On Feb. 26, the residents of 2333 Oak St. welcomed a new baby into the family — a very furry baby with prehensile toes and opposable thumbs.
The chimpanzee troupe at the Sunset Zoo has grown by one, turning what was once the “Fab Five” into a happy sextet.
Although the newest addition has not yet been named, the exhibit is officially open for public display, meaning the six-week-old youngster is finally getting to experience real zoo life. Despite the flocks of eager visitors, the zoo, which is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, has been working non-stop to create the most natural environment possible for the playful apes.
“Chimps are social animals, so the baby was born while in the troupe with the rest of the chimps,” said Scott Shoemaker, Sunset Zoo director. “Everyone has taken to it really well. It’s acclimated to all its peers, and everything seems to be going textbook.”
Shoemaker also said that thanks to the AZA, the baby will be a part of a program to continue naturally enriching its life as it reaches maturity over the next several years.
“We try to, to the best of our abilities, to mimic behaviors that go on in the wild,” Shoemaker said. “So for example, when a chimp is born, it’ll stay in a troupe for eight to 10 years. Then, depending on its sex, it’ll migrate to another troupe. So, when our chimps reach 8 to 10 years of age, we’ll send them to another zoo where they’ll mix in with another troupe, which is what they’d do in the wild.”
Because chimpanzees are endangered, the AZA has also created a Species Survival Plan to help manage and conserve the national population of captive chimps. By collecting genetic data of all the chimpanzees that are currently housed in AZA zoos and entering it in a database, the SSP suggests breeding recommendations for the population based on genetic diversity. The recommendations do not just tell the zoos which chimps to breed, but also when to breed them to maintain a healthy, balanced population.
“The idea is to maintain 90 percent genetic diversity within the captive collection over 100 or 200 years,” Shoemaker said. “The idea is we don’t want a male that’s too closely related to a female to breed, because it causes health issues and genetic depression in the population. We have the parentage of all the chimps, and then the computer will say, ‘You cannot breed this male to this female.’ It’s basically computer dating.”
It is the AZA’s hope that zoos will never have to look further than the network of other zoos to continue to support their population of chimpanzees, said Brian Davoren, general curator for the Sunset Zoo.
“We have a set number of chimpanzees in zoos,” Davoren said. “The goal of the AZA and the SSP is to never have to take animals out of the wild again. So, in order to do that, we have to keep the genetics as broad as possible.”
Because breeding regulations are so strict for the chimpanzee population, the Sunset Zoo makes it a priority to ensure that the chimps do not reproduce under unmonitored circumstances, Shoemaker explained. When trying to pair a specific male and female, zoos may give the other sexually mature females in the troupe birth control pills to help prevent any accidents, a preventive strategy that is possible because apes are so biologically similar to humans.
Because the baby chimp is so young, he has not quite developed a personality of his own yet, but he is learning how to interact with the rest of his troupe beyond his mother.
“He’s still really focused on his mom at this point,” said Jessie Roberts, animal keeper and primary care provider for the chimpanzee exhibit at the Sunset Zoo. “This past week, though, he’s been starting to notice food and make little grunting noises.”
This hasn’t stopped the little one from attracting crowds of his own. Davoren said he’s thankful for the baby’s popularity in the Manhattan community because it gives the zoo an opportunity to educate interested visitors about nature and the animal population.
“When we get people through the gates, one of our main goals is to educate,” Shoemaker said. “It’s a lot of education about the conservation of the natural world and how our well-being is tied into the well-being of everything, whether it’s animals, plants or ecosystems.”
Shoemaker also said that one of the zoo’s main goals is to help people understand their ties to the planet in an effort to benefit all species on Earth.
“Any time we can raise awareness, help people understand their impact on the world and the environment or make them better consumers, those are the kinds of things we’re shooting for,” Shoemaker said. “Animals just have an inherent right to be here. We have no right to drive them to extinction.”