Family is the centerpiece of chimp life—and in this family, hierarchy is the law of the land.
The chimpanzee is the closest relative to humans, sharing more than 98 percent of the same DNA. Most of the BioPark's chimps are rescues from a laboratory in Alamogordo. Although they have been through a lot, the group is now a healthy clan.
Alf rules the roost among the ABQ BioPark Zoo's 10 chimpanzees. He's the alpha male of this chimp tribe—whether he wants the job or not.
"While Alf wants to reap all the benefits of being the alpha male, he's a little lackluster about dealing with problems and issues that arise within the group," said Greg Browder, senior zookeeper. "But it doesn't take much observation to notice how much he cares about the other members of the group."
Every king needs a queen, and this group's queen is Elaine, mother of females Leia and Kianga, and male twins Dezi and Rio. Elaine arrived at the BioPark in 2002 with her daughter Leia, and she stays in charge by using a little intimidation mixed with excellent problem solving skills.
Visitors often are amazed at Elaine's fantastic parental skills—not only does she dote on her offspring, but she also prepares them for their future adult lives.
"Chimps care for their young in ways that are surprising to people," Browder said. "I think Elaine cares for her babies better than some humans care for their children."
For instance, when Dezi and Rio were newborns, she helped them strengthen their limbs. The babies would hang on Elaine's stomach as she walked around, and she'd let them hang independently—when they got tired she would expertly catch them before they fell to the ground. She also helps her male children exercise their growing independence.
Elaine also lets lower ranking females get important parenting experience by allowing them to take part in the care of her twins.
Elaine and Alf sit at the top of the BioPark's chimp hierarchy, and their children receive preferential treatment too.
While folks may feel sad for the chimps at the bottom of the chain of command, Browder says that maintaining a healthy, stable hierarchy is very important to chimp societies.
Chimpanzee society is a tightly woven fabric—no matter their place in the hierarchy, each chimp has a role and bonding is important. One way they bond is by grooming each other.
"Grooming is the chimp hug—it's like getting a manicure from your best friend," Browder said. "When you get groomed, you're in."
Our Actions Matter
The main threat to wild chimps is habitat loss due to deforestation and human encroachment. You can support the Jane Goodall Institute, which works with local communities to improve health, education and income generation—these are the first steps in protecting wild chimpanzee habitat.
Images from the ABQ BioPark's Chimpanzees.