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Chimps R Us

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3 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 |

Life with Chimps

Photo of cola bottle
After seeing where this mini can is hidden in the model room…

Though Boysen's career has been a successful one, it has not always been easy or satisfying for her. Much of her research demonstrates that chimps and other primates possess capabilities we like to reserve for ourselves. Just as Jane Goodall's discovery that wild chimps fashion and use tools ruffled some academic feathers, Boysen's work teaching primates to count and subtract engenders discomfort even among her colleagues.

"There is even in science," says Boysen, "such reticence to have us be part of the Darwinian continuum."

"In the last 27 years, I've learned stuff nobody else could know."


Her detractors charge that her close, hands-on relationship with her research animals colors her experiments, radically altering the chimps' natural behavior. But that, according to Boysen, is part of the point.

"There's no question that chimps in the company of humans experience changes in the brain," she says. "But that the species has the neuroplasticity to take in that information- that's not inconsequential. There aren't many other species like that."

Plus, says Boysen, her almost parental relationship with some of her study subjects sheds light on some natural behaviors field researchers would have a very hard time documenting. For example, Boysen is currently raising two baby chimps, Emma and Harper, each rejected by their mothers as infants.

Photo of chimp with cola
…Sheeba understands where to find the cola in the real room.

Recently, five-month-old Emma climbed out of her cradle in the middle of the night, and crept over to Boysen's bed where she lay sleeping. Emma head-butted Boysen into consciousness, and Boysen could see Emma's playface illuminated by the light from the hall. The infant chimp continued to play with her sleepy surrogate mother for some time.

"It occurred to me," marvels Boysen, "baby chimps must do this in the wild. It's a real bonding thing - wonderful pleasant quality time. In the last 27 years, I've learned stuff nobody else could know."
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