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What makes Wellington’s new Chimpanzee enclosure so much better?

Wellington Chimpanzee Troops new home “closer to natural than ever before”

Photo: TWA / Jonny Brown

Wellington Zoos latest exhibit upgrade was officially completed yesterday with an opening ceremony in the new Chimp Park visitor area. The $1.2m changes were made with support from the Jane Goodall Institute NZ and Pub Charity.

Part of the ceremony included a personalized video message from Jane Goodall congratulating Wellington Zoo on the upgrade. She is looking forward to seeing the upgraded enclosure when she visits Wellington in 2019. Goodall noted that last time she was in New Zealand, the Chimps seemed “pretty happy” with a “pretty nice” enclosure, but was still ecstatic that their quality of life would be even higher now. A constant refrain throughout the day was that the upgraded exhibit represents yet another move away from the Zoo philosophy of the past, where animals, and particularly Chimpanzees, were kept in small concrete enclosures and made to perform for the enjoyment of the human visitors.

Animal Care Manager Jo Richardson explained the new features to our team of roving reporters. The key change is that the enclosure is now split into three “zones”. When a Chimpanzee is in one of the zones, they cannot see into the other two zones. This simulates the wild behavior of Chimpanzee troops, which often split into sub-groups to forage during the day. When the Chimpanzees are in these sub-groups separate from the main group, they make a “pant-hoot” vocalization in order to keep each other up to date on their movements. The Zoo team is very excited that the Wellington Chimpanzees are performing this vocalization for the first time in their new home.

A view showing the new “zones” in the Chimpanzee Enclosure at Wellington Zoo. Photo: TWA / Jonny Brown

The nesting towers are another key feature of the new exhibit design is the nesting towers which have been installed on poles donated by Tranzpower and The Wellington Cable Car Company. Despite not looking anything like a tree, these platforms have been designed by Zoo staff to simulate the wild nesting behavior of Chimps. In the wild, Chimps nest at different levels on large trees. The multi-tiered platforms stand in for the crooks formed by boughs of these trees, enabling the Chimps to choose their favorite spot. Interestingly, according to Richardson, the Chimpanzees do not choose a spot based on their place in the hierarchy, but rather nest wherever they are most comfortable.

Notice the tiered arrangement of the platforms on this nesting tower. Photo: TWA / Jonny Brown

Team Leader of Primates, Harmony Wallace noted that the efforts of the Zoo team to improve the complexity of the Chimps environment have really paid off. Staff are already noticing that the behavior of the Chimps is closer to that of their wild counterparts. She also pointed out that the upgraded enclosure is an example of a move away from the zoo philosophy of old.

The development of the upgrade to the Chimp exhibit was largely a home-grown affair, with senior Zoo staff working closely with construction contractors at every stage, to ensure that the project was suited to the circumstances of the Wellington Troop in particular. The results speak for themselves.