Photo: Project Chimps

#ChimpChat: Chimpanzee Group Formation with Mike Seres

Director of Chimpanzee Management, Mike Seres began working with chimps in 1973, when he worked at the Budapest Zoo in Hungary. Mike has worked for 44 years with, and for, chimps in 12 different countries. Mike’s specialty is chimpanzee introductions and group formation. At Project Chimps, Mike will work one on one with each chimp to form larger, multi-sex social groups.

When the chimps are retired from the lab, they arrive at the sanctuary in same sex groups. The chimps are kept in same sex groups to prevent breeding at the lab. Though we won’t be breeding at the sanctuary, we want to provide a life as naturalistic as possible, which includes mixed sex, multigenerational groups. However, it’s not a simple task to form social groups of chimpanzees.

This is where Mike comes in. His years of experience working with chimpanzees in captivity have led him to become one of the world’s leading experts on chimpanzee introduction and group formation, and we’re lucky to call him a member of the Project Chimps team. Mike’s philosophy on chimp introductions is “nothing is impossible”. He says that all you need is consistency, patience, and understanding of chimpanzees. “Chimpanzee group formation can be done in many ways. There is no exact recipe or blue print, however, if one cares about the chimpanzees’ welfare and safety, there are several methods that can be employed to form a social group safely and successfully,” Mike explains.

Mike’s method of introducing chimps to each other is rather simple. Two chimpanzees are initially brought together in what is called a “howdy cage”. A howdy cage is made up of two adjacent cages or enclosures divided by a wall, mesh, bars or windows. This set up allows the chimps to see each other and have some physical contact without allowing full access to each other. If the howdy goes well, then the chimps are let together in a safe cage under supervision. There may be many howdy sessions before two chimps are ever let into the same space. As you can imagine, this process can take a long time.

Even though the process sounds simple, it is much more complicated beneath the surface. “Most of [the chimpanzees coming to Project Chimps], though they may have seen each other and some may have even lived together in the past, they are still strangers to each other. They might have different levels of skill in communicating with each other. Some may be fragile and some can be easily aggressive once provoked by another individual, even when placed in two separate, adjacent cages,” Mike explains. This is why patience and compassion are so key in introducing two stranger chimps to each other.

When asked why he has dedicated his life to working on behalf of chimps, Mike said: “Once you’re allowed or are lucky enough to get close to chimps, or you have the joy of working with them everyday, it is hard to even think about doing something else. It is simply addictive to experience and see.” He continues, “Chimpanzees are hanging on the roots of the tree from which we continue bloom today, and reaching into utopian heights. How could I give up learning about the roots of my and our behavior, how could I not be inspired?”

“If you talk with the animals they will talk with you and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them, you will not know them and what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears, one destroys.”
Chief Dan George (1899-1981)

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