Joe holds zoo's hopes for chimp offspring

31-year-old imported from Detroit for mating

January 09, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Bachelor No. 1 is a 31-year-old swinger from the Motor City named Joe who likes the ladies and drumming in his spare time. Bachelor No. 2 is a quiet 23-year-old who prefers to people-watch and goes by Charlie.

Their reality dating show is set at the Baltimore Zoo, where officials want to encourage a little amore in the $5.8 million Chimp Forest. So they've trucked in two male chimpanzees from the Detroit Zoo to join six resident females.

Since arriving in October, Joe and Charlie have been isolated to help them adjust to their new surroundings. But tomorrow, the public will have a chance to meet the animals, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Then the pair will go back into seclusion for several months as keepers begin to integrate them with the other chimps.

The zoo hasn't had a newborn chimp since 1995 and would like another. Despite the seemingly favorable odds, the zoo's previous male chimp, Harvey, was never able to mate. The animal was routinely cowed by his female cage mates.

"Harvey got beat on," says Rebecca Gullott, the Chimp Forest supervisor. So, in November, officials returned the wimp chimp to his previous home in the Toledo Zoo.

Enter the Species Survival Plan, a breeding and conservation effort run by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Essentially a computer matchmaking service for the nation's zoos, the program helps more than 161 captive species in zoos around the country find compatible mates. The program recommended sending Joe and Charlie to Baltimore to replace Harvey, and zoo officials agreed.

Steve Ross, a zoologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago who is chairman of the survival plan's chimpanzee committee, says the primary goal is to maintain a diverse gene pool among captive animals.

To that end, the names, ages and genealogies of the country's 300 captive chimps are kept in a stud book whose listings date to 1903. The idea is to prevent inbred mutations by mating animals that are unrelated or distantly related.

But with chimps, zoos must consider more than genes. As might be expected from mankind's closest relative, chimps are social, intelligent animals and exhibit distinct personalities.

Watching them interact with each other, says Ross, "is almost like watching a soap opera." So, before animals are moved, the chimpanzee committee asks keepers to fill out personality surveys so that they can fine-tune their matchmaking.

At a preview yesterday for the news media, Joe, the dominant male, who bears numerous battle scars and a bald patch on his back, swaggered around, punching Plexiglas and pounding on a plastic drum. Charlie was more reserved and spent more time in a corner, watching the cameras that watched him.

Baltimore Zoo officials are counting on Joe to produce the zoo's next chimp offspring. Charlie can mate but has had a vasectomy and cannot become a father. He was brought to the zoo primarily as a companion for Joe.

With help from the stud book, keepers have identified two resident females, Rustie and Joice, as potential mates for Joe. The other "girls," as keepers call them, will be given contraceptives to prevent them from getting pregnant.

"I think, given time, they will do what's natural," Gullott says.

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