Zoos are giving chimps mental illnesses

We may not be on the verge of full-on chimp rebellion, but we still might want to rethink the ethics of keeping chimps in zoos. The captive apes are showing signs of mental illnesses never seen in their wild counterparts.

These are some fairly serious manifestations of mental health problems: self-mutilation, constant rocking back and forth, and even eating their own feces (as opposed to the perfectly normal behavior of throwing them, I guess). These behaviors have never been observed in wild chimps, but they are all associated with human mental disorders. These behaviors were seen even among chimps at well-respected zoos.

University of Kent researcher Nicholas Newton-Fisher explains what this all means:

"Absolutely abnormal behavior and possible mental health issues are most commonly associated with lab chimps. This is one of the reasons we were surprised to see the levels of abnormal behavior that we did — in chimpanzees living in good zoos. We conclude that the chimpanzee mind might have difficulties dealing with captivity."

Newton-Fisher and his research partner Lucy Birkett examined the behavior of 40 chimps from six zoos in the United States and United Kingdom. From over two years of research, they found every last one of the chimps manifested some form of abnormal behavior, even when provided with a good social environment, a varied diet, and various other forms of enrichment. The simple fact of captivity seemed to be the trigger for these chimps' mental problems.

This study might well be seen as an argument for no longer keeping chimpanzees in zoos - they are our closest evolutionary relatives, after all - but it's unfortunately not quite that simple. Many chimps in zoos are acquired from laboratories or the pet trade. These chimps are completely human-raised, so it's highly unlikely they would ever be able to return to the wild and survive.

Even if we resolve to only use zoos as a refuge for human-raised chimps, we'll likely still have plenty of available chimps for many years to come. The best we can do then is probably just to only place chimps in zoos when there are no better options, and to try to learn from this new study and make whatever alterations we can to make their captivity more palatable. That seems, for lack of a more species-neutral term, like the humane thing to do.

Via Discovery News.