Primate Problem Solving and Reintroduction: A Conversation with Dr. Ben Beck, Retired Associate Dire

For decades, Dr. Benjamin Beck has been one of the leading authorities on animal behavior in zoos, particularly of primates. “Animal behavior research produces fundamental understanding of, for example, feeding behavior and of social systems and social behavior,” he stated. “Two examples in the social realm come to mind. In the 60s and early 70s, golden lion tamarins were kept in zoos in multimale/multifemale groups like macaques. The results were disastrous: fighting, lethal wounding and poor reproductive success. Devra Kleiman discovered that golden lion tamarins were monogamous and should be kept as adult pairs and their offspring. When implemented, this insight led to a rapid growth in the zoo population, which of course provided individuals for the later golden lion tamarin reintroduction to Brazil, one of the finest examples of zoo conservation efforts.”

@ Ben Beck

“Another example involves gorillas,” Beck continued. “Many adult male and adult female gorillas in the 60s and 70s were sexually incompatible and the females refused to mate with the males, which caused subsequent aggression and behavioral abnormalities. The zoo population was not-self sustaining. [The problem was] many of the individuals had been captured in the wild and raised together in pairs and small groups. Females regarded these males as siblings and were thus reluctant to mate with them. When we began to pair unfamiliar gorillas, they began to reproduce successfully. Mother-rearing and multi-female groups helped too. All these adaptations in primate management tracked animal behavior research that was being conducted in the field and laboratories.”

@ Ben Beck

Beck noted that research on problem solving and learning has also helped advance the art and science of animal care. “Almost all animals are curious and are driven to solve problems, especially if treats are involved,” he explained. “We know now that mental exercise is critical for combatting boredom. Most enrichment measures flow from this basic understanding of animal cognition. Of course, reward-based operant conditioning has created voluntary animal/caretaker partnerships that lower stress, eliminate coercive animal control and produce positive behavioral outcomes.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

While Beck originally pursued an academic career, he changed course when he became dissatisfied he could not bring conservation awareness to a broader audience. He found his new calling when Dr. George Rabb, later the longtime director of the Brookfield Zoo in suburban Chicago, invited him to be Research Curator at the Brookfield Zoo in 1970. “One of my responsibilities was to enlist the highly diverse primate collection as ambassadors of conservation and research,” Beck commented. “I conducted many experiments and observation on tool use by primates and other mammals in full view of the visiting public, which convinced us that our visitors hungered to learn about science and interact with working scientists.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

“My primary research interest was tool use in animals [so] I worked with the baboons and macaques in the Primate House, studying how they acquired the ability to use tools,” Beck continued. “I also did some research with polar bears on their throwing of objects in play, and worked with Pere David’s deer, which adorned themselves with objects.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

Rabb, along with Bill Conway of the Bronx Zoo, is often credited as one of the zoo leaders most responsible for putting conservation and science at the forefront of the modern zoo. “George Rabb motivated me a great deal,” Ben Beck recalled. “He was a quiet visionary and one of the few senior zoo officials [back then] with a doctorate. He was passionate about conservation before the first Earth Day and he knew intuitively that science would improve zoo operations and that the zoo was a great venue for research. [Rabb] knew conservation and research were essential zoo functions, not expensive luxuries.” In 1976, Rabb was promoted to Director of the Brookfield Zoo. “The Brookfield Zoo became a scientific and conservation powerhouse,” Beck added.

@ Brookfield Zoo

Not all of the Brookfield Zoo’s staff could keep up with Rabb’s vision. “The Brookfield Zoo was like any other difficult evolutionary process,” Beck articulated. “People were identified with and invested in set ways of doing things and pushed back when a new vision came. Some keepers saw on-exhibit research as a complication to their work days and many resisted changes in routines to accommodate behavioral observation schedules. I actually had my experiments sabotaged a few times.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

In the 1970s, Rabb had the vision for a massive indoor tropical rainforest that would feature mixed species groups of primates. This concept would evolve into Tropic World, a major project that opened in three phases in the 1980s. As Curator of Primates, Beck would become a critical part of the design team for the building. “The vision was George’s but I was part of the design team, with shared responsibility for designing the exhibit spaces and holding areas and pretty much sole responsibility for species selection and acquisition,” Beck remarked. “The responsibility was daunting: no other mixed-species, free-ranging naturalistic primate and bird exhibit had ever been attempted.” Rabb and Beck traveled to Africa to gain inspiration for the design of the exhibit. “The lower 30 feet of the largest tree in Tropic World is a faithful replica of a majestic old buttressed tree we found in the Kibale Forest in Uganda.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

While Tropic World would give the primates natural situations, it was by no means realistic. “Tropic World doesn’t look like a tropical rainforest,” Beck expressed. “The roof design was faulty and allowed water penetration. There wasn’t enough light to grow convincing tropical vegetation, and good artificial vegetation had not yet been invented. Most of the trees were gunnite skeletons. Instead, it would focus on creating opportunities for behavior, locomotion and social interactions similar to those in the wild. “At least in terms of locomotion, the branches are the critical issue for primates,” Beck claimed. “{Tropic World] didn’t give visitors the complexity and richness of a tropical forest, but the primates had terrific access to good high substrate and the interspecies interactions were novel and unprecedented.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

The construction of Tropic World was long and expensive. “There were substantial cost overruns and delays,” Beck recalled. “When George was appointed director he was pulled in different directions: a more zoo-wide focus than a Tropic World focus. The coherence and functionality of our team dissipated. I felt very alone and very responsible.” Even as more pressing demands distracted Rabb from Tropic World, it still had to meet his critical eye. “As former Brookfield curator Bruce Brewer recently said, George had difficulty expressing exactly what he wanted but no difficulty in expressing his displeasure with what he didn’t want,” Beck explained. “Whole gunnite walls were ripped out and redesigned when they did not match his expectations.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

An even bigger hurdle were doubts among the zoo’s staff that Tropic World would work at all. “Most of my primate care staff were outspoken in their doubts that primates of different species could be housed together,” Beck remembered. “They doubted my calculations on barrier height. They scoffed at the idea that primates would come into holding cages from extensive exhibit areas. There was plenty of negativism from colleagues at other zoos as well. We tried to predict whether these species would get together. We knew it occurred in nature but it was unknown if we could reproduce it in captivity.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

Despite the skepticism, the integration of the social groups in Tropic World went incredibly well. “The gorillas reproduced and had offspring,” Beck recalled. “It was spectacular.” For the first time, primates of different species were integrated together: six species of New World primates lived together in the South American exhibit alongside tapirs and giant anteaters, orangutans and gibbons lived together in the Asian exhibit and managabeys and colobus monkeys could choose to live among mandrills and pygmy hippos or a family of gorillas in the African exhibit. After Beck left the zoo, revolutionary animal husbandry training was also accomplished in Tropic World.

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Scott Richardson

As elaborate as Tropic World was, it did not include any outdoor space, a fact that has been criticized by some. “We gave outdoor access a lot of hard thinking,” Beck recalled. “We didn’t have room to duplicate the whole facility outside without infringing on our popular Baboon Island, and we would probably not have been able to perpetuate the multi-species exhibit outside as well as inside. The lack of outdoor access was also largely a money issue although I felt that high indoor natural light levels and variation, simulated rainstorms and interspecific interaction opportunities would be sufficient. I am unaware of any data showing that the lack of outdoor access has been detrimental to wellbeing. The pathways are both down and up-looking and the exhibits are sufficiently large and complex to provide escape and privacy.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Scott Richardson

Regardless, Tropic World was a milestone exhibit that broke new ground for the care of apes and monkeys in human care. “I am very proud of the project and my contributions to it,” Beck concluded. “It’s been a life lesson in the costs and benefits of innovation.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

One of the biggest discoveries Beck and his staff made at the Brookfield Zoo was that hand-rearing great apes, particularly gorillas and chimpanzees, was “a serious detriment to reproductive competence.” As mentioned above, they also learned that gorillas raised together had to be split up and paired with unfamiliar mates if they were going to breed. “The Species Survival Plan (SSP) management group had to switch these males around so they wouldn’t become aggressive when females rejected their advances,” Beck articulated. “We had to split up infant pairs when they reached sexual maturity. When we brought a new male in from the Buffalo Zoo to Brookfield, we had a lot of babies.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

In 1982, Beck moved from the Brookfield Zoo to the Smithsonian National Zoo. His primary attraction to the zoo was its golden lion tamarin program. “I overhead Devra Kleiman telling a colleague at a scientific meeting in 1981 that there was consideration of reintroducing golden lion tamarins to the wild,” he recalled. “My heart leapt. Reintroduction is a huge natural experiment in learning and problem-solving and, at the time, was seen as a very promising conservation strategy. This combined both of my professional passions. A few minutes later, I told my friend Devra, ‘I want to reintroduce your golden lion tamarins to the wild.’ She said, ‘Fine, get the money and it’s all yours.’” Within a year, Beck was working at the National Zoo and had received a grant for the project. “The Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution and was therefore a research-based institution at its core,” he remarked. “The National Zoo didn’t have to fight for it’s being a scientific institution. Scholarship is a cultural given at the Smithsonian.” Beck was promoted to General Curator in 1985 and Associate Director in 1987.

@ Grayson Ponti

Additionally, the National Zoo’s gorillas needed Beck’s attention when he arrived in 1983. “I knew science was the way to understand [gorilla reproduction] so we brought a good behavioral research program to the gorillas at the National Zoo,” he stated. “We were able to demonstrate that some of the gorillas were socially incompatible. We went to the Gorilla SSP to reconfigure the collection, and reproduction followed quickly. The approach to a problem is to study it, find solutions and take action.”

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

But Beck’s main focus during his early years at the National Zoo was on preparing golden lion tamarins for release into the wild. “We initially felt that we could train the golden lion tamarins to survive in the wild before they were reintroduced,” he elaborated. “We trained them in cages to search for hidden and spatially distributed food. Nearly all of them that we reintroduced in the first two years died within months. We almost gave up because it wasn’t working and we had serious ethical misgivings. Pre-release training in a cage could not reproduce the complexities of the natural environment, particularly with regard to locomotion and way-finding. I had learned though that free-living golden lion tamarins don’t move far from their food and shelter. I asked what would happen if we could release zoo tamarins in a copse of woods on zoo grounds, put radiocollars on them and give them ample food and shelter. Would they stay around in their ‘psychological cage’ and slowly learn how to locomote, forage and find their way around in natural vegetation?”

@ Smithsonian

@ Ben Beck

Beck’s proposal to have a free-ranging golden lion tamarin exhibit at the zoo was, much like Tropic World, greeted with skepticism. “There was an instant chorus of hooting from my colleagues, who had spent their careers preventing animals from escaping,” he stated. However, the project went forward. “The Brookfield Tropic World experience had taught me a thing or two about risky innovation,” Beck reflected. “Get the boss’ support and lean on supportive colleagues. Review my science. Present my case openly with humor and fact. Acknowledge the risk. Ask for help. Respond constructively to the criticisms. Acknowledge my own doubts and fears. The process is history, not only at Brookfield but also at other zoos.”

@ Smithsonian

The free-ranging golden lion tamarins turned out to be very successful both for the zoo experience and the reintroduction efforts. “The free-ranging tamarin exhibit was enormously successful in terms of the visitor experience,” Beck recalled. “The tamarins did very well. We gave them nesting boxes, ropes and food and water near their nest boxes. They stayed around and then gradually moved out into the woods. In the process they learned how to locomote on natural vegetation, encountered predators and competitors like hawks and squirrels and adapted magnificently in ways I could never had imagined. I saw them go to the Small Mammal House to interact with the tamarins in the enclosure there. I looked over and saw one of the tamarins on the back of a bison.”

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

“We discovered that animals and humans tend to live in psychological cages,” Beck stated. “Why don’t you get on a plane and fly to Pittsburgh tonight? You could, but you don’t because you have what you need and want where you are. The golden lion tamarins stayed where they were in the zoo. We applied that model to the wild and they stayed around long enough for us to feed them and care for them. It was like a zoo in the wild. Within a year, they were ranging widely in the forest and reproducing. It was extremely effective.” The program reintroduced 146 tamarins over twenty years into the wild and the reintroduced population in Brazil has grown to over 1,000 golden lion tamarins, about a third of the entire world population.

@ Ben Beck

As Associate Director, Beck worked alongside Dr. Michael Robinson, the zoo’s polarizing director. Robinson, an invertebrate zoologist, was known for being more interested in microfauna than the iconic, charismatic megafauna. “Mike was fascinated with the little things of nature: pollinators, fungal mycorrhizae and the origins of agriculture,” he articulated. “He was certain that zoo visitors would also revel in these topics if we just presented them. He claimed the zoo’s obsession with big vertebrates did not match up to the realities of evolution. He coined the term ‘Biopark,’ a place that featured relationships among plants and animals. Mike inspired such new exhibits as the Hall of Invertebrates and Amazonia but went along only begrudgingly with the acquisition of additional giant pandas. I respected his vision but many of our colleagues did not. The focus on large mammals didn’t go away and he lost supporters. I did my best to navigate these fissures but with limited success.”

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

Beck’s strongest interest was always in animal cognition. “It’s an invisible world,” he stated. “A set of fascinating processes that can’t be looked at directly. Everyone who looks at a dolphin, elephant or orangutan is intrigued by what’s going on in their mind. It’s an entrance to public interest.” This fascination inspired Beck to propose that the National Zoo do an exhibit on animal thinking. This idea would evolve into Think Tank.

@ Smithsonian

It was decided that Think Tank would replace the outdated Monkey House, which was “really at the end of its lifetime.” Next, the zoo had to decide what animal the Think Tank would showcase. “I first heard an anecdote from Lester Fisher [longtime director of Lincoln Park Zoo],” Beck recalled. “It went, ‘Consider that a keeper inadvertently leaves a screwdriver in the cage of an ape. Chimpanzees will immediately pick up the screw driver and use it for everything but removing a screw. Gorillas will not notice the screw driver until they step on it. They’ll pick it up, sniff at it and drop it. Orangutans will notice it immediately but will wait until nighttime to use it to dismantle the cage.’ Orangutans are probably the most contemplative and quietly intelligent of the great apes. With that recognition, they became the obvious ape to be featured in this exhibit.”

@ Smithsonian

“Orangutans have the ability to acquire symbolic and mathematical representation,” Beck remarked. “They understand the intentions of others. That’s the kind of intelligence I thought would make terrific comparisons.”

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Think Tank was the O-Line, a series of overhead ropes that allowed the orangutans to travel between the Great Ape House and the Think Tank. “The O-Line was included in the original concept plan,” Beck explained. “Some of the orangutans took to the O-Line right away while others never did. Those born after it was installed have all taken to it as they accepted it as a normal part of their environment.” The O-Line allowed the great apes greater choice and control. “The orangutans that lived only in the Great Ape House could see, hear and smell everything that each other did 24/7; they had no secrets. But when they could spend part of their time with other animals and people at Think Tank, they could have a private life. Each individual now had information that was not shared by all of the other apes. This is a really important concept in terms of ape cognition and enrichment.”

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

“An adult male orangutan escaped from the O-Line on its first test,” Beck remembered. “He was returned to his exhibit without serious injury to himself or to others, but the doubters became shrill. It was actually an easy fix but pressure to abort the facility grew strong. Mike Robinson confronted me and asked me to defend my scientific logic and belief that the O-Line could be successful. He took the heat and gave us permission to resume in an act of administrative bravery and leadership. Orangutans use the O-Line to exercise, travel and expand their private lives to this day. It’s a huge success and no orangutan has fallen to a bloody death and no visitor has been sickened from being popped on.”

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

Beck collaborated closely with primatologist Dr. Rob Shumaker (now director of the Indianapolis Zoo) on the development of Think Tank and its orangutan research program. “Rob and I committed to daily sessions of on-exhibit research on orangutan language acquisition and tool use,” he stated. “The audiences were packed and rapt. Rob has reproduced and improved the concept at Indianapolis”

@ Smithsonian

One of Beck’s accomplishments at the National Zoo was helping facilitate the acquisition of giant pandas in 2000. “That was a pretty exciting set of interactions with our Chinese colleagues,” he reflected. “Robinson thought giant pandas represented the overemphasized focus on big animals but they were an important tradition at the National Zoo and we made the decision to move ahead with this. We worked with Dave Towne (longtime director of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle) and the giant panda AZA group to bring them over.”

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

“It was a remarkable experience to go over to China and see the pandas there,” Beck continued. “Our scientific staff had been working in China before we decided to acquire pandas and we knew a lot of the Chinese actors. We had our minds set on the exact two pandas we wanted because of their rearing and social history. They seemed to have the highest level of reproductive chances. It’s not easy to negotiate with the Chinese but we knew our stuff and were trained by the Smithsonian Institution on how to negotiate with Chinese leaders. It became a win-win situation.” The giant pandas have since reproduced multiple times and served as important ambassadors to their species.

@ Smithsonian

@ Smithsonian

“Zoos have played an incredibly important part in the development of techniques regarded as commonplace in wildlife management today,” Beck elaborated. “They developed methods of animal immobilizations and animal transportation. All these things are adopted as critical techniques in wildlife management. Zoos will provide some animals for reintroduction to the wild but the most important contributions of most zoos for in situ conservation will continue to be consultation on animal management techniques, public environmental education and financial support.”

@ Smithsonian

“Looking back, I am proud of the research I did on animal tool use, most of which was conducted in and sponsored by zoos,” Beck reflected. “I am proud of the exhibits in which I have been involved: Tropic World at Brookfield and free-ranging golden lion tamarins, the Hall of Invertebrates and Think Tank at the Smithsonian National Zoo. I am proud of my contributions (mostly in partnership with Terry Maple and the various SSPs and Taxon Advisory Groups) to the understanding of reproductive competency in gorillas and the establishment of a self-sustaining gorilla population. I am most proud of my part in golden-lion tamarin reintroduction, which was sponsored by the Smithsonian National Zoo, the Durrell Trust and the Frankfurt Zoological Society. The 146 captive-born tamarins that we reintroduced came from 43 different zoos and research institutions on three continents, making this the most collaborative conservation project, anywhere, ever. My wife and I shared much of this experience, and it has given us dearly held colleagues and friends.”

@ Smithsonian

“I’m also proud that we were able to bring the zoo, biomedical, field research and animal rights communities together in 1998 at the Disney Institute,” Beck continued. “I am sure that we built the relationships we built that week, and the resultant publication, Great Apes and Humans: The Ethics of Coexistence, made life better for primates everywhere and modulated potential organizational conflict.”

@ Smithsonian

“My biggest disappointment is that I was not able to navigate my predilection for free, direct, selective, human contact among zoo animals, zoo staff and visitors and the honorable doubts and concerns of my zoo colleagues,” Beck stated. “I lost the friendship of some close colleagues and some hard-earned credibility in that failed process.”

@ Ben Beck

“After I retired from the National Zoo in 2003, I served as Director of Conservation at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, and had the opportunity to lead a chimpanzee conservation program in Rwanda that led directly to the establishment of a new national park and many associated conservation and research efforts in that tiny country (That was another risky and initially unpopular undertaking,)” Beck concluded. “Most recently, I’m proud of my new book, A History of Primate Reintroduction, which is published on my website www.drbenjaminbeck.com for fast, wide and free distribution to help reintroduction practitioners and reintroduced primates everywhere.”

@ Smithsonian

“And I’m proud that I persuaded a Brookfield primate keeper to stop giving cigarettes and matches to an adult male orangutan in 1971,” Beck added. “I’m still not sure if the keeper or the orangutan suffered more. I’m proud that we outlawed feeding of animals by Brookfield visitors about the same time, and a little later hired the first female primate keeper in our history.”

@ Ben Beck

#BrookfieldZoo #NationalZoo

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