Lion Shaped Mountain: Madman at the Zoo

What if our conventional understandings about chimpanzee behavior are inaccurate?

This is the first installment of a 12-part series on the chimpanzees of Sierra Leone. Read the rest of the series.

At the edge of a forest clearing in western Africa, fresh tracks are embedded in the mud. Half of the tracks resemble hands. The other half resemble knuckles. They lead to the center of the clearing where they abruptly end at a large pool of blood. From there, droplets of blood replace the tracks and continue on towards the opposite end of the clearing.

photo of chimpanzee
Much of what is accepted about chimpanzee behavior and ecology is based on chimpanzees living at just a few sites in the wild, as well as those living in captivity. Many wild chimpanzees don’t necessarily conform to these traditional understandings. Photo by Ronald Woan.

Standing beside the pool of blood is a young chimpanzee of around four or five years of age. Examining the blood, the chimpanzee puts his face to the ground and deeply inhales. He sits up and looks in every direction. He stands up on two legs and surveys the edges of the clearing. Sensing danger, he crouches and scurries in the direction of the footprints. Several minutes later, the forest echoes with the vocalizations of a community of chimpanzees.

Five thousand miles away, another chimpanzee sits alone at a zoo in the United States. He stretches out his right hand into the distance, seemingly at nothing. After several seconds, he puts his hand down. He hunches forward with his legs outstretched in front of him. With his left hand, he digs through the ground. He picks up a handful of bark and hurls it forward. The bark is blocked midway through the air by a glass barrier. Smashing against the transparent wall, it falls to the ground. The chimpanzee stares motionless into the distance.

On the other side of the glass stands a student intern. She stares at the chimpanzee, stares at her watch, and writes down the event on her data sheet. The bark has left a trail of dirt on the already cloudy glass. It obscures her view a bit, but she’s able to peer around it and see inside the enclosure. She’s been at the zoo for the past hour, recording data on this particular chimpanzee. She’ll remain an hour longer, then go home.

Behind the intern, three children play. They run around in circles, shout, and pay very little attention to the chimpanzee on the other side of the glass wall. Their mother calls them over to a display containing photographs of chimpanzees living in dense tropical forests. Below the photographs is text with information about chimpanzees. She reads to them about the ape in front of them:

In the wild, chimpanzee mothers will typically nurse their young for five years. After which time, the young chimpanzee stays with his/her mother and learns to care for younger siblings. In captivity, mothers, who have been taught sign language, have been shown to teach it to their young.

Chimpanzees are political and highly aggressive. In the wild, chimpanzee communities face competition from other chimpanzee groups. They solve territorial disputes by forming raiding parties and waging wars against each other.

In captivity, chimpanzees are given puzzles that test their ability to problem-solve. They have been successful at solving math problems, memory tests, map tests, and more. In many instances, chimpanzees will cooperate with each other to solve puzzles.

While she reads the signs, the children momentarily stop playing and pay attention. When she is done, they begin to run around again.

Behind the display, and in the shadows, I stand and watch. I’ve just returned from a long trip where I have been watching two communities of wild chimpanzees. My hair is unwashed and long. My beard is overgrown. My coat is ripped. I certainly don’t look like a primatologist, and what I would tell the children about chimpanzees is far different from what they are currently hearing: These chimpanzees described on the sign bear scant resemblance to the chimpanzees I’ve been observing.

I have been studying chimpanzees in Sierra Leone — a country named by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries in the fifteenth century. The name can be loosely translated to “Lion Mountain Range” — or more appropriately, “Lion-shaped Mountain.” When the missionaries first came to the country and approached the shore, the mountain range looked, to them, like a giant lion guarding the land behind it. The name has stuck, but closer examination reveals that the “Lion-shaped Mountain” is actually a series of hills, rivers, villages, and tall trees. Still, ever since I got it into my head that the area was shaped like a lion, it has become impossible to shake the image. In fact, I frequently wonder which part of the lion I am standing on. It has, it seems, forever affected the way I view the area.

Beyond this lion-shaped mountain live the chimpanzees that I study. Unlike the chimpanzees in the photographs on the zoo display, these communities do not live in dense forests. Rather, they live in a small fragmented habitat interspersed with farms and human villages. They live alongside their human neighbors, having frequent — and very negative — encounters with them. They eat food from the farms and have been known to attack both humans and livestock. As a result, they are hunted and killed by villagers. As their habitat continues to shrink, the situation is exacerbated. Yet, somehow, the chimpanzees are surviving — even thriving, with several new births recorded every year and many chimpanzees in the area living into old age.

photo of chimpanzee
Chimpanzees in Sierra Leone live in small fragmented habitat interspersed with farms and human villages, and experience frequent, often negative encouters with their human neighbors. Photo by Andrew Halloran.

In the years that I have studied these chimpanzees, nothing about them seems to fit the textbook models, or paradigms, of how chimpanzees live and act in the wild. The bulk of their interactions with each other and the environment around them has very little to do with the behaviors of chimpanzees without these particular sets of pressures. Indeed, the paradigms have done more to cloud my understanding than anything else. Because I have the models in my head, it is very hard to view these chimpanzees through a clear lens. The paradigms exist as irremovable goggles that cloud everything I observe.

The facts put forth at the zoo come from relatively new science. Most of what is generally accepted about chimpanzee behavior and ecology can be traced to studies that have occurred since the latter half of the twentieth century. These studies are based on chimpanzees living in just a few sites in the wild, or from experiments done on chimpanzees living in captivity. Over a relatively short period of time, the data from these studies combined to form the conventional understandings about chimpanzee behavior and ecology. It is this commonly accepted chimpanzee information that makes its way into textbooks, documentaries, and, yes, zoo displays.

The chimpanzees I study do not necessarily conform to these understandings. Their ability to learn sign language, solve complex math problems, or cooperate to get a treat in a captive setting is completely irrelevant to their lives. Nor do they wage wars against neighboring chimpanzee communities. Instead, these chimpanzees are in a constant struggle simply to survive the world around them, and every day, they find unique ways of surviving the nearly unsurvivable.

The chimpanzees I study in Sierra Leone must adapt in unique ways to accommodate random circumstances. Their ecology and behaviors are exclusive to their particular situation. Similarly, most chimpanzees live in unique situations across their range in West and Central Africa and adapt by unique means.

Standing at the zoo, I feel very far away from the chimpanzees I have just left. I do not know, yet, what has happened to them since I returned to the US. I do not know about the pool of blood in the forest or the bloody trail leading to the edge of the clearing. I do not know about the little chimpanzee examining the blood in the clearing. I do not know what led to the situation, or what has occurred since I left.

I stare at the chimpanzee behind the glass. I watch the student intern observing him. I wonder what she is recording. I wonder how that data is being compiled and fused with other data to form a bigger picture of chimpanzees in general. I wonder if it occurs to her that this chimpanzee is unique from every other chimpanzee, that his behavior is dictated by his circumstances, including his captivity. I look back at the chimpanzee and wonder about the unknowable — what is going through his head. I wonder why he initially reached out his hand in the first place. I wonder if the student intern is viewing the action in terms of some model she learned in her anthropology classes. I wonder if
she thinks she has an answer.

I look back at the children. They have lost interest in the chimpanzee and the display. The mother is trying to gather them and move on. They will leave the ape house with a new perception of reality, granted to them by the image of the captive chimpanzee and the words on the display. The foundation of what these children know about chimpanzees is based upon the image of one in captivity behind the glass. Unless they have an opportunity to observe another chimpanzee, perhaps one living in the wild, they will never understand that what they have learned is just a small fragment of reality, rather than a universal truth.

I begin to wonder about my own perceptions. How many are based upon mere fragments of the bigger picture? I wonder what I blindly accept about the world around me. I shudder at the notion and think about something else.

My thoughts return to the chimpanzees I have just left.

In the forthcoming installments of this series I attempt to peer behind the veil of our preconceived notions of chimpanzees. I try to piece together the mystery of the chimpanzees fighting to survive against all odds in Sierra Leone. I have done so with little bits of evidence – camera trap photos, tracks in the mud, stories from local communities, nest sites, examination of biological samples like fecal matter, and every other clue that I have come across in the last decade of studying them.

What results is a story based upon my educated conjecture, a story of two communities of chimpanzees living with seven communities of humans. It is a story of survival against the backdrop of a ruined landscape. It is the story of ingenuity against the randomness of existence. It is the story of the supremacy of companionship against the tragedy of
abandonment. It is the story of a mother and her child battling against separation. Finally, it is the story of pulling back the veil of overly-general paradigms about chimpanzee behavior, and embracing the complex reality of existence experienced by our closest living relatives.

The data I am drawing from has been collected by a top-notch team of researchers, composed primarily of members of the local communities living among these chimpanzees. Some of this data has been published, but much of it remains raw. I have also relied heavily on local community reports (obtained from interviews with those who live with these chimpanzees) documenting human-chimpanzee interactions. These have allowed me to chart the human history in this region alongside the chimpanzee history. In some cases, these histories are so intertwined that they are one in the same. From this data, we can get a clear picture of who these chimpanzees are, what they eat, what they spend their time doing, and who their close companions, as well as their enemies, are.

Finally, I beg the reader’s patience with the liberties contained in my narrative. I’ve named the chimpanzees, assigned personality traits, and imagined certain interactions based on my own perceptions. However, the reader should be assured that each liberty is grounded in a data point.

What the reader may discover upon reading these accounts is that only two universal laws are apparent: Chimpanzees figure out how to survive, and chimpanzees need each other in order to survive. Abandonment by social partners and isolation are the villains. Companionship is the hero. Faced with betrayal, tragedy, suffering, and loss of habitat, the chimpanzees triumph through their bonds with each other. This is the one paradigm that matters. Chimpanzees need each other. They need each other in order to learn. They need each other for protection. They need each other for comfort. They need each other to face the random and chaotic world around them.

This chaotic world is not perceptible at the ape house where I stand. The chimpanzee behind the glass will eat a regimented diet on a regimented schedule. His social companions have been defined for him. Likewise, the display in front of me points to an orderly world where universals dictate the actions of even the most complex beings. However, the world where chimpanzees exist is not orderly. It is indeed random and requires an almost infinite number of responses. Chimpanzees can no more be controlled by universals than the human children in the ape house can be controlled by their mother.

As I stare at the display, I see that the mother is looking at me. I give her a friendly smile and nod. Neither are returned. Clearly uncomfortable with the madman in her midst, she ramps up her efforts to round up her children and tells them that she would like to get a photograph of them in front of the chimpanzee at the window. The children run to enclosure, all three slamming against the glass barrier at the same time. The mother points her camera to the children. The chimpanzee looks up. The flash of the camera fills the dimly lit ape house, temporarily blinding everyone. The chimpanzee screams and stretches out his right arm again. Another chimpanzee appears and runs to him. She grabs his hand. They embrace.

I wipe my eyes and wish I was back in West Africa. I grin at something that crosses my mind. Searching for a lion-shaped mountain on the shores of Sierra Leone is a really silly endeavor. It causes me to miss what truly makes up the landscape. In fact, the lion-shaped mountain is neither shaped like a mountain, nor is it a mountain at all. It is someone else’s fantasy from long ago that has been masquerading as reality.

Don’t believe it.

Don’t trust it.

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