If you're like most well-adjusted people, you probably spend most of your time daydreaming about how great it would be to have a chimpanzee.
Just imagine! He could bring you breakfast in bed. You could get him little tweed suit and a bowler hat. The two of you could ride around your neighborhood on a tandem bicycle, maybe stopping for ice cream. He could teach you how to catch termites with a plant stem, and you could show him how to leave comments on online news articles. And, at the end of the day, he could check you for ticks. Pet chimps are probably very good at that.
As wonderful as it sounds, it turns out that separating a young chimp from its mother and raising it apart from members of its own species often ends up messing up the chimp. That's what a team of scientists found after a yearlong study of 60 chimpanzees, 36 of whom were raised as pets or performers.
In a study published Tuesday in the open-access journal PeerJ, researchers found that chimpanzees who had been raised primarily around humans with limited exposure to fellow chimps tended to have trouble getting along with their peers later in life. Specifically, they didn't groom as often, an all-important social activity for chimps, and they tended to have less sex.
"Chimpanzees are incredibly intelligent and sensitive animals," said Steve Ross, lead author of the study and director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo, in a news release. "Denying them access to members of their own species, during the critical infanthood period, results in behavioral outcomes that last a lifetime."
In the wild chimps, typically stay with their families for at least eight years. But chimps that are sold as pets or employed as actors are usually taken from their mothers when they are just a few days old. When the chimps reach adolescence, usually between age 6 and 8, they often become too strong and aggressive to interact with humans. If they are fortunate, they will be taken in by an accredited zoo or sanctuary where they can live with other chimps.
But for the rest of their lives – a captive chimp can live six decades or more – these animals seem to carry the imprint of their chimp-free childhoods.
"One of the startling aspects of these findings is that these behavioral effects are so long-lasting," said Dr. Ross. "Chimpanzees which have found new homes in accredited zoos and good sanctuaries continue to demonstrate behavioral patterns that differentiate themselves from more appropriately-reared individuals. As a result, the process of integrating them with other chimpanzees can be challenging, stressful and even dangerous at times."
Just something to consider if you're in the market for a chimp, either to keep as an exotic pet or to appear in your movie, TV show, or commercial. Long after your chimp's brief career as source of amusement has ended, he or she is likely to face years or even decades of social isolation.
"Even with the best possible care as adults," said Ross, "they often can't fit in with the other chimpanzees."