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Biology, aggression, and violence at the Los Angeles Zoo

Today, a baby chimpanzee was killed by an adult male chimpanzee inside their exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo, as zoo visitors watched.

It was good that the incident happened in front of human witnesses. Common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), which, along with Bonobos (Pan paniscus), are the nearest living relatives of human beings, both of which share about 99% of their DNA sequence with humans, even though humans do not LOOK like them and (often :-) ) do not ACT like them – at least, not that we care to acknowledge. :-)

The acknowledgment is usually the “trick.” :-) A lot of times, we humans (especially in places like Sacramento or Washington, D.C.) would rather irrationally demonize inanimate objects than admit to the aggression and violence that is inherent in human beings.

Zoo spokesman Jason Jacobs said visitors reported seeing the adult attack the 3-month-old infant but workers could not stop the attack because it is not safe for them to occupy the same space as the chimpanzees.

The baby’s mother, a chimp named Gracie who gave birth March 6, “had proved to be a caring mother,” the zoo said in a statement.

“Gracie is being allowed to keep the infant overnight to allow her the opportunity to grieve,” Jacobs said.

The infant female chimpanzee was introduced to the troop, one of the largest in a North American zoo, gradually, and there had been no sign of aggressive behavior toward her. Jacobs noted, however, that chimpanzees can sometimes show surprising aggression.

Humans, too! :-)

“Chimpanzee behavior can sometimes be aggressive and violent, and the zoo is sorry that visitors had to be exposed to this,” Jacobs said. “This is a heartbreaking and tragic loss for the zoo and especially for the Great Ape Team who have worked diligently to care for the infant and its mother since its birth.”

Recent studies and observations have shown that male chimpanzees often attack the small children of rivals, both in the wild and in captivity, especially if a desired female is involved. The relationship of the two chimps in Tuesday’s attack is unclear.

Back in June of 2010, I wrote about a story reported in the L.A. Times online, and also in the scientific journal, Current Biology. The research showed that, in the wild, the killings of chimpanzees by their neighboring troop led to territorial expansion by the “victors.”

In contrast to the folks at the zoo, I am really glad that ADULT visitors (children really should not see such things, IMHO) witnessed the infanticide today. In the wild, such infanticide can be accompanied by the cannibalization of the baby chimpanzee. What biology teaches us about ourselves is not always pretty, but I believe it to be preferable to the comfortable, elaborate delusions in which many humans wrap themselves.

-Bill at

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