February 23, 2005

The Nipple Fetish

Koko the gorilla likes human breasts. But other captive monkeys and apes have their own strange sexual habits. Here's a brief tour.

David Goldenberg

Koko the gorilla has a nipple fetish. Two women were recently fired from the Gorilla Foundation, Koko’s home, because, among other things, they refused to comply with the director’s requests that they bare their breasts to Koko, who seems to like that sort of thing. Choice tidbits from their wrongful-termination lawsuit include the plantiffs’ claims that Francine Patterson, the director, said, “Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples.” You get the point (Mercury News).

Why would Koko have a nipple fetish? Most news reports that try to explain the fetish quote a Columbus Metro Park Zoo keeper, who says, “I’ve never heard of anything like it.” Based on my experience researching non-human primates, I thought that was misleading. Certainly, in the wild, female lowland gorillas are not known for their fixation with other female mammaries, but animals in confined settings often suffer from stereotypies, which basically means weird, repetitive behaviors that act as calming agents. Recall the lion obsessively pacing back and forth in the zoo, or the bear meticulously pulling out its fur.

Great apes, including gorillas, have more complex cognitive structures than lions and bears. Koko, for example, has a vocabulary of over 2,000 words, and her IQ has been estimated to be over 70 (there’s a lot that’s wrong with standardized testing, including the IQ—but that’s for another day. What I mean to say is that Koko probably realizes that she exists). And she’s not even the most accomplished non-human primate when it comes to language: Kanzi the bonobo can use indirect pronouns, and Washoe the chimpanzee taught her baby to sign. But having higher levels of cognition means that apes can have much more complex—and aberrant—behaviors when living in a captive environment.

I called Roger Fouts, who runs the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University. He has been responsible for much of Washoe’s training for the past 40 years, an experience he relates in his excellent book, Next of Kin (Amazon). I asked him if he had ever heard of anything like Koko’s alleged nipple fetish.

Though Fouts would say little about the specifics of the circumstances at the Gorilla Foundation (beyond “It’s an unfortunate situation”), he has no doubts that captive living situations encourage aberrant behaviors in great apes. “They’re in a deprived situation,” he said. “There is no possible way to approach the living conditions in the wild. If anything, they start out with two strikes against them. Natural attractions and fears are misplaced.”

Fouts is in the unusual position of arguing against his own research. He refers to himself as an abolitionist—meaning that he believes that no great ape should be in captivity—but only came to that realization after working for so many years with chimps. When he started in the 1960s, there was a great debate about humanity and cognition. It was almost a fad for scientists to raise apes in a variety of environments—some raised them as children, others in total isolation. None of those arrangements seemed to work out for the apes. “We’re not biological alchemists,” says Fouts. “We’re playing God, and we’re screwing them up.”

At zoos, gorillas are known to regurgitate and re-eat their food, as well as eat and throw their feces. Many primates engage in rocking behavior and self-mutilation. Even Washoe, generally well-adjusted to human life, has her eccentricities. According to Fouts, she’s terrified of dust mops, and has an unusual fixation with new shoes and magazines. Vicky Hayes, a chimpanzee raised as a daughter by Keith and Virginia Hayes, wouldn’t go anywhere near a tarp.

Some captive apes, including Koko, seem to have misplaced their sexual attractions. Lucy, a chimpanzee raised by Jane and Maurice Temerlin in the 1960s, used to masturbate to Playgirl magazines using a vacuum cleaner extension. In the 1960s, scientists performed isolation research at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in which they raised chimps in isolated boxes. For the rest of their lives, the male chimps would only copulate with 50-gallon drums. Soon after, the scientists stopped their research. “They realized the damage they did,” said Fouts.

Though Fouts sympathizes with the plight of great apes in captivity, he also notes that there is a way to manage their fixations, nipple or otherwise. “They’ll ask for a lot of things,” said Fouts. “You don’t give it to them. It’s just like a child. You have to set limits.”

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