When I read of Tommy’s wretched plight last week, my blood boiled. How could anyone lock up a chimpanzee — that most intelligent and curious of creatures — and allow him to waste away with misery and loneliness?
Sadly, Tommy’s story is not unique.
Apes share all the characteristics and emotions that we think of as human. They do experience deep sadness, for example when they are grieving or lonely, or when they have suffered the death of a parent or their young. It can be heart-breaking to witness.
They can also show great joy. I have witnessed their sheer happiness after the birth of a baby, as they gather to inspect and admire it.
And I have seen them angry, sulking, mischievous, bored, absorbed, determined, affectionate, passionate, cheerful, relaxed, thoughtful and jealous — moods that they clearly communicate without any need for words.
The chimps could immediately point to where the numbers had been, in the correct numerical order. They easily beat the humans.
And just like people, not all chimpanzees are the same. Some are quick-witted, some are plodders; some nimble with their fingers, using tools to crack nuts or fish termites out of a rotten tree, while others are clumsy.
They can even learn sign language. A chimp called Nim at Columbia University learned 125 words using sign cards, and was able to put together short sentences such as ‘Tickle me Nim play,’ ‘Banana me eat’ and ‘Hug me Nim’.
Chimps are thought to be our closest animal relatives: our ancestors and theirs diverged between four and six million years ago. Between homo sapiens and pan troglodytes — the scientific term for chimpanzees — there is just a 1.23 per cent difference in DNA.
Humans and chimps have obvious similarities, such as expressive faces and opposable thumbs. But the connections go far deeper, as they share so much behaviour once regarded as purely human.
Chimps can make and use tools such as hammers and spears. They co-operate to solve problems such as driving predators away from their camps, they pour great effort into educating their young, and use clever tactics to hunt in packs.
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By DAMIAN ASPINALL