Apes copied humans fighting at a Beijing zoo

OPINION: The story is that a group of visitors to a zoo in Beijing, China – the Beijing Wildlife Park – started to physically fight, including women as you can see in the infographic below. It was over a triviality but what is not trivial is that the gorillas in an enclosure nearby began to copy/imitate them. The administrators of the park made a statement saying that this was the first time that their captive animals had seen humans fighting and that it made such an impression on them that they started to fight themselves during the following night.

Apes copy (imitate) human actions
Apes copy (imitate) human actions and vice versa. The photo of humans fighting is from Twitter. The infographic is by MikeB.

The administrators claimed that the human visitors had set a bad example. It got so bad for the animals that their fighting was at one stage ‘out of control’. And they also reported that the zookeepers stepped in and told the animals that “fighting is bad, really bad!” I wonder if they understood this admonishment.

Is this possible? Do apes copy human behavior at zoos?

My curiosity at this statement and what apparently was a strange and unique event in China, led me to do some research to check whether it really is true that animals, specifically apes I suspect, do copy or imitate human behaviour. It actually happens both ways because humans copy ape behaviour for fun.

And if you go to a zoo, you might try it out. A study has confirmed that imitating others is part of primate behaviour. Non-human primates such as chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans appear to enjoy it.

Although it appears to be fairly limited and apes are less good at copying humans than humans are at copying apes but the behaviour is very apparent. The research has been published in the journal Primates.

They studied five chimpanzees out Furuvik Zoo, Sweden. About 10,000 human visitors stopped at the chimpanzee enclosure. They noticed that on 1,579 occasions a chimpanzee’s actions were directed at a human and on 2,211 occasions a human’s action was directed at a chimpanzee. They concluded that about 10% of the actions of either human or chimpanzee were imitations i.e. copying the other species.

They also found that both species, human and ape, tended to copy the same sort of actions such as knocking on the enclosure window, clapping hands or kissing. This indicated that the chimpanzees were not learning about these actions from humans but sharing them, and it would seem to me that they were having fun.

I would perhaps go as father say that the reason why they imitated human actions is simply for the fun of it and vice versa. Interactions between chimpanzee and human that included imitations were longer than those that didn’t include imitations.

The scientists suggested that imitations are a good way of maintaining social interactions. And on occasions there was a back-and-forth imitation game going on. This was playful behaviour both from chimpanzee and human.

It also indicates that the chimpanzees realised they were being imitated and enjoy it and wished to reciprocate.

Although scientists have agreed that imitation is a key mechanism for social learning, it would appear, as mentioned, that this study showed that chimpanzees like to have fun through imitation.

To return to the Beijing Wildlife Park incident, is difficult to suggest that the gorillas were having fun imitating humans fighting. But perhaps they were. It may be the case – and we are not given the full story – that they were play-fighting.

They may have been entertaining themselves by roughhouse playing. If that was the case then the zookeepers were mistaken in reprimanding them. Perhaps they were simply entertaining themselves because they were bored being trapped in their enclosure all their lives.

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