Nickname: Big Boy
Gender: Male
Body Type: 220 lbs. Largest chimp in the group.
Personality Type: Insecure

Who is Hugo?

Hugo was born at the Saint Louis Zoo. His mother, Boo and father, Roscoe, were members of our previous chimpanzee group. Hugo’s story is a complicated one. It is also a story that reminds us that our closest relatives in the animal kingdom share a great deal with us humans.

Boo was born in the wild, but her history is not well known. She was adopted as an infant by Americans who brought her to Missouri and kept her as a pet. Chimpanzees do not make good pets! They are wild not domesticated animals and they are very strong – even female chimpanzees are five times stronger than human males. Boo was donated to the Zoo when she was about five years old and becoming too much for her owners to handle. Interestingly, we have found that many people are surprised when they see adult chimpanzees at our Zoo – surprised at their size because so many thought the chimpanzees they see in TV commercials are adult-size. But chimpanzees “actors” are youngsters; adult chimps are too difficult and dangerous to be handled.

Like humans, chimpanzees have a long childhood -- during which time they have to learn all the practical and social skills they will need to survive. Young females learn parenting behavior while being raised by their own mother and also by watching and helping their mother care for her next baby. Boo never had the opportunity to learn from her mother because humans raised her. Boo gave birth to several babies, but all were removed from her after the Zoo’s staff determined she was unable to care for them. That changed in the mid 1980s when Boo gave birth to and raised a baby girl. She was not the best mother, but she did manage to figure out the mothering thing.

Raised By Keepers

That is why we were so surprised at Boo’s behavior when she gave birth to Hugo on May 16, 1993. Boo thoroughly cleaned and nursed Hugo. But rather than carry him at all times, which is what chimpanzee mothers do, she often laid Hugo on the ground and left him. When distressed or fearful, an infant chimpanzee, and human, alerts its mother by crying or screaming. Hugo did scream long and hard, but all too often Boo ignored him. Our priority whenever a primate is born is to have the infant raised by its mother. Our dilemma was that Boo was providing Hugo with nourishment, but not with the emotional support essential for his development. We tried a number approaches to encourage Boo to carry and cuddle Hugo, but nothing was successful. Hugo slowly gave up; he went from screaming, to whimpering to silence and then apathy. Reluctantly, we gave up as well and after five weeks we removed Hugo for hand-rearing (rearing by humans) with the goal of returning him to a chimp family as soon as possible.

When we took Hugo his behavior reminded us of reports from orphanages that do not have the staff to give babies the type of love and attention given by a mother. These children carry the emotional scars of neglect with them for the rest of their lives. And Hugo was certainly scarred. Despite the care we gave him, Hugo remained listless for months. Infant apes have the ability to cling to their mother’s fur so we always encourage babies to practice by clinging to our clothes. Hugo didn’t even try nor was he very interested in toys. It took months of loving care for Hugo to become more responsive to his environment and us.

Hugo’s parents and extended family were given the opportunity to live in the Honolulu Zoo’s new two-acre outdoor exhibit. An offer we could not resist and today the group is still living the good life in Hawaii. We were committed to meeting our responsibility of raising Hugo so kept him here. We had the opportunity to acquire Mollie and Smoke, a pair of chimpanzees that were experienced parents and excellent candidates to take over the job of raising Hugo. We began preparations so that as soon as Hugo was old enough to be safely introduced to Mollie and Smoke, we would do so. However, our plans were put on hold when, 8 months after their arrival, Mollie gave birth to a daughter, Cinder. Mother chimpanzees are very protective of their infants and do not hesitate to punish others who are (or look like they are) hurting their baby. Introducing the insecure and socially naïve Hugo to Mollie and her newborn was too risky.

Friends to Grow With

Nevertheless, we wanted Hugo to have the opportunity to interact directly with chimpanzees so we worked through the Chimpanzee SSP to search for other chimpanzees being hand-reared. We found Jimiyu, a young male who, although mother-raised for a year, was being hand-reared and needed to be reintegrated into a family group. Jimiyu was 15 months older than Hugo, which presented a potential problem because he was both physically and mentally more mature than Hugo. We decided to give it a chance and when we first introduced the two boys they got along very well – both enjoyed having a playmate. But over time, Jimiyu’s natural exuberance and normal boy chimpanzee rough play began to intimidate young Hugo and we became concerned. Several months later we learned that a little female, and relative to Jimiyu, also needed a chimpanzee family so we brought her to St. Louis. Mlinzi was only five months older than Hugo and, as a female, was gentler in her play. Hugo and Mlinzi hit it off right away and developed a tight bond that remains strong today.

Jimiyu’s rough play was more than even two infants could handle, a problem we solved by introducing Jimiyu to Mollie, Smoke, and Cinder. Freed from Jimiyu, Hugo and Mlinzi were provided with more time to adjust and mature before asking Mollie and Smoke to accept more children into their family. Eleven months later we successfully integrated Hugo and Mlinzi into the family group. In just over a year, the family grew from three to six. Hugo continued to show signs of insecurity and would often stay close to his friend Mlinzi, but within the family group he did make good progress towards learning to be a chimpanzee. He played with every member of the group, he groomed and was groomed by others and learned basic communication skills such as how to greet chimpanzee-style. He also learned that when an adult male, in this case Smoke, initiated a typical male chimpanzee “charge display” it was best to climb up high to avoid him. The family settled into their new life.

In 1998, we accepted the responsibility of raising two three-month-old infants, Holly and Bakhari and, once again, asked Mollie and Smoke to accept additional foster children. The long process of integrating hand-reared chimpanzees into an established group is carried out in stages. In 2001, the two little females were successfully introduced to all members of the family except the adolescent males, Hugo and Jimiyu. Eight and nine year old male chimpanzees are fully capable of inadvertently or purposefully injuring babies. We were extremely proud of our boys who, for the most part, behaved themselves when they met Holly and Bakhari. Hugo was fascinated by the girls and was mostly careful when playing with them. Smoke watched over the young males and was quick to discipline them if either got too rough with Holly or Bakhari. Interestingly, the girls each selected a different male as their favorite; the rough and tumble tomboy Holly loved playing with Jimiyu while the gentler Bakhari preferred the more gentle play of Hugo.

Becoming the Boss

Not long after Holly and Bakhari joined the group, the dynamics among the males began to change. Male chimpanzees form close bonds but they also maintain a strict hierarchy. While Smoke was the only adult male in the group, he remained the undisputed alpha but as Jimiyu and Hugo matured they began to test his leadership. It is common for adolescent males to practice various threat displays performed by adults and we observed both Jimiyu and Hugo do so. The effect the displays had on the other chimpanzees was noticeable. Although Jimiyu was older than Hugo, he was also smaller. Hugo seemed as though he was never going to stop growing and even at a young age he was well on his way to becoming a very large male. While the average wild male weighs around 160 lbs, Hugo passed the 200 lbs. mark when he was only nine years old. Although the physical size of a male chimpanzee does not automatically result in the acquisition of dominance, large males can be very intimating. In Hugo’s case, his size definitely worked to his advantage, especially because the alpha male Smoke was rather small. Smoke tried to hold on to his leadership position but after several months of conflict, none of which resulted in a serious injury, Smoke stepped down and Hugo ascended to the alpha position.

Hugo was sweet as an infant and remains a sweet individual today. It is his insecurity, likely due to the emotional neglect he suffered as a newborn, which can lead him to exhibit unpredictable outbursts. An exasperating situation may cause Hugo to vent his frustration on one of the other chimps. And, although chimpanzees are smart, just as in the case of humans, some are smarter than others. Hugo, bless his little heart, is not at the head of his class. Of course, comparing him to Jimiyu (the genius!) may not be entirely fair, but the following incident illustrates the point. When a keeper mistakenly left a putty scraper in the chimpanzee exhibit, we asked the chimps to return it. The scraper was too wide to fit through the welded mesh keeper-viewing-panel, but Hugo wanted to help so kept trying to jam it through the wire. We could not make Hugo understand that it wouldn’t fit, regardless of how many times we showed him another spot where it would fit. Jimiyu sat nearby, patiently watching Hugo’s repeated attempts. Hugo finally gave up, dropped the scraper and left. Jimiyu waited for Hugo to depart, picked up the scraper and quickly pushed it through the appropriate space.

Hugo is well liked by all the chimps and for the time being, he remains the alpha male. Most of the individuals in our group are young and as they age, relationships among group members are likely to change in small and/or large ways. How Hugo adapts and responds to the evolving dynamics within the group is something we will all continue to watch.