Zoo Primates Go Bananas over National Geographic

John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 13, 2002

National Geographic may have just acquired a new fan base; but is it the pictures, or the cool covers? The chimpanzees at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin, recently received six boxes of back issues from a group of local schoolchildren, and the publications appear to be a big hit.

The magazines are scattered about their living quarters to simulate the big leafy plants found in their native habitat, said Jim Hubing, director of the zoo. But the chimps sometimes flip through the glossy pages, and react to certain pictures.

"When a chimp opens up a magazine, there may be a picture that may catch the eye," he said. "There are many beautiful pictures in National Geographic."

This type of behavior is not unusual for chimpanzees, explains Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. A photograph taken in 1925 shows Prince Chim, a bonobo being studied by non-human primate research pioneer Robert Yerkes, flipping through the pages of a book.

"Of course, they don't read," said de Waal. "They look at the images. They are very good at recognizing two-dimensional representations. They can learn to relate the 2-D images to the real objects around them."

Zoo Donation Makes Headline

The magazine-reading primates achieved notoriety in Madison when a class of first graders at Edgewood Campus School held a fundraiser for the Henry Vilas Zoo, which operates purely on donations.

"We were told a number of things they needed: blankets, towels, paper bags with handles, and, yes, the National Geographic magazines," said Susan Schlimgen, the students' teacher. "We were told that the chimps like to look at them."

The magazine request sparked the children's imaginations, leading them to propose numerous theories to explain the chimpanzees' interest. Suggestions included finding pictures of animal friends they had in the wild, the "cool" covers, the desire to imitate people they see reading them, and the possibility that the magazines make for interesting nests.

The first graders' two wagon-loads of donations, which included the six boxes of National Geographic in addition to the other requested items by the zoo, triggered a story in the local newspaper, the Capital Times, describing the primates' affection for the magazine.

Hubing and his colleagues at the zoo are trying to downplay the significance of the behavior, lest throngs of visitors come to the zoo expecting to see a chimpanzee read.

Continued on Next Page >>


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