Willy B is a thief.
Bear in mind, it’s a very minor blemish on his otherwise flawless character. And he’s certainly not the first chimpanzee in history to steal. But it is a problem.
At each meal, Willy B takes what is his and then helps himself to everyone else’s. You can get away with that when you are 175 pounds of muscle. But Honey B and Mave need to eat, too, and none of us need all that drama. While we could isolate Willy B in a separate room during meals, that could lead to pent up frustration and it would certainly be logistically challenging at times. This is where positive reinforcement training comes in.
For many years, we’ve used positive reinforcement training to encourage the chimps to cooperate with medical procedures. Those same techniques apply to husbandry challenges as well. The other day, Anthony built a moveable “target” just for Willy B. After being trained to orient towards and touch the target, Willy B is now learning to remain wherever the target is placed, a behavior known as stationing. Stationing allows us to create some distance between the chimps while they eat. At the same time, he’ll learn that he will be amply rewarded if he remains at his station the entire time and allows the girls to receive their food. Taken together, this is known as cooperative feeding. Mr. Dominant Chimp gets the special privileges he deserves and no one goes hungry. Everyone wins.
This is something I have come to love about working with chimpanzees. You can’t force them to do much of anything, so you are required to demonstrate a little patience and humility. I often visualize it as a choice between trying in vain to dam up a stream and slowly and methodically carving out a new path for the water to flow in a more favorable direction. One day I hope to put this lesson into practice in other areas of my life but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
On a side note, there may be a reason why Willy B was so quick to learn to station. On the other side of the Frisbee there is a pattern with a reflective surface in which he can catch glimpses of his own beautiful face.
Now we may need to train him to look away from his own reflection long enough to eat.