performing undesirable behaviour, in this way their time budget more closely replicates a wild chimp.

"We wanted to increase the frequency of desirable behaviour, such as foraging, play, tool use and nest building," says Melanie, "and decrease undesirable behaviour like resting, aggressiveness, over grooming and abnormal behaviour. This particular group had been identified as having an over grooming problem, which were leading to bald patches in some of the chimps."

Her research focused on combining different forms of enrichment - not just food related activity, which can often lead to obesity problems. Melanie further developed enclosure furnishings that have multiple uses.

The results from Melanie's masters thesis showed positive changes within the group with the combination of enrichments. There were significant reductions in resting and grooming. Abnormal and aggressive behaviour also reduced. While foraging, play, tool use and nest construction increased greatly.

Working so closely with the 16 primates, Melanie knows each of the chimps' personalities well, and admits that she enjoys a good game of hide n seek with Jessie, one of the hand-raised chimps.

"They range in age from Bebe who is 39 - and used to take part in the chimp tea parties back in the bad old days - to Alexis who is 8 months old. Although some academics may cringe - each individual has their own "personality" - Gombe the terrible teen, Temba the mummy's boy, Jessie the sensitive thinker, Sam the gentle giant and Boyd, who is very much the boss."

Melanie's doctoral research ultimately aims to understand what the chimps themselves regard as priorities and to use this information to improve their well-being.

The research aims to establish the chimps' levels of demand for commodities and enable zoo management to ensure that what the chimps themselves most want is provided to them.

At the end of August Melanie will present her research at the New Zealand Behaviour Analysis Symposium in Wellington. In November she travels to Australia to speak to the International Conference on Environmental Enrichment.

ENDS

For further information contact:

Melanie Vivian
Phone: (work) 04 479 0006
Phone: (mobile) 025 449 778
Email: mel@paradise.net.nz

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