As a child, Rebekah Lewis was so enthralled by primates that she asked her mother if they could have one as a pet. Her run-away-from-home fantasy destination was Gombe, Africa—where famed primatologist Jane Goodall was stationed.
“Great apes have always captivated me,” Lewis said. “They have very complex social behaviors.”
Like humans, chimpanzees are known to be intelligent and social creatures, she said. They communicate in a variety of ways including gestures, hoots, pants and body postures, which allow them to maintain complex relationships with their social groups.
Lewis’ mother nixed the idea of having a primate pet. Instead, she encouraged her daughter to seek out a career where she could work with them, said Lewis, who earned an anthropology degree from the University of New Orleans in 2005.
“UNO was integral to my journey, and I am thankful of the skills I acquired while attending,” Lewis said.
Coming from the small town of Eunice, Louisiana, Lewis said she was attracted to the vibrant culture of the city of New Orleans and loved UNO’s program quality and its affordability.
“I was drawn to UNO because it had a great academic reputation, tuition was very reasonable, it was covered by my scholarship,” Lewis said. “Living in New Orleans and going to UNO was definitely one of the defining experiences in my life.”
After graduating from UNO, Lewis followed her mother’s advice and pursued a career in primatology. Now, she gets to observe and interact daily with great apes as the behavior director at Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana, a community south of Shreveport. With more than 300 chimps, it is the world's largest chimpanzee sanctuary, Lewis said.
“I don’t need to run away to Gombe,” Lewis said with a laugh. “Working with the chimps is a very unique and multifaceted experience. It’s really interesting watching them engage with each other, watching them solve the foraging puzzles we give them and watching them explore their environment.”
Lewis’ job includes developing physical and social enrichment activities, deciding based on behavioral observations best group fits for integrating new chimpanzees and using positive reinforcement techniques to train chimps to participate in their own healthcare, such as applying ointment on a wound.
The behavioral department plays a vital role in understanding and meeting the social and psychological needs of the chimps, Lewis said.
“Our team strives to provide an environment where the chimps not only experience a high standard of care, but they also have choices in how they spend their time.”
The 200-acre forested habitat provides a variety of multi-acre enclosures and living spaces designed to meet the chimps’ needs and gives them unfettered access to the outdoors.
The staff refers to their care approach as the “chimp life,” where the aim is to duplicate what chimps would experience in the wild: from climbing trees, platforms and other vertical structures to living in social groups, free-will exploring and foraging for food placed around the site.
“We want to mimic what their natural behavior is in the wild,” Lewis said. “It’s providing them with different experiences for their psychological well-being.”
The sanctuary was founded as a retirement village of sorts to provide long-term extended care for chimpanzees who were previously used in biomedical research, Lewis said. When the National Institutes of Health determined that chimps would no longer be used as models in human medical research, they needed permanent placement elsewhere.
Most of the chimps at the sanctuary come from primate labs all over the United States, Lewis said.
“The chimps at Chimp Haven can’t go back into the wild; they are accustomed to being taken care of by humans,” Lewis said. “We dedicate our days to 24-hour care of them.”
The chimps range in age from 6-years-old to 65-years-old, Lewis said. Chimps are considered geriatric when they reach 35.
“For us to have chimps in their 40s, 50s and 60s is amazing and testament to how great our care at Chimp Haven is,” Lewis said.
The chimps live mainly in groups of up to 20, based on their personalities and their care needs.
“We really like to create groups that are multi-aged because that is really enriching,” Lewis said. “The things we are looking at when we are matching groups is who would work well together.”
The chimps all have names—some have two. If they happen to share the same first name, they are given a middle name. And they all have personalities. Some are reserved, others playful and boisterous.
“We also have nicknames for them, once you get to know them and build relationships with them,” Lewis said. “They definitely respond to their names. If you call them from across an enclosure they will look up. It doesn't mean they will always come over because they have a choice, and they know that.”
While rewarding work, it can be physically and emotionally difficult, Lewis said. Chimps are strong and they can be unpredictable.
“We have a barrier in between us at all times,” Lewis said. “It’s part of their natural behavior to fight with each other, to get into altercations; that’s how they balance out their social hierarchy.”
Chimps can weigh as much as 200 pounds and their muscles are 10 times stronger than humans, she said.
“They are not the little, tiny chimps that you saw in commercials years ago. They are big; they are strong,” Lewis said. “They can be a force of nature!”
They are not meant to be pets, Lewis said, echoing what her mother told her as a child. In the 1980s and 1990s chimps frequently appeared in movies and were often shown on TV as the pets of celebrities.
“It’s not safe for the chimp, it’s not safe for the human,” Lewis said. “For my mom to understand that back then, I’ve told her, in retrospect, ‘Mom, that was really smart of you!’”
When she decided to pursue a career in primatology, a small but competitive field, Lewis said her UNO professors encouraged her.
“They all inspired me during those really formative years when I was a young adult, to persevere, to have confidence … that I can do it,” Lewis said. “They gave me that confidence and that foundational knowledge and that has been helpful and has really resonated with me.”
The career advice that she would pass along to students is to network and complete internships, Lewis said.
“I really encourage networking. Don’t be afraid to make connections with others in the field,” she said.
Those connections can be made through social media, email or at conferences.
“The other advice would be internships, I think they are an excellent way to determine if primatology is the path for (you),” Lewis said. “There are so many aspects of primate care.”
Chimp Haven also offers paid internships, Lewis said.
“I’m really excited that paid internships are becoming more commonplace because I think that’s crucial in developing diversity in the field of animal behavior and care.”