The Chicago Chimps and Gorillas: A Conversation with Steve Ross, the Man Behind Lincoln Park Zoo&#39

Ever since the days of famed gorilla Bushman, the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago has had a rich history with great apes. The zoo has long had some of the largest groups of apes at any zoo in the world, more than fifty gorillas have been born here and the zoo has been a leader in their research and conservation for decades, largely inspired by the passions and interests of the zoo’s retired director Dr. Lester Fisher. While the Lester E. Fisher Great Ape House was state-of-the-art when it opened in 1976, it was considered outdated by the late 1990s and Lincoln Park Zoo wanted to build a facility deserving of the zoo’s legacy with gorillas and chimpanzees. This new facility would be carefully designed to allow exceptional husbandry and animal care and give the apes choices and opportunities to be challenged. It would also serve as a proactive research facility and educate guests about the complexity of these primates as well as the threats they face. The zoo brought in primatologist Steve Ross to develop the Regenstein Center for African Apes, one of the finest of its kind and a groundbreaking habitat for gorillas and chimpanzees. He still works at the zoo as the Director of the Lester E. Fisher Study and Conservation of Apes.

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Ross had not worked in zoos at all before coming onto the project. Instead, his expertise came from research and animal behavior. “I had experience collecting behavioral date on chimpanzees in laboratories in Atlanta and Texas,” Ross stated. “Back in late 1999, Dr. Kristen Lukas, who was then curator of primates, was starting to plan for the design of a new ape facility and advocated to add additional research capacity to help understand the spatial preferences of the apes.” Early in the next year, he came on board to begin conducting those studies which would inform the facility design, which wasn’t an easy task. “Some of the biggest challenges we faced here were so specific to our location,” Ross explained. “The zoo is landlocked so we didn’t have a lot of space to work with. Added to that was the challenge of being in a northern climate. That brings a need for a nice indoor space. When you need to build essentially two habitats- an outdoor and an indoor one- for each group, that’s a challenge. We really felt strongly we needed to give as many choices to the apes as possible.”

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While the old building had gorillas, chimpanzees and, earlier on, orangutans, the decision was made early on to only focus on African apes for the new facility. “By the time I got there, the orangutans were already gone,” remembered Ross. “We decided that we wanted to build facilities that were the most flexible they could be so the distinct behavioral needs of orangutans were too different. Building an orangutan habitat comes with its own separate set of issues. The most important thing for them is the opportunity to climb and stay up high. We are in an urban area and that comes with restrictions of how high we can build our facilities.” Focusing on rotating habitats for gorillas and chimpanzees, out-of-the-box ideas immediately came on the table. “We originally conceived of it having a retractable roof but very early on we found out that was cost prohibitive,” Ross explained. “So what we did is used that strategy by turning the idea on its side. We have a continuous indoor/outdoor space with a sliding glass door. It’s almost like a retractable roof but on the side of the building. That allowed use to build environments that are continuous spaces and the animal has the choice to be inside or outside.”

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An immense amount of planning went into the center to make it the best possible environment for the gorillas and chimpanzees possible. Steve and Kristen evaluated the ape facilities at 18 zoos in the Northeast and Midwest such as the Bronx Zoo, Kansas City Zoo and Louisville Zoo. It was decided a strong thematic message would resonate throughout the facility focusing on nine types of learning: visitors learning about apes, visitors learning about animal care professionals caring for apes, apes learning from animal care professionals, apes learning to be apes, people learning about themselves by understanding apes, zoo scientists learning about apes, visitors helping the zoo learning about apes, field researchers learning about apes and visitors learning about ape conservation (www.zoolex.org.) “We wanted a strong messaging theme throughout the building so people could take back something and have a greater appreciation for the apes,” elaborated Ross. “So we built this theme about the way apes and humans learn from each other. We built that into the graphics and signage throughout the space. The center is focused on this concept of learning and intelligence.”

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The zoo's standards were very high when building the Center for African Apes. “Our number one goal was to build dynamic stimulating environments for the animals,” stated Ross. “Our environments are somewhat naturalistic but our real push was for functional naturalism- so the apes would USE their environments as they would in the wild. Many people assume apes want the same things humans want but we know from our research that’s not what apes want. We work hard to have a high density of features for the apes. You can barely take two steps in there without stepping on something the apes can use.”

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He explained that while some other zoos might just have a beautiful-looking yard for the gorillas or chimpanzees, Lincoln Park Zoo reached for something much more complex here and stressed giving as much autonomy to these intelligent primates as possible. “We made sure every single climbing structure can be exited from two points, whether on the ground or high up in the sky,” Ross remarked. “We emphasized choice. All three spaces have multiple ways to get in and out of. The other innovative feature is deep-mulch flooring. We were only the second zoo to use it for apes in America and the first to use it for chimps. Louisville Zoo had used it for gorillas prior and we really liked that idea. We got a lot of information about it from European zoos as well. It gives a really naturalistic feel to the habitats and helps the apes nest, use tools and forage.” When I visited the zoo in 2016, I was particularly impressed by this flooring and much prefer it to concrete or a little bit of hay.

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Ross made clear that building an indoor space is just as challenging if not more than building the outdoor habitat. “To build an indoor space is many times the cost as an outdoor space,” he clarified. “When you’ve got animals who don’t particularly like to go outdoors, you need dynamic indoor spaces. Our gorillas don’t really like to go outside that much. We know a lot about their space use pattern and have found our gorillas only go outside approximately 8% of the time.” It may seem shocking the largest and strongest of apes would prefer to stay inside rather than explore their outdoor paradise but it remains a mystery. “Nothing is completely explaining it,” Ross said. “A lot of the great apes grew up in the old facility (which only had a small outdoor area.) They’re just more comfortable in an indoor space.” He elaborated that the practice of continuous choice to indoor and outdoor spaces is relatively rare, making it harder to understand. On the other hand, the chimpanzees prefer to spend much greater time in their outdoor habitats.

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When the facility was getting ready to open in 2004, the next challenge came introducing the apes to their new digs. “Because of our extensive research program, we have a lot of great data on every individual ape,” Ross pointed out. Since many of the gorillas and chimpanzees had lived at the old facility, “we were able to study their behavior before and after the new facility.” Now the apes had three distinct outdoor habitats: Gorilla Bamboo Forest (a moated habitat with bamboo poles and a waterfall just for gorillas), the Strangler Fig Forest (a wire netted habitat full of fig climbing structures) and the Dry Riverbed Valley (a lush wire-netted habitat full of logs and foliage.) Ross noted the apes tended to be much more active and social in the new set of spaces. “It was approximately a six-month period for them to get acclimated into the facility but then we noticed major behavior change,” he said.

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Each of the habitats have plenty of unique features to keep the apes active, curious and enriched. There are over 6000 feet of vines, termite mounds for enrichment, a moveable tree root that can be jumped up and down by the chimps. Other features, such as food scatterers and an air fan and a shower spray in the center’s habitats, were part of the original design but have been discontinued due to a lack of interest on the part of the animals or logistical reasons. (www.zoolex.org) “The apes are kept really busy, which is great for them,” reflected Ross. “They need a lot of mental stimulation. They get great husbandry training several times a day. We know from prior research this serves an enrichment value. We have a great enrichment program which includes assessing the enrichment- realizing what’s working and not working.”

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A unique feature of the ape experience at the Lincoln Park Zoo is they get to participate in a “robust research program” including access to touch screens. “Touch screen research is completely voluntary and we learn what they think, what they learn,” Ross explained. “We value it and most of the apes use it. They engage in other programs as well- such as tool use. At any given time there’s half a dozen behavior research programs going on. The public gets to see science going on and grow their appreciation for these species.” This programs is used both for the chimpanzees and gorillas. “We know far less about gorilla cognition than chimps but they use our touch screens,” Ross commented.

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Steve Ross also implemented similar concepts in Macaque Forest, a state-of-the-art habitat for snow monkeys. “All of what worked in the ape facility we replicated over here,” he said. “There’s a dual touch screen booth where macaques can go adjacent to their habitat. We kept the idea of giving a diverse, dynamic and complex space for them to use. It’s a costal forest with live foliage, a hot springs and running stream. It’s designed to stimulate the macaques. We ended up working with a zoo in Japan to import the macaques here.”

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Steve Ross is a huge proponent of research in zoos. “One of the things I think that is a lost opportunity for zoos is to do high quality research,” he said. “What we have here I’m particularly proud of- we have strong research and science programs both in the field and in Chicago. It is beneficial for animals to be engaged with research. This is a situation where animals are voluntary participants and have cognitive and physical benefits. Chimps and gorillas gain physical benefit from walking across a habitat and dropping off tokens. These are benefits to animal welfare people don’t think about.”

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Unfortunately, chimpanzees, the species which Ross specializes in, have not always been given the love and attention they deserve. “Until a couple of years ago chimps were allowed to be used for entertainment and biomedical research in laboratories because the Endangered Species Act only classified wild chimps as endangered,” he explained. In fact, until the 1980s, zoos such as Lincoln Park still used chimps in shows for entertainment before turning to more naturalistic habitats and lifestyles. Ross is glad the times have changed because his research demonstrates “the use of chimps in commercials, shows and advertisements gives people the wrong idea about chimps” and does not allow people to see them as the complex, intelligent and endangered species they are.

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Also, Ross acknowledges “unlike me not everyone loves chimps. Some zoo directors tend to not favor chimps because they can be perceived as loud, aggressive and dirty. They do have a bit of a reputation and an unfair one. Since the early 2000s there have only been two new chimp habitats in American zoos-at the Houston Zoo and us. Oregon is the only zoo proactively looking at building a new chimp habitat.” Ross hopes that as people become to have a greater appreciation for chimpanzees, more zoos will be encouraged to build new habitats for them.” Many of the chimpanzees at Lincoln Park Zoo were rescued from substandard situations to be given a forever home

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Ross then went on to praise some chimp habitats that really impressed him. “I love the North Carolina zoo chimp habitat,” he said. “Likewise there’s great facilities for chimps at Los Angeles and Houston. Those are three of the best chimp habitats.” We then talked about how other zoos can learn from what has been done for chimpanzees and gorillas at the Lincoln Park Zoo. “We started with this idea of giving animals control over their environment,” he reflected. “I’d like to see more of animals being allowed to make the choices of who to interact with, when they want to go to bed, when they want to go outside. The more we give that power back to the animal, the better welfare they have. Only they can have insight into their internal wants.”

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