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.

"They are not kept in captive populations to amuse people," said Hubing. "They are here because their habitat is critically endangered and we hope to promote their conservation."

The magazines and cardboard boxes strewn about their living quarters help keep the primates' natural instincts alive, said Hubing. Zookeepers hide food in these items, requiring the animals to forage for their meals as they would in the wild.

When the first grade students visited the zoo to make their delivery, zookeepers helped them hide fruits and nuts among the magazines and boxes in the orangutan exhibit.

"We saw one orangutan look at a magazine briefly," said Schlimgen. "It opened it right side up and flipped through a few pages; it then rolled it up and threw it on the ground."

Perhaps those pages were full of boring text, not pictures—or food.

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