September 2, 2003

Mollie B.

By Eric Rangus

Atlanta has had its share of great citizens. Martin Luther King Jr. was born here. Jimmy Carter was governor here. Margaret Mitchell’s house is still a major tourist attraction. And most every street or building from Andrew Young International Boulevard to Turner Field to Hartsfield International Airport honors somebody.

Of course, not all great Atlantans have been … human.

“I didn’t know Willie B. really well as an individual, but I got to study him as a graduate student in the 1980s,” said Mollie Bloomsmith, who, prior to being named head of the Environmental Enrichment Program at Yerkes in April, was director of research at Zoo Atlanta for six years.

Bloomsmith did her graduate work at Georgia Tech, where she earned both her master’s and doctoral degrees in experimental psychology, and her research took her to Zoo Atlanta to study its nonhuman primates (NHPs), including Willie B., the well-known and much-beloved gorilla who died in 2000 at the age of 41.

“He was a great guy,” Bloomsmith said. “He was incredibly regal. He was a great animal who was an inspiration to all of us who worked with him, and he had an amazing effect on the people who saw him. Willie B. was a tremendous example of how animals can really touch people, and this shows the important role individual animals play in educating the public about wider conservation issues.

“It’s a fantastic experience spending a lot of time with nonhuman primates,” Bloomsmith continued. “They are individuals. They have a temperament and a personality—features about them that are unique. It keeps us on our toes trying to manage and appreciate the differences between individual animals and figure out ways we can work best with them.”

Bloomsmith doesn’t work directly with the animals much anymore—she has four staff members for that—instead, she is in charge of overseeing and developing programs to assess and improve the care of Yerkes’ NHPs, both at the center and the Lawrenceville Field Station.

“People are taking the time and giving attention to the psychological aspects of animal care, much more so than in the past,” said Bloomsmith, who was interim director of the Yerkes enrichment program for nine months before being permanently hired. Her position carries with it an associate research professorship.

Bloomsmith earned her undergraduate degree in animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, where much of her work was theoretical and focused on animal production. The animals she studied ranged from rabbits to sheep to steers—along with a few NHPs. The NHPs were not a major part of the curriculum, but Bloomsmith found them the most interesting. It wasn’t until she entered Georgia Tech, however, that Bloomsmith was able to blend her desire to study NHPs with the issues of managing and improving their care.

“The intelligence of these animals is huge, and that’s a challenge for us because we need to find types of enrichment that aren’t too easy,” Bloomsmith said. If animals figure out a puzzle, then it no longer will be a challenge for them—they’ll be able to solve it every time.

Yerkes is constantly researching ways to improve its enrichment program. Overall, Bloomsmith said enrichment, which generally mimics the activities the animals would carry out in the wild, takes five forms, all of which were developed to improve the health and well-being of the animals:

Physical: The NHPs living area not only includes climbing structures and swings, but they are also given toys to play with and even items like cardboard boxes which they can destroy just for fun.

Feeding: As in the wild, the NHPs must work for food. Sometimes it’s relatively easy (they are given oranges to peel themselves rather than one already peeled, for example). Sometimes it’s a bit more complicated. Feeding devices may require certain skills, like pulling a lever, before the animals can feed themselves. This type of activity supplements their recommended diet of Monkey Chow.

Sensory: The NHPs are exposed to a variety of stimuli such as music, nature sounds and even television.

Social: The NHPs are not isolated, they live in colonies with their own social networks. Often within those networks are many subnetworks.

The NHPs play with computers. Some even know how to use a joystick. The programs aren’t very complicated—moving a cursor to hit a target or negotiating a maze—but they become harder as the animals’ proficiency improves. They also have access to videotapes and can even choose what they want to want to watch.

What’s their favorite TV show?

“Their favorite tape is one of other chimps eating and fighting,” Bloomsmith said. “It’s loud and there is a lot going on.”

Bloomsmith is hoping to expand the enrichment program. One thing she wants to do is emphasize positive reinforcement training—in other words, rewarding the animals for good behavior.

“If you want to look in a monkey’s mouth, if there wasn’t a training program, you might have to anesthetize them,” Bloomsmith said. “With the program, an animal can be trained to open its mouth when given a certain command, then the animal is given food or juice for doing that behavior. It reduces stress and promotes their well-being.”

Happier animals, after all, make for better research subjects, and there are fewer issues for staff members in keeping order. That means keeping the NHPs minds occupied and challenged is certainly important, but so is trying to recreate life in the wild.

Chimpanzees, physically the largest of Yerkes’ eight species of nonhuman primates, live in large communities in which males attempt to establish dominance over the rest of the community. Previously researchers would try to prevent conflict, but now—while it isn’t encouraged—conflicts are allowed, but closely watched. If things go overboard, researchers will intervene.

“It’s complicated,” said Bloomsmith. “It’s like watching a soap opera, seeing how a group’s dynamics change over time. We have to learn to tolerate natural behavior like aggression even though your first inclination might be to break it up. But we know that, for chimpanzees in particular, fighting is part of their natural behavior, and they have this tremendous ability to reconcile after fights. So we need to let them have the opportunity to go through that process of reconciliation rather than just trying to intervene every chance we have.”

Married with two children, Bloomsmith does have a life away from Yerkes. But it’s not uncommon for the NHPs to be a part of it as well. In 1995 Bloomsmith, along with several other doctors, veterinarians, primatologists and others who care for and study NHPs, founded Chimp Haven, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a home for chimpanzees who were determined to be inappropriate models for certain research or were no longer wanted as entertainers or pets.

The group has high-profile support. Frans de Waal, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Yerkes, sits on the board of directors along with Bloomsmith, and the National Institutes of Health is a funding partner.

It took some time, but in May the organization broke ground on its first facility for retired chimpanzees. Located outside Shreveport, La., the sanctuary will house 300 chimpanzees who previously would have lived out their lives (many chimps survive into their 50s) in research facilities. It should be completed by early 2005.

“We’re talking about a lot of animals who maybe didn’t have a use anymore,” Bloomsmith said. “”I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of this group.”