Dallas Zoo Says Farewell to Chimpanzee in Move That Will Lead to Species’ Growth


DALLAS — On the morning of Jan. 12, staff at the Dallas Zoo loaded 7-year-old Mshindi into the back of a truck and wished him well as he began a nearly 1,500-mile journey.

About 21 hours later, the chimpanzee was whisked out of his crate and into quarantine at the Los Angeles Zoo, where he’ll spend a month before being introduced to his new California troop.

Staff at the Dallas Zoo were sad to see him go, but Mshindi’s mission is bigger than himself.

The young chimp’s move is the first in a series of changes at both institutions that will eventually lead to the growth of the endangered species.

A journey months in the making

Mshindi’s move to Los Angeles was recommended through the chimpanzee species survival plan created through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits both zoos.

Zoos accredited through the association meet every other year to create a breeding and transfer plan based on the genetics of the animals and the needs of each facility.

For the 2021 plan, the LA Zoo had the goal of bringing in more male chimps to its troop in a way that would set it up for longer-term breeding options.

“It’s been seven years since our last infant was born,” said Candace Sclimenti, curator of mammals at the LA Zoo and a member of the chimpanzee’s species survival plan committee. “With attrition and elderly individuals passing away … I’m looking at the longevity of our troop.”

The Dallas Zoo had similar goals in mind. Staff there were eager to grow their troop, and as much as they loved him, Mshindi would have made that challenging.

“A group has to be put together so that they can all breed together, or else you have to use birth control or some other method,” said Keith Zdrojewski, mammal curator at the Dallas Zoo.

The only female available for breeding among the Dallas Zoo’s chimpanzee troop — down to two males and three females after Mshindi’s departure — is Mshindi’s mother, Ramona.

Staff would either have to perform a vasectomy on Mshindi or try to keep the males and females separate when the females were cycling.

With him going to Los Angeles, “it’s easier for us because we don’t have to worry about that issue,” Zdrojewski said.

New possibilities

For the Dallas Zoo, Mshindi’s move opens up the possibility for more chimpanzees to be transferred into the troop, which could eventually lead to breeding opportunities.

Zdrojewski would ideally like to have 11 chimpanzees, but he’s hoping to expand the troop by at least a few chimps by the end of the year.

Both the Dallas and LA zoos aim to have troops large enough so that smaller groups can form, just like they would in the wild.

“In the wild, you can have a troop of up to 30 chimps in one area, and then during the day, they’ll break off into smaller groups of say eight to 10,” Zdrojewski said. “Then when they come back together, they can kind of pick who they want to spend the night with. They don’t have to stay with that smaller group of eight that they left with for the day. It’s constant movement.”

At the Dallas Zoo, a larger troop will also mean a richer quality of life for the chimps.

“We want them to have the most choices in life. We don’t want to have to tell them what to do” and who to spend their time with, Zdrojewski said.

Being at the LA Zoo will give Mshindi the opportunity to become a father and expand his species, but it will also more closely mimic what his life would be like in the wild. He will eventually be joining 15 other chimpanzees, two of which are 7-year-old males.

“Having three young males together in a troop is very much like what you would see in the wild,” Sclimenti said. “It’s great for the young males, but it’s also great for the older individuals.”

Getting ready to make friends

For now, Mshindi will remain in quarantine before being introduced to his new troop. In the meantime, staff are making regular visits to the chimp to get him used to his new caretakers.

In February, a caretaker from the Dallas Zoo will go to Los Angeles to help with Mshindi’s transition.

When it’s time for in-person introductions, the speed at which Mshindi will get comfortable with his new troop is “110% dependent” on his personality, said Sclimenti, who has done more than 100 introductions in great ape populations.

But even after his introduction, Mshindi will have a few years to go before he starts building his family, primarily because of how female chimps behave with their young.

“Maternal care is not innate in primates, it’s a learned behavior,” Sclimenti said. “Our plan is to bring some of our more experienced females with the older males so that the younger individuals can watch and learn. Then when it’s their turn, they will know what to do.”

But staff at both zoos are confident that Mshindi will thrive in his new home.

“From what I’ve seen … he’s a very confident individual, which is great,” Sclimenti said. “I have a feeling with his confidence he’ll be ready to make new friends and to join the troop.”