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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

In the Land of Plenty: Lost in Toyland

Yesterday I got an email from a person who works in a sanctuary offering to send Bow a case full of troll dolls. She had read about Bow's fascination with the "bottom wiper" and my stance on not letting him destroy it, and she got the impression that Bow was a poor underprivileged chimpanzee who simply didn't have enough toys. I wrote her back and thanked her, and I told that actually Bow has tons of toys, but what he values above material objects is companionship: both of the human and the chimpanzee kind. It would be great if instead of offering to send us dolls, the sanctuary people allowed Bow to talk to other chimps on Skype. It would be even better, if they allowed him to have contact with a female chimpanzee of appropriate age and habits.

Re-reading my post, I realize that maybe I gave the wrong impression, so I'll try to correct it here. My stance about not destroying the bottom wiper is not all about money. If I gave the impression that all I was lacking was Federal funding, and then I'd act like all the other researchers, I'm sorry.  I didn't mean it that way. The reason I even mentioned the Federal funding is because I think it corrupts researchers as well as chimpanzees. It's not really all that different from what welfare money can do to some families. And in the same way, it's a little like what well meaning grandmothers sometimes do to a parent's attempts at teaching a growing child values that will enable him to live in the real world.

What should you do when a child destroys a toy? Should you immediately reward him with another toy?  Or should you let the natural consequences sink in? Ultimately, which response is better for the child?

Bow has had a wealth of toys since I adopted him when he was a month old. At first he had free run of the house, and he even sometimes played with Sword's toys as well as his own. He had a brown teddy bear that he took everywhere in the house with him, and a pink easter bunny that rode in the car with him, so that he would not feel all alone in his car seat, while I was driving. So long as he needed these security objects, he took really good care of them, so that while he destroyed every other toy he was given, these two remained intact. But with time, Bow outgrew the need for security objects, and as soon as he didn't need them anymore, he tore them up.

Bow is now eight and a half years old. He has toys, but he prefers people. He constantly asks me when I am going to get him a girl friend. He loves playing and tickling and posturing and wrestling, and Lawrence and I oblige him. He can ask for any of his toys, and as long as he is playing nicely, he can keep them. But the  moment he starts getting destructive, the toy is put away. Nevertheless, every birthday and every Christmas he gets new toys, which he keeps with him for a while, before he destroys them completely and fills the pen with their debris. There is always an opportunity not to do so, and it's not as if he doesn't get plenty of second and third chances.

The fascination with the bottom wiper is not so much that is a rubber toy, as that it is a forbidden object. Bow gets a real kick out of out-smarting me and getting to play with the wiper for a while until I notice. If it were not forbidden, it wouldn't be any fun. And the moment it stopped being fun, he'd destroy it. When Bow plays this game with the bottom wiper, he's really playing a mind-game with me. He's practicing his politics. He's honing his leadership skills. He's showing his mind-reading abilities. It's not the physical object that has this allure. It's my attitude toward the object.

Nevertheless, I do see the fact that he agrees to put the bottom wiper back when I ask him to as a great improvement in Bow's self discipline. I find it an optimistic sign that Bow is capable of self-control, and that he can learn to conserve objects in his environment. When he grows up, he may have a peach orchard that he needs to protect. If he learns not to destroy the trees, but only to pick the fruit, this will a great stride toward self-reliance.

The lady from the sanctuary tells me that she knows a female chimp who is very kind to her troll dolls, and who cares for one of them as if it were a baby, carrying it on her back everywhere with her. I don't know how old that female is, but I imagine that when the time comes, she would much rather carry her own, real live baby on her back than a plastic toy. Bow is just dying to make that  dream come true for her!

Let's hope that we can cut through all the red tape and make this happen some day soon.

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