Our Primate Family: Life with the Sydney chimpanzees of Taronga Zoo

The Daily Telegraph: 27 June 2015: Neil Keene

VETERAN zookeeper Lou Grossfeldt looks across Taronga Zoo’s chimpanzee exhibit and sees more than a community of primates, capering and cavorting with abandon.

She sees friends she has known longer than many of her human pals.

She sees colleagues who have been instrumental in her becoming one of Australia’s leading authorities on primate conservation and husbandry.
But most of all she sees a reflection of human society, its social networking and corporate climbing, the joys and pains of relationships, a parent’s devotion to duty.

“You only need to spend half an hour in front of the chimps to see an exact replication of human behaviours,” the 44-year-old says, sitting at a lunch table outside Taronga’s primate section headquarters, just uphill from the chimp enclosure.

“I often compare a chimp group with a schoolyard of teenagers. It’s all about who’s friends with who, who wants to go out with who, who isn’t talking to you today.”

No-one else is more intimately familiar with this group of great apes than Grossfeldt. After more than 20 years studying and caring for them, she can identify each of the zoo’s current 19 chimps with barely a glance.

And as she steps into their field of vision, it is clear they know her too, tracking her movement and reacting to her greeting in a way they never would to an everyday zoo visitor.

Grossfeldt has travelled the world studying primates, from orang-utans in Borneo to lemurs in Madagascar, and of course the great apes of the African mainland.

She has lectured worldwide on the issue of primate husbandry, teaches teams about conservation in areas where they are most under threat, and serves as vice-president of Borneo Orang-utan Survival Australia.

Little wonder, then, that the world’s most celebrated chimpanzee researcher, Dr Jane Goodall, honoured Grossfeldt by writing the foreword in Grossfeldt’s new book, officially launched yesterday.

Our Primate Family – Stories of Conservation and Kin catalogues Grossfeldt’s career and travels, her encounters with primates in the wild and in captivity.

It introduces readers to some of the characters – human and ape – throughout that journey.

And what a journey it is, for a woman with no formal science background, whose ambitions to become a zookeeper blossomed not from a love of primates but because of an early fascination with rhinos.

“We used to come to the zoo a lot when I was growing up in Western Sydney and I remember telling my mum and dad that I wanted to work here,” Grossfeldt says.

“I was always interested in the large megafauna (elephants, rhinos, etc) and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Grossfeldt finished school and undertook a teaching degree at the Australian Catholic University, “but animals were always my passion”.

So she turned to Taronga, starting out as many zookeepers do: by volunteering for a couple of years, then landing a paid job filling in wherever needed.

A stint on the primates section during that period swiftly confirmed her true calling.

“There was this young chimp that captured my heart and my imagination with the way he was interacting with a friend,” she says.

“They were not related at all but obviously they had a connection. It was so interesting to see them display this scope and depth of emotion and compassion.”

“They are such dynamic, exciting, interesting animals. You never know what you’re going to get with them, which I think is one of the most amazing things about working with any primates.”

Some evoke within Grossfeldt emotions most people would reserve only for their closest friends or family.

And one chimp in particular, Lubutu, the Taronga community’s alpha male, has clearly captured her heart.

It’s a fact her workmates are quick to point out and joke about, but behind the humour is a very real bond between human and animal.

Lubutu was born at the zoo in 1993, shortly after Grossfeldt started working there. The pair’s lives have been intertwined ever since.

“Because we have shared so many years together there is this kind of acknowledgement between us,” Grossfeldt says.

“He’s well-liked in the chimp community and I admire his ability to maintain that role as alpha male.

“Often, alpha males are overthrown quite quickly in a wild group, either by brute force or different strategies.”

“Each of the male chimps has tried to take him out of that top role, but he has managed to maintain his position thanks to a really high level of dedication and strategy.”

But the Taronga chimp community’s success is not solely thanks to Lubutu.

Strategies put in place by zookeepers to care for and enrich the animals and to encourage their natural behaviours are recognized internationally as setting the example for other zoos to follow.

Taronga director Cameron Kerr says Grossfeldt’s expansive time in the field, often in a voluntary capacity, has helped bolster the knowledge required to keep the zoo’s primate care at the cutting edge.

“Besides leading the team that cares for the internationally-renowned chimpanzee and gorilla programs at Taronga, she spends much of her personal time working with primates in the field including orang-utans in Borneo and with Taronga’s partner, the Jane Goodall Foundation’s Tchimpounga Sanctuary in the Congo,” he says.

“Her commitment, knowledge and skill place her at the forefront of global efforts to create a sustainable future for wildlife and people.”

Grossfeldt’s fieldwork has also given her a better understanding of conservation issues, and the need to convey them to the 1.5million people who visit the zoo each year.

“The more time you spend on the ground in places like Indonesia or Africa, the better your grasp on some of the difficulties and challenges faced by not only the animals there, but the people as well,” Grossfeldt says.

“It puts you in a more empathetic situation.”

“There is a scale – zoos act really well in a support role, enabling people to develop a better understanding of their natural world and acting as an insurance policy for the future of some species.”

“Then you have sanctuaries, where animals have come in after suffering perhaps a dramatic trauma, and then you’ve got your conservation work, where you are preserving something already there.”

“These are all strategically linked.” Jane Goodall Institute Australia CEO Nancy Moloney says Grossfeldt is “absolutely a leader in her field here in Australia”.

“Lou has been involved in the work of the Jane Goodall Institute Australia (JGIA) since 2008 and shares in our deep belief in the importance of primate conservation,” she says.

“Australians are passionate about the conservation of primates. We are good travellers, we see first-hand what is happening to the environment in which they live and we won’t stand by and do nothing.”

Grossfeldt will donate her share of royalties from sales of the book to primate conservation.

She says that committing her story to print was never about turning a profit.

“I’m no-one in the scheme of things, but the difference I can make as one person and the commitment I have made on a personal level will hopefully inspire people to do something differently.”

“I want people to feel like they can do something for primate conservation, or any conservation program.”

Our Primate Family, RRP $27.95, is published by Melbourne Books.

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