Primarily Primates Gives New Meaning to Birthdays
When Raisin, one of the chimpanzees at Primarily Primates, was snatched from the wild and sold to a roadside petting zoo and then to Buckshire Corporation, which bred chimpanzees and also leased animals to research labs and the entertainment industry, her home and family were not the only things stolen from her—her birthday was too. Brooke Chavez, executive director of PPI, recalls that when she first starting working at the sanctuary two years ago, she noticed that a good portion of the chimpanzees didn’t have a birthday included in their paperwork if they were captured in the wild—instead there was just an estimation of their year of birth.
So Chavez decided to give the primates their birthdays back.
Raisin, 42, now shares Chavez’s birthday—July 16—and this year the celebration included decorating her habitat with streamers. Raisin also received gift bags filled with stuffed animals and Frisbees to share with the other chimps in her group— Buck, Mandy, April and Buffy.What several employees have done in lieu of gifts for their own birthday is they have asked friends and family to purchase gifts from the sanctuary’s Amazon wish list or from its in-kind donation list for the animal they share a birthday with.But birthdays at PPI are much more than showering animals with presents. They have become an opportunity to recognize accomplishments, express love and prompt reflection.
“We look at the accomplishments of the individual animal, such as in terms of a specific behavior,” Chavez said. “For example, Raisin used to like to take all the enrichment treats before the other subordinate females could get them. So what we have been working on with Raisin is cooperative feeding training—she is learning that if she waits to get her treats and lets the others have them first she knows she is going to get something extra special. We have been working on it with her since last October. So that’s an accomplishment.”Chavez said an accomplishment can also be something as simple as Buffy letting care staff touch her nails to trim them, or Raisin opening up her mouth when asked so care staff can look for any type of abscess or cavity.
“Birthdays also give us a chance to celebrate love,” Chavez said. “Whether the animal has been at the sanctuary a long time or not, he or she is loved by our staff beyond measure. And they are a time for reflecting where the animal has been and where they are going. We have an animal that is approaching 50. That is incredible to have a chimpanzee still be healthy at the age of 50. I attribute their longevity here to their great care that Friends of Animals helps us to provide for the animals here. We are so grateful that we have the opportunity to provide sanctuary for these animals and really make a difference in their lives.”And of course birthdays are about treats. “We always make a vegan birthday cake for every birthday animal that he or she can share with their group,” Chavez said.
The Marvel of Macaques
Many people probably think that feeding the 400- plus animals who currently reside at Primarily Primates involves a lot of chopping of fresh produce and delivering favorite fruits and veggies to the animals at mealtime. Of course that’s true, but for some of our residents, like macaques, it also matters how the food is served.
Currently 56 macaques call PPI home, and the different types include long-tailed, rhesus, bonnet and snow macaques. While macaques are indigenous to many regions of Asia, they are exploited throughout the world in the vivisection industry. In 2010, we helped rescue 50 macaques who were subjected to gruesome experiments in a now defunct lab; 25 of those macaques came to live at the sanctuary, and are thriving and happy today.
Feeding macaques is quite complicated, and it’s one of the reasons some sanctuaries don’t work with them. Additionally, like all primates, they are very smart, and require lots of mental stimulation to remain happy and well-adjusted. But the feeding, specifically, has to be done with a deft hand because of the complex social structure in which macaques live.
In the wild, macaques live in very large groups, which are hierarchal. These groups contain both male and female macaques, and while the males will come and go females stay in the group indefinitely. Males often leave when they hit sexual maturity, and either join another group or form one of their own. But when macaques arrive at a sanctuary—especially when they have lived in solitary confinement their entire lives—it’s our job to create a group of them as best we can, even though it’s much smaller and more imbalanced between male and female than in the wild (because of animal experimentation, sanctuaries often end up with predominantly males, because females are kept for breeding purposes).
That’s not to say we aren’t able to create harmonious groups—we can and do—but it requires careful observation. And most importantly, careful feeding.
Macaques have a dominant member who has to eat first, no matter what. There is a “deputy” (second in command) who ranks just below and helps monitor what others in the group are doing, such as when they eat and how they interact with others. If a member of the group eats out of turn, he or she will likely be severely punished by ranking members of the group. This could even result in death. Therefore, the care staff who feed the macaques offer the food first to the one(s) in charge.
Our veterinarian, Dr. Valerie Kirk, is currently consulting with a macaque expert in Israel to modify the existing design of our macaque enclosures to create a multi-level habitat that allows more subordinate members of the group to remain hidden from dominant members during feeding time. Providing visual barriers will remove some of the stress around feeding time, especially for the subordinate members of the group.
Needless to say, macaques are fascinating to observe. These inquisitive, intelligent primates—whose expressive eyes seem to convey multitudes—are a delight to behold. You can sponsor a macaque by clicking here!
Volunteers Crucial to Sanctuary’s Success
Every day at Primarily Primates (PPI) at least 15 big-hearted volunteers work alongside care staff members to help make the sanctuary a wonderful place for the animals. Executive Director Brook Chavez calls volunteers “the sanctuary’s most important asset.”
Over the summer, volunteer Ron Witcher, went above and beyond grounds keeping and enclosure cleaning when he brought his entire staff from his dessert shop, which he named Arctic Ape to reflect his fascination with primates, to help out at the sanctuary.
And they didn’t come empty handed—they brought more than 100 cups of vegan sorbet and Italian ice for the primates to enjoy.
Witcher said he came up with the idea for a sorbet party to enhance PPI’s food enrichment efforts, and he wants to make it an annual event. His fascination with primates started when he was on a school trip to the Atlanta zoo back in the 1960s. Part of Arctic Ape’s mission is to improve the quality of life for primates in sanctuaries. Employees donate some of their tips to PPI and the shop’s website has a donate button that links directly to PPI’s webpage.