The Lincoln Park Zoo has two groups of chimpanzees, but only one
is on exhibit.
Hank's group consists of two males - Hank and Optimus Prime -
and four females: Cashew, Kathy, Chuckie, Nana.
Keo's group, which is housed in the back area of Regenstein
Center for African Apes and not publically viewable, consists of
Keo, a male, and three females: June, Vicki, Kibali.
Heading to the Lincoln Park Zoo? Try our "Monkeys & Merry Go-Rounds"
tour or any of our other
zoo tours for little feet!
When Elizabeth Lonsdorf heads to the wilds of Africa, she
leaves her son Jackson, 16 months, and her daughter Siena, 5, in
the hands of her husband Eric. As a great ape researcher, she does
her field work in Gombe National Park in Tanzania but technology
helps keep her family connected.
"I actually video Skype with them every day, so I can see
them and they can see me," she says. "I was recently in Japan and …
because of the time difference, I was eating breakfast on Friday
when they were having dinner on Thursday. Eric put the computer at
my spot on the table, and I'd eat breakfast with them while they
Lonsdorf is director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for
the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo, and when
she's home, her kids love coming to work with her. "My daughter
likes to come to mommy's office and see Keo. He's a male chimp, our
oldest chimp," she says. "The fact that she can run around mommy's
office and go see Keo, she feels like she owns the
Because Eric is the director of the Urban Wildlife
Institute at the zoo, both parents have demanding schedules. "We do
our calendars about six months in advance. And sometimes when we
both have things that we need to do out of town at the same time,
we have to decide who won't go," she says. "I love my job and being
a parent, but sometimes they're at loggerheads with each other. But
I can't imagine giving either one up."
Ever watched your toddlers tumble and play and
thought they weren't all that different from the chimps you watch
frolic at the zoo? Elizabeth Lonsdorf has often been struck by her
son's "chimp-like" personality, but she has even more reason to
draw the connection than the average parent-Lonsdorf is a great ape
researcher and director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the
Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo.
She has also recently edited a book, The Mind of the
Chimpanzee, with co-worker and parent Steve Ross, supervisor of
behavioral and cognitive research at the Fisher Center. Recently
each took time to talk about what they've learned about parenting
from studying chimps and how having kids has opened up new avenues
of research with the great apes.
So are your kids really like
Lonsdorf: My son is
definitely very chimp-like. I have one of each, and I wrote this
paper years ago on sex differences in development in chimps. Now I
have a son and daughter, and she did nothing to prepare me for him.
He's fearless, he's aggressive, plowing through everything. He's a
bull in a china shop. And he apparently also wants to swing from
very high things. … So it's kind of fun that I worked on a study
years ago, and now, it's even more salient to me how boys and girls
can be different from the get-go.
What have you learned in your chimp research that
can be applied at home?
Ross: One thing I've seen is
that those chimp moms who let kids go off and explore the world a
little bit, rather than let them cling on, you can see the
difference in the young juvenile gorillas. The one had a clingy mom
who wouldn't let him explore, and the other more laissez-faire mom
made sure they didn't get into too much trouble. The ones who let
them explore tended to have sharper kids. Megan (Ross' wife) and I
want our kids to experience things, with one eye on safety. If I
could have them have anything, I want them to have confidence.
Often that comes from an environment in which they're allowed to
Lonsdorf: Chimps don't have
the vocal cords we do, but they use a lot of gestural and postural
communications. They do make vocalizations like grunting, and I
swear, in just the last month, this is how I figured out how to
communicate with my son. He's pre-verbal … and I've been struggling
to communicate with him. I've relaxed from trying to get him to
talk or to sign, and I try to figure out-I read his body
language-oh, this is how he looks when he has a dirty diaper. The
fact that I'm forced to try to understand chimps without being able
to talk to them trickles down to my son. It helps me understand
that he wants to communicate.
Has being a parent changed the research you've
done with chimps?
Lonsdorf: I have always been
interested in chimp and child development … but the maternal stress
issues really came to the forefront when I was facing those issues
myself. Now we're looking at a chimp's maternal stress and how that
affects her offspring's development, which I came up with after
being a parent.
Ross: I became more
interested in development questions. Having a kid does perk your
interest in those kinds of questions. If you work with iguanas, I'm
sure it's very interesting and you can maybe draw some correlations
with your kids. But when you work with apes who are so close to us
already, it's impossible not to anthropomorphize sometimes. They
think and feel the same thing. Sometimes you watch the chimp baby
and you're thinking of your own kids or you watch the kids and
think of the chimps.
What kind of research are you
Lonsdorf: We use touch
screen computers and do cognitive research, like would you prefer
grapes or bananas, to be inside or outside? We're not quite there
yet, but the goal is by understanding how the chimp mind works, we
can provide better for them in zoo situations and in the
What should parents talk to their kids about before
coming to the zoo?
Ross: People often get so
caught up in what they see-oh, they're not moving or oh, their
butt's really big and gross. I'd love to hear parents talk to their
kids about, 'What do you think that chimp is feeling? Why did he go
over to the other and groom him? Why are those two chimps playing?'
Behavioral research has to be the most accessible of the sciences.
If you're going to be a behaviorist, you just need your eyes and
maybe a piece of paper to write down what you see. There's
something really simple about it, but also complex because no two
people will see things the same way. The opportunity to come to a
place like Lincoln Park Zoo and say, 'Hey, you can do science.
That's a really cool opportunity.'
The other thing is, I would love to get kids thinking about some
of these critical issues and not shield them. Is it OK to have them
in a circus dressed up? Kids are brighter than we give them credit
for; even at 6 years old they can understand. It's OK to get them
thinking about that.
Liz DeCarlo is the former senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.
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