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                                                                                                 Hilda Tresz                          Global Volunteer Work

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Nanchang Zoo, China Report

December 2 – 4, 2014


The purpose of the visit was to assess the behavioral problems of 9-year-old alpha male Tiantian.


Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ?) Subspecies unknown.


Suggestions: Subspecies needs to be determined by DNA testing.


The exact ages of the chimpanzees were unknown; however, they were all estimated at around seven years old with the exception of alpha male Tiantian.

Tiantian M (9 years old)                                            Niuniu F (7 years old)                                          


Jinjin M (7 years old) with Nini in the back                Nini F (7 years old)


Qiqi F (7 years old)                                                Doudou F (7 years old), with Qiqi in the back


Chimpanzees had a very nice, spacious exhibit with large night house areas. There were plenty of climbing structures, natural soil and grass, and the animals were provided with excellent diet. Night houses were made of concrete and mesh without substrate.


Suggestions: Frayed ropes need to be replaced and ropes need to be tight on both ends to avoid chimpanzees injuring themselves accidentally. One of the chimpanzees was wearing a loose rope around its neck for several hours.

The night houses could better utilize three dimensions by adding large tree trunks and softer fire hose hammocks browse, etc. to increase space and allow opportunities for exercise, exploration and manipulation.

Chimpanzees need to build a nest at night; therefore, substrate such as browse, hay, straw, etc, need to be provided. Since the zoo had no loose straw, sleeping straw mats and fresh browse were given for immediate relief. These kind of materials need to be provided daily.


Boomer ball products are not so easy to come by in China, but recycled household products (cereal boxes, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, barrels, plastic cups, old plush toys, towels, clothing, tires, etc.) can be easily incorporated as enrichment/toys.



During this visit, the majority of time was spent with the chimpanzees in order to pay full attention to Tiantian’s problems. It was believed that the alpha male had severe behavioral problems because he was displaying a lot, threw rocks at visitors and staff and also was over grooming himself.


Separation anxiety and displays

Observations showed that although he got along well with all other chimpanzees, he spent most of his time sitting alone, self-grooming or being upset, displaying and throwing rocks at visitors and staff. After consulting with staff, we agreed that he was most likely spending so much time alone because he was not yet used to being with the group. Due to his displays, he was separated from the rest of the group every night for years, therefore (naturally) he displayed aggressively every day, reassuring his dominance when he was put together with rest of the group. As expected, his behavior made the younger animals stay away.

Suggestions: It needs to be understood that displaying is a natural, normal behavior for male chimpanzees at any age and males should not be separated from their group members due to carrying out these behaviors. “Displays: It is important to provide opportunities for chimpanzees to move, hit on, shake, or throw objects in their environment as part of their species-appropriate displays. Care should be taken that these objects are adequately fixed, or that they are not able to cause damage to the enclosure, other chimpanzees, or to human staff or visiting public.” Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Chimpanzee Care Manual, 2010.

Tiantian  is no longer separated at night and he seems to be adjusting well. He still spends quite some time apart, but others approach him, greet him and groom him now that he is continuously with the group. He will need some time to adjust. With increased enrichment he could also be kept busier and relaxed.

 Tiantian foraging on browse


Challenging younger male

Tiantian was also observed being upset about the younger male trying to breed and groom his females. Jinjin had a better relationship with the females, since he did not have to be separated from them.  

Suggestions: Again, this is a normal situation in any chimpanzee group (having several males competing for females) and their minor conflicts are acceptable unless the males seriously bite each other.


Visitor feeding problems

Visitors feeding and throwing objects at the chimpanzees appear to be ongoing problems. These issues present challenges in providing nutritionally correct diet for the chimpanzees, but also contributes to aggression of the male, who has begun throwing rocks and larger concrete pieces at people. At first, it seemed that he was only upset with visitors, but then the same behaviors were exhibited when staff members walked by as well. The specific reasons for this behavior are not entirely clear, however, throwing objects at visitors is common for chimpanzees in captivity and could elicit a variety of responses such as increasing attention given to the animal, feeding the animal, and/or startling the people.  Having the exhibit lower than the visitor pathways and humans towering over the chimpanzees could also be a reason for aggression. 

Suggestions: A secondary barrier could be installed preventing humans from being too close to the chimpanzees and feeding them. Volunteers and keepers should stand in front of the exhibit and explain the effects of public feeding on the chimpanzees



Some of the chimpanzees had difficulties with shifting. The fundamentals of basic training were taught by keepers practicing with one another, as well as with the chimpanzees. Keepers learned correct bridging: teaching the chimpanzees (especially Tiantian) to quiet down and focus, target training and closing the door. Shaping plans were provided. 


General Propositions:

Night Houses, Off-Exhibit Areas and Correct Substrate Use

Most of the animals were kept in impressive, large, green exhibits with plenty of natural furniture and substrates with the exception of a few large carnivores.




For those few species that are still kept in traditional cages and on sterile surfaces with reduced chance for exploratory behaviours, it is suggested to create the same environment by breaking up the concrete or at least covering it with substrate. The use of appropriate substrate (inside – paper products, hay or straw, etc.; outside – nonflammable materials such as grass, sand, soil, mulch, fresh browse, etc.) will make a significant difference not only in the animals’ mental and physical health, but also in improvement of the exhibit aesthetics. In China, paper products are toxic, but pet-safe, eco-friendly products (bags, wrapping papers, boxes, burlap bags, etc.) are available online.

Using substrate will also reduce cleaning time and water consumption. Soaking, scrubbing and hosing dry waste takes much longer than spot cleaning due to substrate absorbing urine and covering feces. Reducing hosing and partially covering surfaces with substrate will overcome any of these obstacles and provide animals with a soft surface.


The zoo has very impressive edible browse gardens available on grounds that can provide fresh, leafy branches (browse).


Browse should be provided at least every 2 – 3 days, but if possible, every day. To further increase browse production, the zoo can plant edible trees, bushes and even crops inside and outside of exhibits, along visitor pathways and resting areas that will provide future browsing materials for growing collection demands. Whether cut by staff or available by natural damage, fallen vegetation can be used rather than wasted.

 Mixed Species Exhibits

Mixed species exhibits can be created in order to free up space and develop a more esthetic, complex exhibition. This type of exhibit also resolves certain problems associated with housing otherwise social species alone until they are paired with a conspecific. Please review the photos of Phoenix Zoo mixed exhibits.


Lack of sufficient space and furniture

A few animals had insufficient space and /or without any furniture. Sea turtles in general have large territory.

Suggestions: The turtle requires a minimum space of at least a 120 liter aquarium and a land area where it can come out of the water and bask under a heat source.


In a restaurant, Pythons were kept in glass tables in one of the restaurants to attract visitors. These reptiles are very timid, introvert animals that naturally shy away from people.

Suggestions: These pythons require a minimum acceptable enclosure of 2 m in length, 1 m in depth and 1 m in widths. The snakes also require somewhere a hide box to allow them to withdraw and take themselves off of view.




Visitors and staff were often observed smoking, some of them inside the night house right next to the animals.


The zoo should change its smoking policy by creating designated smoking areas for visitors with tables, chairs, ashtrays and garbage cans. All visitors who want to smoke should be directed to these areas. In addition, keepers should no longer smoke in front of visitors and absolutely should not smoke inside the animals' night houses and/or next to the animals. Keepers must also have designated smoking areas behind the scenes, out of visitor view. Keepers should only smoke during their breaks.


The following PowerPoint presentations were given to all staff:

        Contra Freeloading at the Phoenix Zoo talks about extending foraging times by making animals work for their food in ways similar to their wild counterparts, instead  of eating diet in short periods of time from provided dishes.

        Let Them Be Elephants addresses the changes the Phoenix Zoo made in their elephants’ lives by teaching them how to correctly forage and behave like normal females. It also talks about basic husbandry, enrichment ideas and health care.

Presentations are available at htresz@phoenixzoo.org.

I would like to thank the Nanchang Zoo’s director and staff, as well as the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG), for their incredible hospitality — making me feel so welcomed.

I would also like to thank Animals Asia Foundation for funding and organizing this trip and establishing such a wonderful, working relationship between the Jane Goodall Institute, the Phoenix Zoo and the Nanchang Zoo.



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