“Savuti is coming out of quarantine and will be in his habitat for the first time Wednesday and Thursday,” Tami, a primate keeper said to me. “I need a volunteer observer for Thursday,” she went on, “just to watch and report back what he is doing and if it seems to be going okay, can you do it?”
Many scientists, anthropologists and biologists believe there are 5 great apes; gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans. In Texas there are four. Try to guess which one is missing in Texas and why. (Yeah, yeah, I’m messing with Texas.) There are also two lesser apes, gibbons and siamangs. They’re called great apes and lesser apes because the great apes are bigger and much more intelligent than the lesser apes. Still, I wish there was a different name for the lesser apes; like maybe “Smaller Apes” because while they may not be as intelligent as the Greats, they are very intelligent and in my humble opinion, not “less than” apes.
Humans and gorillas share 98.4% exactly the same DNA and with chimpanzees it’s right around 99%. The tiny difference in the apes DNA is significant because gorillas are extremely gentle and not at all aggressive where as chimps can and will be very aggressive; like humans. So we aren’t gorillas or chimpanzees and they aren’t human but we are very closely related.
The word “primate” refers to all monkeys and apes and if you want to know whether you are looking at a monkey or an ape just look to see if the dazzling creature has a tail. Monkeys have tails and apes do not. Some monkeys, like mandrills, have very short tails that almost look like a knob instead of a tail and even if you know the tail/no tail thing you could easily mistake a mandrill monkey for an ape because of that.
Mandrills are the planet’s largest monkeys with males weighing up to 70 pounds. People mistake them for baboons and while they are in the same family, they are much more colorful in the face and rump and are not baboons. At the Dallas zoo we have two adult female mandrills and an unbelievably energetic little baby boy named Obi who is so adorable it’s hard to fathom.
The only bad part about this charming scene is that Obi’s dad died of cancer about a month after he was born. The primate keepers knew he needed a male role model so he could properly learn to be a male mandrill so they reached out to zoos around the country, which is normal operating procedure for zoos nationally and internationally, to try and find a male to come live with us in Dallas, and they found Savuti.
Savuti is a very old mandrill at 22 years old; their life expectancy is around 25. When we get new animals at the zoo, they have to be quarantined for 30 days for medical testing and to get to know their new keeper/trainers.
“I’d love to observe the Mandrills for you, Tami.” I said, “I’ll be here. Will he be in the habitat with Obi and the females?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “he’s coming out of quarantine on Wednesday morning and we want him to be alone to get to know the habitat for a couple days without the added stress of being introduced to his new family. So Obi and the females will stay inside their bedrooms for a couple days while he adjusts.”
“Makes sense.” I said. “Gosh, Savuti has been inside for 30 days, he’ll probably be ecstatic to be outside.”
“Yes,” Tami said, “I’m sure he will!” She just didn’t know how ecstatic.
I arrived on Thursday morning to see Tami and another keeper in front of the mandrill habitat looking worried. As I approached, Tami called out, “You have any monkey shifting mojo? If so, we need it!”
All the primates have inside bedrooms where they sleep at night to protect them from the elements. Shifting means getting the animals to move from their bedrooms out into their habitat and back into their bedrooms again. The Dallas zoo is a positive reinforcement zoo so if the animals do what the keepers want them to do they are rewarded with treats. If the animals don’t do what the keepers want them to do, nothing happens.
“Whad’ya mean?” I responded.
“Oh my gosh,” she said, “We have tried everything and we cannot get Savuti to leave that rock! We let him out yesterday morning and he went right to that rock and hasn’t budged since. He’s so happy to be outside he hasn’t eaten or moved for 24 hours! He was out all night in the freezing temperatures!!”
Tami has been caring for Savuti for the 30 days he’s been in quarantine and she loves him. I know he loves her, too, because when he heard her voice, he looked up from his rock and made eye contact with her and grimaced which is a mandrill’s way of smiling and showing affection. Then when she walked away, he masturbated. When I later told Tami, she was flattered. Zoo people are passionate about animals and a curious crowd.