If you were to drop by Primarily Primates randomly, you might be puzzled by the sight of care staff wearing wacky wigs or hats, surprised to see a volunteer jazz band serenading some chimpanzees or alarmed by the capuchins dropping bowling balls onto nuts and seeds. But don’t worry, we haven’t lost our proverbial marbles. It’s just our enrichment program being implemented with creative gusto.People often think the ultimate job of a sanctuary is to provide shelter and care—which is, of course, true. But that’s only part of Primarily Primates’ responsibility: We must also strive to give the animals plenty of exercise and a psychologically stimulating environment. The aim of our enrichment program is to give the animals in our care the same thing most of us aspire to—a rich, happy, meaningful life.“Those who follow our website or any of our social media pages know it’s not uncommon to see a chimpanzee with a musical keyboard or a macaque throwing a bright colored ball,” explained Brooke Chavez, the executive director at Primarily Primates—who started her career at the sanctuary as the enrichment coordinator.Animals who reside in sanctuaries don’t have the same opportunities for a changing environment as animals in the wild. Primarily Primates provides the residents with daily changes to their environment with the goal of stimulating natural behaviors.“Enrichment is just as important to an animal’s well-being as a well-balanced diet and veterinary care,” Chavez added.The enrichment program is still directed by Chavez, but it’s a team effort, as care staff members get to know the likes, dislikes and needs of animals who they are responsible for. Staff meetings are held to discuss enrichment ideas, but nothing is implemented without taking into account the safety and health of the animals—and everything must meet the approval of our staff veterinarian.There are countless types of enrichment, but generally Primarily Primates focuses on auditory, taste, touch and visual enrichment, with the goal of inspiring curiosity, play and well-being in myriad ways. Asked about the positive effects enrichment has on animals, Chavez is quick to chime in: “There are so many examples! We’ve found that music is very important, and there are a wide variety of preferences at the sanctuary.”Chavez explained, too, that primates in the wild would spend a majority of their time searching for food, so these types of behaviors are recreated for them by offering novel food in food puzzles, which serve to stimulate the animals cognitively. Blankets and other materials are offered so that primates have the opportunity to exercise their nesting instincts; sometimes they are offered crepe paper streamers to decorate their habitats, and care staff members regularly change the layout of habitat furniture.Staff members even perform puppet shows, offer bubble blowing machines, laser shows and movies, like nature documentaries, which are popular among our residents. But our chimpanzees enjoy Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal and 101 Dalmatians best—their pant-hoots reveal their delight in seeing Cruella DeVille make her grand entrance.It turns out that primates share more with us than just DNA; a love of food is also at the top of the list: “That’s, hands down, the most popular type of enrichment,” Chavez said.But she also pointed out that food does not keep them stimulated or interested for very long. Macaques, for instance, love to destroy things—so providing them with items to tear apart is a soothing balm. Capuchins love to crack nuts with heavy objects like bowling balls and “anoint” themselves with the juices of fragrant onions and citrus fruits (an insect repellent in the wild). Chimpanzees also love to paint, thus canvases and palettes of non-toxic paints are provided. The care-takers often marvel that the resident artists tend to have very specific preferences for paint colors and have very individualized painting techniques.
When asked about unusual types of enrichment they’ve tried at the sanctuary, Chavez says the staff and volunteers are endlessly creative. “We’ve had staff costume days, professional musicians who’ve come to perform for the animals; wacky wig days, crazy hat days (the chimps and gibbons love to put on hats). We even had a Japanese hibachi day where we grilled their fruits and veggies in front of their habitats and let them observe. They were over the moon excited for the grilled pineapple and peaches.”Surely there’s been an enrichment disaster or two—something the residents despised? Chavez immediately recalled a kite incident: “There was the time that we thought a kite day would be fun for our chimpanzees—and it was! What we hadn’t considered, however, was that their next door neighbors are lemurs, and that they would perceive the colorful kites as aerial predators. They all ran into their bedrooms. We felt horrible, but it was a good learning experience.”Of course, enrichment also has the power to be truly transformative for some of the animals in our care, and Karibu, an olive baboon, is a poignant example. Karibu was released from a research facility that provided very little opportunity for physical activity. When he arrived at Primarily Primates he was morbidly obese, which made him susceptible to life-threatening disease. Since novel food items were a big motivator for Karibu to come out of his bedroom, an exercise program was created for him using naturally sweetened food—like fruit paste, oatmeal, and whole pieces of fruit, which were smeared and/or placed throughout his habitat at varying heights. This encouraged Karibu to climb, and he ultimately lost 15 pounds after six months of this type of enrichment. Today, he’s kept the weight off and enjoys abundant health, and Saffron and Olive—his roommates—think he’s swoon-worthy.If you’re wondering where all of the enrichment items come from? Our amazing community of supporters generously donate nearly all of our enrichment supplies! Primarily Primates has a "Give Food and Fun" section on its website that allows supporters to host a fruit-themed party for the animals at the sanctuary. And nothing goes to waste, as the sanctuary has become adept at re-using and recycling. Our dedicated volunteers show up weekly to cook up new treats and try new things.Animals that have been exploited by humans for entertainment, the exotic pet trade, vivisection—the very animals we care for at Primarily Primates—can’t be sent back to the wild. But what Primarily Primates does is the next best thing. It provides them with enriched, joyful lives and you can see it on all 350 of their faces.You can see more photos of our enrichment program in action by “liking” the Primarily Primates’ page on Facebook. We have an Instagram account, too: @Primarily Primates.