HomeScienceAs Weather Threats Loom, Even Chimps Learn to Shelter in Place

As Weather Threats Loom, Even Chimps Learn to Shelter in Place

When Michelle Reininger went to bed on Thursday, June 15, she wasn’t worried about the weather. The last time she checked, the forecast had called for scattered showers. But in the middle of the night, an emergency alert blared on her phone: a severe thunderstorm warning. Winds were expected to reach 80 miles per hour. People should take cover in their homes. “I thought, Is this a joke?” she recalled.
Ten minutes later, she lost power as the storm tore through.
By 5 a.m., the worst had passed. Ms. Reininger dressed quickly in the dark. She needed to go check on her charges: the more than 300 residents of Chimp Haven, the chimpanzee sanctuary nearby, where she served as the colony director.
As soon as she left her home, the storm’s toll became clear to her. “Everywhere I went, there was a tree across the road or power lines down,” Ms. Reininger said. She and her colleagues, who were also making their way to work, soon discovered that a tree was blocking the main road to the sanctuary.
The group gathered at a nearby convenience store. As they formulated a plan, Ms. Reininger received a text message from the maintenance supervisor, who had found an alternate route into Chimp Haven. Trees were down not only on local roads, the supervisor said, but a large pine tree had also fallen in one of the chimpanzee habitats. The upper branches were resting atop the 18-foot wall surrounding the enclosure, creating a ramp that the chimps could use to escape.
For their own safety, and the safety of others, the chimpanzees needed to be secured inside immediately. “It had to be done now,” Ms. Reininger said. “There was no time.”

Safe and sound
Chimp Haven is a retirement home for research chimpanzees, including many owned or supported by the National Institutes of Health. Before arriving in Keithville, La., many were used in research on H.I.V. or hepatitis; others were involved in studies that focused on cognition or behavior. The sanctuary, which sits on 200 forested acres, aims to provide the chimps with a tranquil place to live out their days.

But extreme weather poses an increasing threat to that peace. “It’s been so weird the last few years,” Ms. Reininger said. “The weather just — it’ll come at you.”

In recent years the area has been hit by torrential rains and hurricane-force winds. Tornadoes have spun through with disconcerting frequency; in December, two people died after one touched down in Keithville. And the danger is expected to grow as climate change supercharges storms, making hurricanes more intense and heavy downpours more frequent. Droughts, floods, wildfires and heat waves are all increasing threats.

So Chimp Haven is now running extreme-weather practice drills to teach the chimps to take shelter inside, quickly, when employees sound the alarm. Being able to recall the chimps on command will help the sanctuary to secure the chimps inside before a storm hits, keeping them safe — and keeping them from escaping, if new opportunities suddenly appear.
During one recent winter storm, for instance, the moats that serve as natural barriers began to freeze. “We could have an escape situation if chimps walked over,” said Rana Smith, the president and chief executive of Chimp Haven. “Or the ice breaks and they fall into the water, which would be an unfortunate situation.”
The sanctuary has 30 social groups each living in its own designated space, and some emergencies might require only some groups to be secured indoors. So Chimp Haven has assigned a unique auditory cue to each group being trained. “Which has led to us searching far and wide on Amazon for a lot of different types of sounds,” said Jordan Garbarino, the training program supervisor. A ringing cowbell means that Flora’s group needs to hustle inside, for example, while a blaring bicycle alarm means the chimps in Daisy’s group should take shelter.
Trainers begin by desensitizing the chimps to the sound, doling out bananas, Cheerios or other treats as it plays. Then, they move the snacks inside. Chimps who come indoors when they hear the alarm will find “forage” — a snack mix containing popcorn, peanuts and sunflower seeds — and receive another special treat, such as a Popsicle. Once the animals are reliably coming inside on cue, employees begin closing and locking the doors. Then, they train the chimps to complete the process faster and faster.
Five groups, which include a total of 65 chimps, are currently in different stages of training. The 19 members of Flora’s group were the first to become fully trained, but they still regularly practice the recall to keep their skills sharp.
During a routine drill a few days before the June thunderstorm, the chimps showed what they could do. Clara Loesche, an animal care specialist, climbed onto the roof of a low-slung, concrete building. From this rooftop perch, the five-acre, tree-filled habitat that Flora’s group called home looked nearly empty.
Then, Ms. Loesche began ringing the cowbell. Suddenly, chimps emerged from the woods, gamboling across the grassy lawn and clambering into the adjoining buildings. Ms. Loesche descended the stairs, looked at her watch, and brought a walkie-talkie to her mouth. “10 seconds until doors close,” she said. Precisely 10 seconds later, she slid a big metal bolt shut.
“That’s wonderful!” she exclaimed, in a singsong voice. Less than two minutes had passed since she had begun ringing the bell, and 18 of the 19 chimps were secured. The only holdout was the eponymous Flora, a timid 41-year-old who had been slow to take to the training. She had been performing well in recent months, Ms. Loesche said, but today she had dawdled by the door, hesitant to step inside.

Cheeky chimps
If the weather can be unpredictable, so can the chimpanzees. Like their human cousins, chimps are intelligent and idiosyncratic, and the recall training requires juggling many personalities, preferences and needs.
Sometimes this means accommodating dietary quirks — the vegetable-loving Betsy turns up her nose at some fruit rewards — and keeping tabs on shifting preferences. “Like, ‘Who likes blue juice today? Who likes grape juice?’” said Rebekah Lewis, Chimp Haven’s director of behavior. “I have three children, so for me it’s very similar.”
Some of the chimps are more food-motivated than others. A few have been known to try taking shelter in two buildings, running into one and then back outside and into another, in order to receive two treats. Others are more difficult to entice. Arden, a particularly outdoorsy adolescent who is starting to assert her independence, sometimes declines to come inside. “They all understand what we’re asking, but they don’t necessarily choose to come in every time,” Ms. Loesche said.
Some chimps require an individualized training approach. Thirty-five-year-old Sheena is deaf and cannot hear auditory cues, so trainers are teaching her to come inside when they display a bright orange Frisbee. But a visual cue doesn’t travel the way that sound does. So before they can recall Sheena, who lives in a sprawling outdoor habitat, employees have to find her.
“And she could be anywhere,” Mrs. Garbarino said. “One day we had to drive down to the moat, and she was really at kind of the furthest point.” But as soon as they flashed the Frisbee, she high-tailed it back to the bedrooms. “I could have wept,” Mrs. Garbarino recalled.
Employees must also keep tabs on the animals’ complex and ever-evolving social dynamics. Sometimes they can harness these relationships, deploying a cooperative chimp to encourage a more reluctant friend. “Sometimes we’ll send out another chimp to go get that chimp to come in, like, ‘No, no, no, you’re making unwise decisions, let’s go inside,’” Ms. Reininger said.