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
“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.
Occupational: 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
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
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
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
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.”