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There are thousands of chimpanzees in the zoos of the world.  They are one of the ‘staples’ of the traditional zoo, and few zoos apart from safari parks and specialist collections have chosen not to have at least a pair on display. Chimpanzees have been held in various grim conditions in captivity for several centuries. London Zoo’s first chimpanzee arrived in 1835, less than a decade after the zoo opened, and although neither that animal nor many of its numerous successors survived for more than a few months, the zoo continued to buy and display chimpanzees to the obvious appreciation of the public. The image of the chimpanzee became quickly established as playful and intelligent. ‘Anyone who has seen a gorilla (and a chimpanzee) at the zoo will realise the intellectual difference,’ wrote one naturalist. The director of London Zoo’s aquarium, E. G. Boulenger, saw the chimpanzee as ‘.. more responsive to the demands of civilisation than are certain tribes of savages that disport themselves to this day on the banks of the Amazon River.’

With such a press, captive chimps were always in great demand. Despite their appalling survival record, large sums of money were paid for them. London Zoo paid £300 for a young chimp in 1845. It lived for seven months.

In 1927 the new monkey house at London Zoo was opened, and hopes were raised for a an improvement in the survivability of chimpanzees, and perhaps even for a breeding success. The chimps did indeed live a little longer, but it wasn’t until 1935 that the first baby chimp was born. Lessons were learned, and standards slowly improved. Ape houses became better designed. Cleanliness and hygiene improved. More distance (or glass) was placed between the chimps and the public to protect the animals from human diseases to which they are extremely prone, and the health and longevity of the chimpanzees gradually improved.

Today good zoos are continuing to improve their chimp accommodation. Like gorillas, chimps are social animals and they should be kept in large social groups wherever possible. Zoos that have done this are rewarded not only by a real improvement in the psychological welfare of the chimps, but also in the exciting spectacle of a troupe of apes interacting with each other in very much the same way that they do in the wild. In social groups chimps can groom one another, they can play, they can fight, and they can learn a whole range of behaviours from one another. In particular, since a great many zoo chimps have been hand-reared by humans, hand-reared mothers can learn from other chimpanzee mothers how to raise their own young. In order to more closely mimic their wild behaviour, chimpanzees need a great deal of room to rush around, and a lot of three-dimensional space for climbing and swinging. Probably the only British zoos to provide both in abundance are Chester, with its network of islands and its large indoor playground, Belfast with its huge outdoor compound, and Monkey World in Dorset. The latter acts as a rescue centre for chimpanzees confiscated from Spanish beach photographers and from research laboratories, and is releasing young chimps into a four-acre compound.

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