The Ticket: Great Apes

Our closest evolutionary cousins move into the Indianapolis Zoo for the first time.
Photo courtesy Nathan Philips

CHIMPANZEES have left a large prehensile footprint on American pop culture. The apes (not to be confused with monkeys, which have tails and sit farther away in our family tree) first swung into our hearts acting alongside Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo and starring in B.J. and the Bear, George of the Jungle, and Super Bowl ads. On May 25, the Indianapolis Zoo unveils a vastly better way to encounter the most people-like of all creatures: a massive exhibit that is the first of its kind in North America.

Primate specialists from Japan, Guinea, Congo, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire contributed their expertise to creating the International Chimpanzee Complex based on functional naturalism. The relatively new concept in zoo environments connects with an important aspect of chimp society: friendship. “The goal with the design of this exhibit was to create a space that serves as a functional forest, promoting natural chimpanzee behaviors by giving them the freedom to decide where to go, what to do, and who to do it with,” says Indianapolis Zoo spokesperson Emily Garrett.

Chimps in wild communities form human-like relationships. They have acquaintances, pals, and best friends. “Like human friendships, these relationships are dynamic,” adds Garrett. “Smaller groups may break away from the main group during the day to find food or use other resources and then come back together. This community will have the same ability.”

The elevated complex consists of dwellings with yards connected by a quarter-mile trail visible from throughout the zoo. The chimps romp along as they like. At 9,600 square feet, the complex spans the zoo. Along the way are access points to ground level, where chimps can engage with visitors from behind glass.

Your first glimpse of the hairy new Hoosiers will be at the Community Hub, home base for the troop of 20. It affords them a view of the downtown skyline and of White River State Park.

Photo courtesy Indianapolis Zoo

A stroll down the trail from the hub gets chimps to the Harlan/Shriver Families Cognition Center. There, they can solve puzzles and play games on touch-screen computers. For fun, tackle the same cognitive challenges as the chimps. (If you’re bested, don’t despair. They share 98.8 percent of our DNA, after all.) An expansive landscaped area for lolling in the sun—chimps only, alas—is attached.

The third hangout in the primates’ new digs is the Deborah J. Simon Culture Center. Watch for chimps in the outside yard showing off their prowess with tools. They are able to use many natural implements to eat, groom—and improve their sex lives. According to Cambridge University primatologist Dr. William McGrew in an article for Science, male chimps use dry leaves as the ape equivalent of inviting a girl in for a nightcap, then casually playing “Let’s Get it On.” The line between man and ape gets thinner all the time.

The intelligent creatures joining the zoo come from sanctuaries, private owners, entertainment companies, and research facilities. “We were approached by several groups that needed to find new homes for their animals for various reasons,” says Garrett. “Some were raised alone and had never seen another chimp.”

Due to their entertainment presence, it’s not commonly known that chimpanzees are endangered. The World Wildlife Federation reports only 150,000–250,000 are left in nature, all in Africa, where they face habitat loss and hunters. The ultimate goal of the complex is to inspire conservation of this unique species.