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Chimp Stones Zoo Visitors

on March 14, 2009

ScienceNOW: “Arrest That Chimp!” The almost humorous—yet sad—story of a frustrated chimp throwing stones at zoo visitors could come straight out of a children’s story.

Instead, it’s the intriguing account of Santino the Frustrated Chimp at the Furuvik Zoo in Gävle, Sweden. It seems that for the past 11 years, Santino, when agitated over the presence of zoo visitors, stomps around his enclosure and hurls stones at visitors. Now, observations have revealed that Santino stockpiles stones each morning in preparation for zoo visitors’ arrival—and his counterattack!

Santino stockpiles stones each morning in preparation for zoo visitors’ arrival.

The question is, can Santino really prepare for future mental states—in his case, anger? While there is some evidence that animals can plan for the future—from hibernating rodents to lab apes in careful experiments—none of these involve future mental states.

BBC News reports that Santino only exhibits the stone hoarding/throwing behavior during the season when visitors are allowed. (Discovery News notes that this short visitation season lasts only 25 days each year, a possible further explanation for Santino’s hostility toward visitors.)

Lund University primatologist Mathias Osvath gathered zookeepers’ observations of Santino from the past decade that reveal how, when the zoo was closed and Santino was seemingly calm, he would painstakingly gather stones and bits of concrete and fashion “disk-shaped projectiles,” apparently anticipating the next day’s angry outburst. Santino apparently learned to identify weak parts of fake boulders (made of concrete) in the enclosure, then figured out how to work bits loose to add to his stash.

In a BBC audio interview, Osvath further distinguished Santino’s behavior from animals planning for hibernation by noting that Santino showed a flexibility of thought—reacting to and planning for a specific situation—as opposed to an instinctual behavior.

Osvath believes Santino’s behavior is “clearly identifiable as planning for a future [mental] state.” He added, “I hope that other zoos or those in the wild will look more closely at what is happening. I bet there must be a lot of these kinds of behaviors out there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we find them in dolphins or other species.” Thus, the news isn’t being overtly used to promote evolution—though one News to Note reader joked some see stone-throwing chimps as “almost human,” others can almost dehumanize Neanderthals because of their alleged throwing inability.

And that’s the story of Santino the Frustrated Chimp. By the way, as far as we’re aware, Santino had no comment.

Remember, if you see a news story that might merit some attention, let us know about it! (Note: if the story originates from the Associated Press, Fox News, MSNBC, the New York Times, or another major national media outlet, we will most likely have already heard about it.) And thanks to all of our readers who have submitted great news tips to us.

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