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From the file

Happy the elephant | A judge will decide whether Happy is unlawfully detained and can leave her zoo for an elephant sanctuary. It is a milestone case – not least for our relationship with animals.

Do I wan’na be like you?

Friday 16 October 2020

We share a lot with animals, but does that mean they should share human-like rights? Sharon Redrobe has studied animals for years, and as chief executive of Twycross Zoo she is now responsible for their care in captivity. She argues that we need to treat them better as animals, not as if they were people.


Poppy was dying of meningitis. She was paralysed from the neck down and clearly frightened. My role was to bathe her and feed her from a spoon which she accepted gratefully even though we’d only known each other for a few weeks. I spent six or eight hours a day with her before she passed away with her family looking on. When she died, we let the family come in and see her body, they all crowded around gently touching her and some even bending to kiss her face and hands.

Shufai was just a kid when I first met him; screaming and absolutely petrified as he’d just seen his whole family shot and killed in the war zone that rages in parts of Africa. He had gun shot in his wrists from where his mother was shot in the back and he was clinging to her. When he was finally rescued and placed with other orphans, he faced several years of surgery on those arms, eventually resulting in amputation of his left arm. That did relieve the pain and changed his personality so much that now that he is no longer the quiet morose guy in the group but the cheeky happy one and has even recently become a father.

An adult chimpanzee stands over her young in Conkouati-Douli National Park, Republic of the Congo

These stories, and many others like them, were my first encounters with chimpanzees (Poppy) in zoos and gorillas (Shufai) in the wild, or rather taken from the wild by poachers and rescued into a sanctuary in Africa.

Poppy’s story of grief and “saying goodbye” is from 1989 and has been seen many times around the world before and since particularly in “good zoos” that have long understood the complex needs of these animals so closely related to us; allowing their family to say goodbye to one that has passed has long been good practice as we can see otherwise they search for their missing family member and get distressed yet when presented with a dead loved one they are careful, quiet and after a period of hours or days of sadness return to their normal selves. Ask any caregiver whether chimps grieve, and the answer is a roll of the eyes and “of course they do” yet it took until 2010 for the first two papers to be published by science. James Anderson and his colleagues concluded that the other chimps showed human-like reactions of grief and mourning. “Some of the behaviours appear strikingly similar to aspects of human responses to death and dying,” Anderson said, adding that many researchers have considered such reactions to be unique to humans.

At the same time this behaviour was documented in the wild, in Guinea, where a group of wild chimpanzees had lost several members to a flu outbreak and two mothers were seen tending and carrying around the bodies of their dead infants for weeks although the researchers concluded that the mothers knew the infants had died they continued to treat them “with great gentleness and care, as though they were alive”.*

This refrain – “we thought only humans did that” – is reminiscent of the comments made in the 1960s when Jane Goodall first documented tool use in a ‘non-human’ as she watched chimps modifying twigs to “fish” for termites, prompting the now famous quote from Dr Louise Leakey: “Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” However, since then, as scientists have caught up with what a lot of people who’ve spent a lot of time with many species already knew, that many animals use tools, grieve, bear grudges, have a sense of “fair play” etc. We should not think of many human traits as that special, but that doesn’t mean these animals are “mini humans” and should be held to the same standards. What do I mean by that?

Jane Goodall studying the behaviour of chimpanzees in Tanzania, 1987

It’s not all love and light – Jane Goodall’s work also showed chimpanzees were capable of hunting and killing other animals, of “waging war” and killing their own kind over periods of time. Yes chimpanzees are very close to us – sharing 98.6 per cent of DNA and we shared a common ancestor only 4 million years ago (if we count Australopithecus anamensis as the first “human”). These numbers are mind-boggling but also important. Although we are often quoted to be “closely related” to chimps there is a still a very very wide gulf of time and evolutionary change between us.

Chimpanzees deserve to be respected for who and what they are – wonderful animals, not mini humans.

Twycross Zoo was built on a legacy of training chimpanzees for media work and we now know the harm it did; youngsters often rejecting by their mothers (because they too were reared by humans and for some reason this often means they don’t rear their own) so reared in human homes, dressed in cute human clothes and taught to ride bikes for human entertainment. At the time no-one saw the harm; the animals clearly enjoyed themselves. Thankfully the skills developed over the years at Twycross Zoo as they re-wilded their own chimps and rescued other ex-pets means these chimps have a chance to live out their years as “proper chimps” in large groups, with the normal amount of fighting, mating, grooming and playing that only another chimp can safely provide.

It is important to note that, compared to humans, chimpanzee society is very physically violent; they bite and cut each other and as this occurs in the wild, we have to accept it as normal chimpanzee behaviour and accept it in captive environments too. Not for us the squeamish view that animals are quiet and tidy and never fight or have noisy sex with themselves or each other. It’s been a controversial journey to re-educate staff and visitors that “to be chimp” is what we want in all its glory and not to change these animals into a Disney parody of themselves. Hence the need to truly respect and value chimps as chimps not as mini humans. Not to confer human rights, but have decent animal rights.

A Twycross Zoo Chimpanzee performs for the cameras, 1981

If we are to conflate “respect for animals” with conferring them the same rights as humans, shouldn’t we also confer the responsibilities too? If an animal has the right to be free (which I would endorse) that does not mean it should have human rights; it would be ridiculous to sue a chimpanzee for theft or prosecute it for murder (of its own kind or a human).

To truly value animals such as chimpanzees we should treat them as chimpanzees in the fullest sense – allowing them to live free from human interference in the wild (of course!) should be the default position. However, in a world where the wild population has fallen from several millions when first discovered by the western world in 1700s to a mere barely sustainable wild population of 150,000 to 300,000 across 5 known subspecies puts the chimpanzees at grave risk of extinction over the next 20 years.

For that reason alone I can accept the need to keep and breed these animals in safe “arks” across the world; a process that has been occurring since the 1980s in UK and USA zoos as part of collaborative international breeding programmes meaning we can guarantee these animals will survive on this planet into the next century. Should they only exist in zoos or rescue centuries or wildlife parks or sanctuaries – whatever we call them? (as an aside if you prefer “sanctuary” to “zoo”, why? What’s in a name? Does the chimp know the difference or are you putting a human spin on the name of the place the chimp lives?). No ideally, they will be out in the true wild and those working on blocking deforestation are key to this future, but without this “ark” solution of modern zoos we seriously face a future of forests without chimpanzees. The solution should be tolerable of course. No animal should be allowed to suffer or be denied basic or even advanced welfare; this starts with how much room they have, what they eat and extends to how their family groups are made up, how much choice they have for their environment and on and on. No captive situation will ever be perfect. But at Twycross Zoo we strive to constantly improve having implemented ‘scientific’’ evidence-based welfare assessments using the ‘we’ve known that for years’ knowledge of keepers combined with international welfare scientists to improve animal management and home design. We work with international geneticists and population management specialists to ensure animals kept and breeding across the European managed families form a self-sustaining population to ensure chimps and other animals are with us for the next 100 years. The UK benefits from the highest animal welfare standards in the world; you cannot keep an ape as a pet here, nor in a zoo without demonstrable expertise in staff and facilities to care for them and (crucially) demonstrable conservation ethics. This 100-year “insurance population” in zoos is as good as it can get for now.

A Western Lowland Gorilla with her baby at Melbourne Zoo, 2016

Over the last 20 years Shufai has grown from a frightened orphan to a handsome silverback and gentle father but he will probably never live in the wild again. His forest home has shrunk due to legal and illegal logging and mining plus poaching of his relatives has continued apace; the wild is still not safe for his kind. The same is true for rhino, elephants, and a growing list of iconic as well as less well known species. We are experiencing the 6th great extinction event and this time it’s human driven. Against that backdrop the argument of human right vs animal rights seem to be so much Western navel-gazing – how about the right to exist? The right to not be driven extinct? We need to focus on the bigger picture and work to secure the remaining wild habitats and wildlife and maybe Shufai’s kids can see the wild again hopefully well before the 100-year zoo “ark” population is needed.

*Journal references: Biro: Current Biology vol 20, p R351; Anderson: Current Biology, vol 20, p R349

Photographs Getty Images