by Whit Gibbons

January 29, 2006

Zoos are important places for observing the behavior and ecology of animals. But sometimes the visitors make more of a spectacle of themselves than do the animals on display. Consider a long-ago incident when I was a student at Michigan State University.

Our favorite animal at the Lansing Zoo was a full-grown chimpanzee that lived in an old-fashioned jail-cell cage. The bars were wide enough apart that you could stick your arm through them. Likewise, the chimp could reach his long arms out of his cage. This chimp was especially talented; his star performance was smoking a cigarette. Other captive chimps have been taught to smoke, drink coffee, and take up other human vices, but the Lansing chimp was a first-class act.

When offered a lit cigarette, this educated ape would reach out and gently take it from the person’s hand. He would then retire to a bench on the far side of the cage, assume a relaxed, lounging pose, and languidly puff away, occasionally giving a big grin to his audience. He used the empty half of an orange peel as an ashtray, holding it in one hand and tapping the cigarette on the edge. He could blow the most impressive smoke rings within smoke rings I have ever seen, occasionally turning toward his audience to make sure he was being appreciated. Once someone gave him a book of matches and an unlit cigarette. None of us were surprised when he lit up.

But the most bizarre incident I have ever seen in a zoo happened while a dozen of us were standing around enjoying the chimp’s smoking act--blowing smoke out his mouth and inhaling it through his nose, and curling his lip so the lit cigarette was completely inside his mouth. Most of us smoked back then and could do these tricks ourselves to some degree, but his act humbled us. And you better believe no one was lighting up during this performance. The similarities between humans and chimpanzees seemed far greater than the documented 97% genetic overlap.

As we watched in fascination, a moron standing beside me wearing a white dress shirt (the only kind to wear in the 60s) and tie did something to confirm that some humans are less intelligent than apes. The man held out a lit cigarette to the chimp. When the chimp reached to get the smoke, the man intentionally flipped the cigarette around and jabbed the burning end onto the chimp’s palm. Then the Idiot (the human, not the ape) began laughing while the chimp took the intelligent step of sticking his burnt hand in his water bowl.

I experienced renewed faith in the human race when I looked around and saw everyone appalled at what Stupid had done and presumably thinking, “Why on earth did you do that, you cretin?" But none of us had a chance to voice our outrage.

Before anyone could speak, the chimp jumped up from his water bowl, reached out his disproportionately long arm to where Mister Laughing Hyena was standing, grabbed his tie at the knot, and body slammed him into the bars. The man was understandably terrified. The rest of us simply stood there in shocked silence. Presumably someone would eventually have grabbed the man and tried to pull him back, but his petty act of cruelty did not inspire an instinctive rescue attempt by the crowd.

Then, almost as fast as the chimp had pulled the man flat against the cage bars, he pushed him backward with his other arm and simultaneously let go of the tie. The man stumbled across the primate house and fell to the floor in front of the gibbons (the caged ones), who looked down curiously. The chimp began jumping up and down and cackling like, well, like a chimpanzee, all the time pointing at Mr. Disgraced-in-the-Ape-House, who quickly got up and left. The remaining humans stood in awed amazement, while the caged gibbons held onto the bars and slowly turned their heads to watch the shamed primate retreat. The chimp rolled on the floor, laughing hysterically.

Yes, zoos are a good place to observe animals--of every ilk.

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