“Oh, here’s someone you can ask, honey,” a woman at the zoo said to her kid. He looked away shyly.
“She’s a volunteer here, honey, she is here to answer questions”. The boy flushed. I stopped talking about the gorillas and smiled gently at him. He still wouldn’t say a word.
“Do the chimpanzee’s have a toy squirrel that they play with and throw around?” the woman finally asked me.
“No,” I said, “at the Dallas zoo you will never find anything unnatural in the habitats, no toys, blankets or anything like that. The apes play with hay, sticks, rocks and stuff like that.”
“Well then, the one they are flinging around up there must be real,” she looked a little queasy.
“What?” I almost shrieked. “They are throwing around a squirrel? Is it alive?”
“I don’t think it is anymore,” she replied.
“What time is it?” I said as I turned in the direction of the chimpanzees, “there is a keeper talk up there at 11:30 and zoo guest probably won’t want to witness that!”
“It’s 11:30,” she said. I started to run as fast as I could which isn’t very fast because I have weird hips and my foot hurts today.
I got to the chimps just as one of my favorite great ape keepers Will was starting his presentation in front of the glass viewing windows. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Will, can I have a quick word with you?” I asked. He stepped over and I whispered in his ear. He started laughing which was a relief to me because I didn’t know if there was a concern of health issues spreading from a dead squirrel to a chimp.
“Well,” Will announced to the crowd with a grin, “this could be an interesting keeper talk as I have just been informed the chimps may be playing with a dead squirrel!”
Will then went on to point to the different chimps sharing their names and ages. We have a baby chimp named Mashindi whom the zoo guests love to see and Will was a little frustrated that he couldn’t spot him. Suddenly I saw him. “There’s Mashindi, Will!” I said with a smile.
Will and I then looked at each other horrified. Mashindi was rushing right toward the glass and the crowd with a dead squirrel dangling from his mouth who was about half the size he is. There were gasps from the zoo guests. As he arrived in front of the glass, his 6 year old brother Kona grabbed the squirrel out of his mouth and flung it about 10 feet straight up into the air. It landed with a splat.
During the keeper talk there are large metal doors that open to a very heavy mesh fencing and the keepers interact with the animals through that mesh. Will asked another keeper to go get some medical gloves and some fig newtons. Chimps are highly intelligent, highly food motivated and they love fig newtons and rarely get them. They also understand the concept of “trading”. Kona is probably one of the most intelligent chimps in there.
Will put on the gloves and then showed Kona the fig newton which he immediately reached for. Will pulled it back and said, “Trade for the toy.” Kona clapped his hands. “No, Kona, trade for the toy.” Kona opened his mouth so Will could see his teeth. Kona was trying any behavior that might be rewarded. “Trade for the toy, Kona.” And suddenly he understood. He went over and got the dead squirrel and then he and Will together negotiated how to squish the squirrel through the mesh. I couldn’t watch that part. Then the crowd cheered so I opened my eyes just in time to see Kona delight in his treat.