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.
Meet Elizabeth Lonsdorf
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.”
Meet the Chimps
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.
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 chimps?
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 explore.
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 doing?
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 wild.
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.