Emory Report
June 9, 2008
Volume 60, Number 32



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June 9, 2008
Yerkes garden caters to wild tastes


The basil is proving popular but the fennel is getting mixed reviews. Reactions to the harvests of a new educational food garden at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center really come down to individual tastes and styles of eating.

“The pigtail macaques took the marigolds, smelled them, and threw them on the ground,” says primate socialization specialist Melissa Truelove. The Indian Rhesus monkeys, however, seem to enjoy the peppery taste of the flowers. “Some of them like to eat the marigolds slowly, picking them apart, she-loves-me, she-loves-me-not fashion, while others just cram the whole thing in their mouths,” Truelove says.

Truelove is part of a 10-member team in the Yerkes Primate Behavioral Management division. They strive to enrich the physical and social environment of the nonhuman primates at the center by providing them with an array of tastes, textures and activities that simulate life in the wild. Edible treats are a big part of the program, beyond the primate biscuits, fruits and vegetables that make up the core diet.

Buying fresh herbs and flowers for treats would be prohibitively expensive, so the staff decided to grow their own, establishing the Sustainability Initiative’s seventh garden at Emory, on the floodplain behind Yerkes’ headquarters. The staff researched which

veterinarian-approved plants would thrive in the site and worked within the sustainability guidelines for organic, pesticide-free crops. They used recycled plastic barrels to create containers for the herbs and flowers and started a stand of bamboo along the fence. A rain barrel helps meet the drought’s watering restrictions.

The staff serves the treats harvested from the garden in ways that promote natural feeding behaviors. “Primates can spend up to 60 percent of their time in the wild foraging for food,” explains Jaine Perlman, enrichment coordinator at Yerkes, adding that studies show captive primates also like to “forage.”

In the wild, chimpanzees use sticks to probe the openings of termite mounds and draw the insects out for a snack. At Yerkes, the staff fills plastic tubes with salsa or other treats, then gives the chimps strips of bamboo to use as dipping tools.

Herbs from the garden are brewed into teas, then frozen into ice cubes to provide a crunchy, cooling treat. Foraging trays lined with artificial turf are embedded with grains and herbs for the primates to pick out. Capuchin monkeys are scent markers, and they like to crush fresh basil and inhale the aromas before eating the leaves, says Truelove, who enjoys putting together creative “salads” for her charges.

“I’d like to see this program really grow,” says Perlman, as she surveys the small garden. She hopes that fruiting trees, such as apple and pear, can be planted in the coming years, along with more vegetables. Currently, the behavior management staff is maintaining the garden, assisted by technical advice from Facilities Management.

The humans are benefiting along with the other primates. “It’s rewarding to be doing something for the monkeys, and also get a little quiet time working in the garden,” Truelove says.