12 Days of Grub: Day 10 – Ten Chimps a Chasing

On the Tenth Day of Grub, your zoo gift will help to feed…Ten Chimps a Chasing, Nine Fruit Bats Flying, Eight Giraffes a Galloping, Seven Snakes a Slithering, Six Mole-rats Mining, Five Golden Frogs, Four Calling Birds, Three Wild Dogs, Two Grizzly Bears, and Darwin the Cassowary! CLICK HERE to read them all!

For most wild animals, the acquisition and consumption of food is not just a casual activity, but in fact a full-time job.  A wild chimpanzee in Africa must always be on the search for ripe fruit, edible greens, tasty termites or antshard-shelled nuts  and yes, even small animals to hunt and eat.

Although we can’t re-create a wild chimpanzee diet, here at the Houston Zoo, we provide our chimps with a healthy variety of food including many types of lettuce, fruits, vegetables, nuts, different types of local plants and a specialized “biscuit” made for primates in zoos.  We also give them many types of treats which make up only a small portion of their diet, but are their favorites, including popcorn, peanut butter, honey and fruit juice.

Lucy enjoys some sweet potato and sunshine

Our chimps did not grow up hunting or eating termites, ants or meat, so this is not included in their Houston Zoo diet, but they are given the daily opportunity to show off their amazing ability to use tools by “fishing” for sweet or savory treats in our termite mound replica.

The chimps enjoy using sticks to “fish” for delicious treats

In order to keep their day interesting and to keep them active, the chimps’ meals are provided at different times throughout the day.  One of their favorite types of food is “browse”, or edible plants collected for them throughout the zoo by our own amazing Horticulture team.  Everyday the chimps get some combination of mulberry, banana leaves, willow, fig leaves or other edible plants.

Mac enjoys fig leaves

Chimps aren’t great at sharing their food with one another with a few notable exceptions (moms and their babies, males “wooing” receptive females, etc.)   They have a fairly stable social hierarchy and the higher-ranking chimps have first access to the yummy stuff.  For that reason, it is important that we make sure the food is scattered throughout the chimps’ entire habitat so that each member has the opportunity to collect food, and there is always enough for everyone.

Feeding the zoo’s animals is one of the best parts of being a zookeeper.  We enjoy giving them their food almost as much as they enjoy eating it!

Give the Gift of Grub this holiday season to help provide tasty meals for our chimpanzees and all of the animals at the Houston Zoo!  Our chimps send their ape-preciation for your support.

Thank you also to TXU Energy for generously matching the first $25,000 in donations this year!

Presenting: Paternal Primates

This year in honor of Father’s Day we are having a TOAD-ally Awesome Father’s Day event at the zoo and giving you a chance to name a Houston Toad in honor of Dad.

We have a lot of dads here at the Zoo and they come in (literally!) all shapes and sizes.  In the animal kingdom there is a great deal of variation in the level of paternal care given by dads.   Male seahorses, for instance, carry the eggs of their offspring inside their bodies, then hatch them and give birth to their live babies.  I know, weird, right?
Male seahorses carry the eggs of their young and then give birth to them. This is called ovoviviparity. Use THAT word in your next scrabble game!
Then there are the multitudes of dads in the animal kindom that “Conceive and Leave” as my colleague put it and have zero involvement in the care or rearing of their young.   Many other species fall somewhere between those polar opposites.  
But this blog isn’t about fish, even ones as amazing and mind-blowing as seahorses.  No, this is a blog about primates.  Otherwise I would have to change the title, and frankly it took me several long, agonizing seconds to come up with this one.  
The natural history of a species dictates the paternal and maternal roles, and within the primate group, the entire spectrum of care is exhibited.  Primates are nothing if not adaptable, though, so even within a species, individuals may show more or less paternal care than is usual or expected.   
Orangutans, for example, generally have little or nothing do do with their offspring.  Our male Doc, however, not only tolerates, but often enjoys the company of his son Solaris.  (Doc is also the father of our newest baby, Aurora.) Doc and Solaris even wrestle and play together once in a while.
Solaris and his dad Doc have a laugh together.

Some of the smallest primates, on the other hand, make the best dads.  Among the many species of marmosets and tamarins, it’s the dads who carry the kids around and provide day care.  Mom is there to provide milk and attend the PTA meetings, but dad is the main caregiver and transporter.

A pygmy marmoset dad and baby. Caution: The cuteness of this photo could cause permanent retinal damage!

And speaking of Dad-Of-The-Year awards, siamang dads are well-deserving.  Like tamarins and marmosets, siamang dads are very involved in the lives of their youngsters.  And since siamangs don’t leave for college until they are eight or nine years old, it’s a fair commitment on dad’s (and mom’s, too) part.  Siamangs dads help moms carry their offspring from about 8 months until about two years,  at which time the kid usually gets her first car and is embarrassed to be seen with either parent.

Our male siamang Boomer sadly recently passed away, but he was a prime example of a great siamang dad to his daughters Raya and Leela. Baby Leela plays on top of Dad Boomer while Mom Jambi looks on.


Siamangs and tamarins are (mostly) monogamous, so the male can pretty much count on his mate’s offspring having his genes.  It is to his advantage, then, to put a lot of effort into making sure the kid prospers and goes on to marry the football captain.

Chimps, on the other hand, live in large multi-male, multi-female groups, and since the ladies don’t “limit their options”, so to speak,  it’s basically anybody’s guess who the kids belong to.   Most of the time, child care is up to mom, but as the kids grow and learn how to be chimps, the involvement of the adult males is important.  Big brothers especially, play with and look out for their younger siblings, but most big males, even the tough guys, enjoy playing with the youngsters. 

Willie the Kid and two adult males play with each other. One of them is his dad, but since we didn't show them the genetic test results, they don't know that. In the foreground, Willie's mom Lulu wonders when she might expect dinner to be served .

It has even been recorded more than once in the wild that seemingly unrelated adult males have “adopted” very young kids when they have lost their moms.  They will protect and even carry the infants through the forest, looking out for them as best they can.  Now if that doesn’t warm your heart this Father’s Day, nothing will! 

Happy Father’s Day to all you Dad’s out there looking out for your little ones!

Celebrate Dad by giving him a memorable Father’s Day gift this year–name a Houston Toad after him!  With your gift, you help support the Houston Toads, a critically endangered species native to Texas.  Click here to learn more about Houston Toads and how you can further the Houston Zoo’s conservation efforts that help ensure their survival.

Chimp Enrichment: A Blanket Statement

If you have visited the chimps in the African Forest, chances are you’ve seen them toting around blankets or resting with them in the hammocks.  “Why in the world would a chimpanzee have a blanket?”, you may be wondering.  Well, because they like them, that’s why!  Our chimps here at he Houston Zoo grew up having blankets to sleep with and to play with, and this affinity has carried over into adulthood.  Blankets are comfy, they smell nice (the keepers launder them regularly), they keep you warm in winter and sometimes, they have treats hidden inside them.  Who doesn’t enjoy a blankie?

Annie (on the ground) and Sally (in the hammock) enjoy their blankets. Photo by Ron Santos.

The chimps don’t have an attachment to any particular blanket, they just want them to be clean and dry.   The keepers make sure there are enough blankets for everyone that wants one, then pick them up for washing when the chimps lose interest.  Sometimes, just to make it interesting, the keepers hide food in a folded blanket, or spread food out on it for a picnic.  A dash of perfume or essential oils makes it even more intriguing.

Blankets are just one of the many types of enrichment we use to keep the chimps engaged and to encourage the expression of  natual behaviors.  “What kind of ‘natural’ behavior can a blanket encourage?”, you are asking yourself.  Chimpanzees, as well as other apes, are nest-builders.  Meaning that whenever and wherever they rest, they will build a “nest” for themselves out of whatever materials are at hand.  In the wild this may be leaves, branches, grasses or even entire small tree limbs.  Often these nests are high in trees to avoid predators.  They rarely use the same nest twice and, except for infants, each chimp makes his or her own nest.  Can you think of a better material for making a nest than a blanket?  Me neither.

Naps and blankets go together like peas and carrots. Or bits of broccoli in this case. Willie napping photo by Ron Santos.

“So what other types of enrichment do the chimps get?”, you are now asking.  You certainly are full of questions today!  Well, since this is one of my favorite subjects, I’ll tell you.

One of the most remarkable discoveries in the field of animal behavior was the observation in 1960 that wild chimpanzees make and use tools.  Previously, it was thought that only human beings were capable of this.  There are many ways in which chimps use tools, but one of the most well-known is using grass stems or sticks to “fish” for termites.  (Click this link for more info on termite fishing.)  Our chimps are not used to eating termites, but they do love a sweet snack, so we load our termite mound replica with semi-liquid food that might be sweet one day, or savory the next.  We try to keep it interesting and different each day.  The only way the chimps can reach their treat is to fish for it using whatever they can find, usually bamboo sticks.  This built-in innovative enrichment device never fails to captivate chimpanzees and guests alike.

Chimps using the termite mound replica. Clockwise from the top: Mac, Lulu, Willie, Riley and Annie. Guests can see what the chimps are fishing for inside the mound. Photo by Ron Santos.

Being intelligent and curious, chimps love to investigate and manipulate objects.  They especially love cardboard and paper that can be torn up and rearranged to their liking.  Cardboard boxes can hide food or treats and then be used for nesting when the food is gone.  Big ones like refrigerator boxes make great forts. (I bet you’ve done this, too, haven’t you?) This type of enrichment is usually reserved for the off-exhibit holding area as it can create quite a mess.

Not all enrichment has to encourage “wild” behaviors; Sometimes it is just something the animal finds interesting and fun. For great apes especially, one such behavior is painting.  Keepers generally hold the canvas with paint on it and hand the animal a paintbrush. Participation in this activity is completely voluntary, but we find the chimps rarely turn down the opportunity to smear the paint around on the canvas… and then eat some of it.  Don’t worry, it’s all non-toxic.  And apparently delicious, though I have not tried it myself.

Charlie working on his masterpiece. And having a paint snack. Bonus!                                               Yet another great photo by Ron Santos.  Thanks, Ron, for all the wonderful pics!
For chimps, though, the ultimate enrichment is other chimps.  By nature chimpanzees are gregarious and have incredibly complex social lives.  Daily, they must negotiate their relationships with each other: cementing friendships and alliances, squabbling over food or toys, resolving conflicts and angling for a higher position on the social ladder.  Our group of five males and five females are incredibly interesting to watch and learn about.  They may just be a great source of enrichment for you!
A gratuitous Willie photo. Taken by, you guessed it, Ron Santos.

Chimp Profiles: Willie

Last, but assuredly not least, in our chimp profiles is the ever-entertaining Willie.   Willie is the youngest member of the group and definitely the most energetic.  There is little he enjoys more than chasing and wrestling with his older brothers Riley and Mac.  When they get bored, though, any other member will do, even if he has to hit someone with a stick to get them to chase him.  An irritated playmate is better than no playmate at all!  

Willie: Star of the Show, Life of the Party!

Though he might irritate them once in a while (OK, pretty regularly actually), Willie is the social center of the group.  In fact he played a pivotal role when the adult males first began living together after they arrived at the zoo.  Willie’s playfulness relieved tension and eased aggression very quickly, heading off fights before they could begin.

 Willie is also the most interactive with the visitors.  You can usually find him having just as much fun looking at you as you are looking at him!

"Are you looking at me, or am I looking at you?"

Chimp Profiles: Abe

Abe was born in Africa and brought to the U.S. as an infant in the early 1970’s.  

He is one of the oldest members of the group and father to Annie, Sally and Willie.  Though he is the least dominant adult male, he doesn’t seem to mind being the “low guy” all that much.  

Abe likes being in the company of all the other chimps, though he seems to enjoy Maizey and Willie the most.  He’s a great father and play-mate for Willie as he is always up for a game of chase and wrestle.

You can recognize Abe by his thin, wiry build.  He can often be found near the viewing glass playing with Willie, or just lost in his own thoughts.

Abe, Thinking Chimp Thoughts

Chimp Profiles: Maizey, Annie and Sally

Though Maizey and Annie have different parents, they are as close as sisters.  Only a few months apart, they grew up together and always stick up for each other.  No one in the group can pick on one without incurring the wrath of the other.

Annie is strong-willed and definitely likes to get her own way.  She is one of the few members of the group largely immune to Willie’s charms and will not hesitate to let him know he’s out of line.  She’s a loyal friend, though, and generally easygoing.


Maizey is also usually laid-back, but if you really want to make her angry (and trust me, you don’t!),  just try to come between her and her food.  As long as the other chimps remember this rule, they get along very well with Maizey.


Sally is Annie’s sister and just as stubborn, but not as confident.   Sally enjoys wrestling and playing chase with Willie from time to time.  Most often, though, she can be found in her favorite hammock high in the large tree.


Sally and Annie usually have a blanket with them even in warm weather.  In fact most of the chimps are fond of their blankets and can be seen carrying them around on their backs, or napping with them in the hammocks.

See if you can spot these three sisters next time you’re in The African Forest!

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