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More on Post-Captivity Depression in Chimpanzees

By Russell Tenofsky

Photo of a chimpanzee suffering from depression.As we previously reported, Dr. Martin Brüne, a psychiatrist at the University Hospital in Bochum, Germany, successfully prescribed “human” anti-depressants to chimpanzees overcoming captivity-induced depression and trauma at AAP, a Dutch rescue center for chimpanzees and mammals used in laboratories.

In an interview with Scientific American, Dr. Brüne, who specializes in detecting early signs of psychosis in humans, expands on his experiences with the chimpanzees and discusses the similarities between chimpanzees and humans in comparable mental conditions, as well as their long-term psychological wellbeing.

His first impressions of the chimpanzees at AAP were ominous:

“Even as a non-primatologist, I immediately could recognize that their behaviors were really grossly abnormal.  Some of the animals engaged in self-mutilating behaviors such as scratching wounds and keeping them open, and others showed stereotypic movements like constant body rocking.”

The years of oppression have clearly taken a heavy toll on the chimpanzees and, as with humans who suffer through similar circumstances, the psychological scars often run deep.

“We can safely say, I think, that they suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, based on the common causes of these disorders in apes and humans, and based on the observation of the behavioral signs.”

Dr. Brüne recognizes that all captive chimpanzees may not benefit from anti-depressants or, in fact, even suffer from psychological behaviors similar to the ones he observed at AAP.

“Some individuals with similar histories or a similar background are more resilient and do not develop abnormalities to such an extent. So I think you always have to take into account individual differences in vulnerability. With regard to the five hundred or so chimpanzees in captivity worldwide, the decision whether to give them medication has to be made individually.”

The anti-depressants seemingly benefitted the chimpanzees studied at AAP but, as Dr. Brüne claims, it is their captivity that will ultimately determine their psychological health.

“Even if you can improve the conditions of the chimps, they still have these abnormal environments. So you cannot expect that they come back to an entirely normal behavioral repertoire. The baseline actually is the behavior in the wild, and any deviation from behaviors observed in the wild perhaps can be classified as abnormal.”

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