Peter Clay doesn’t remember exactly when his obsession with apes began.

“It’s hard to get back to the very beginning and figure out exactly ‘How did this happen to me? Why am I a housekeeper for apes as a profession?'”

Clay has kept house for apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo great-ape house for nearly ten years. Along with five other animal keepers, he makes sure the zoo’s 21 gorillas, 8 chimpanzees, and 4 orangutans are clean, fed, healthy, and happy.

Five mornings a week he starts the day by looking in on the apes, separated from them by a screen–making sure that the infants are OK, checking for ill or injured adults, and observing how apes in new social groups are getting along. Then comes the arduous chore of cleaning the exhibits: the apes must be cajoled into another area, the piles of straw they use as bedding must be bagged up, and the exhibit must be hosed down. Clay and the other keeper on duty that day usually finish cleaning by 2; feeding time is 3 PM.

“These days there’s a lot of work to do,” says Clay: there’s more bedding in the exhibits, mainly because of the unusually high number of infants born over the past few years. The straw keeps them from injuring themselves should they fall. The extra bedding also provides stimulation for the apes; keepers can throw a handful of nuts or seeds into the straw and let the apes forage.

Clay took interest in zoos while reading the books of Gerald Durrell, a British naturalist who wrote about his adventures collecting animals from different parts of the world for various zoos. When Durrell saw the poor treatment the animals got, Clay says, he stopped collecting animals for other zoos and started his own on the isle of Jersey–the Jersey Wildlife Trust.

“It was primarily for endangered species and smaller, less glamorous creatures which bigger zoos might not focus on,” Clay says. He visited the Jersey Wildlife Trust one summer during college and expressed interest in working there. After he graduated with a degree in biology, the zoo offered him a job, and he took it.

The job didn’t pay much, but he loved the work. One morning while Clay was cleaning his run (what zookeepers call the particular area for which they’re responsible), “Mr. Durrell, in his bathrobe and slippers, showed up to ask if everything was OK. I was very inspired by this amount of dedication and concern.”

Clay came back to the U.S. after nine months (for “a variety of personal reasons”), lived in Boston for a few years, worked toward a master’s degree in wildlife science in Utah, and started working at the Lincoln Park Zoo in August 1976, just a month or so after the great-ape house opened. He put in a year and a half at the small-primate building before moving over to the ape house in January 1978.

“It’s hard not to be fascinated by apes,” Clay says. “It’s amazing the amount of emotional contact you can have, even though there’s a mesh barrier there.” Clay and his co-workers leave distance and objectivity to scientists. “These animals have their own pride, their own ideas about what’s going on. We’re willing to work with the animals’ feelings,” says Clay. “If you’re going to be an animal keeper, really caring about the lives of the animals you’re taking care of is important.”

Among other things, this helps the keeper move the sometimes stubborn apes out of an exhibit that needs cleaning. It’s taken Clay as long as half an hour to get an animal to move, and then only with the encouragement of a squirt from the hose. Knowing an ape’s temperament and respecting its feelings help the keeper decide what approach to take. It’s also important to keep calm; if the keeper is volatile the animals may be too.

Some of the apes like particular keepers better than others, Clay says. “You really have to defer to those relationships.” Two of his co-workers, Cathy Maurer and senior keeper Pat Sass, have a particularly good rapport with the chimps. Sass raised Shauri, a female chimp, from the time she was an infant. When Shauri was ill, Sass and Maurer were able to help the veterinarian take a blood sample without tranquilizing the ape. “She allowed them to put a tourniquet on her and draw the blood,” Clay says.

Clay believes firmly that an animal’s self-respect is not diminished by captivity, but he does admit it’s hard to fully appreciate or understand an animal outside the environment in which its species evolved. That’s why, in the summer of 1985, he went to Rwanda, in central Africa, to study mountain gorillas. (All the great apes are endangered; fewer than 400 mountain gorillas still exist.) The Lincoln Park Zoo, like most zoos, has lowland gorillas, but Clay says the behavior of the two subspecies is similar.

“I wanted to go because I’d become extremely impressed with gorillas as a species, their dignity, their majesty,” he says. “You look at a silverback male gorilla, and it’s hard not to be impressed.” Silverbacks, identified by the silver hairs on their backs, are the large males mature enough to head social groups. “I wanted to be in their presence on their terms.”

Except for his African trip, Clay has been at the ape house for a longer continuous period of time than anyone else there. (Pat Sass, the senior keeper, began there before Clay, but left the ape house for a time to work at the children’s zoo before returning.) “I’ve had a chance to see generations grow up and have new generations,” Clay muses.

“People still come to the zoo to see the ‘new ape house,’ not realizing it’s been around for more than a decade,” he says. “I think despite the fact that other zoos have come up with some more spectacular approaches, they’re not necessarily any better.” The Lincoln Park ape exhibit is what he calls “functional”: its ropes and metal poles don’t look like vines and trees, but they’re just as useful to the apes. An inch and five-eighths of glass separates the apes from the visitors.

This closeness makes for some interesting interactions. A few years ago, Helen, an aloof female gorilla who rarely plays with the others, picked up her baby one day and started lowering it down the exhibit’s eight-inch-wide drain hole. As soon as she was satisfied by the aghast faces of the audience, says Clay, she brought it back up. “She was just playing games in her own sort of strange way with the public.” The baby eventually adapted by spreading its legs every time she started to lower it.

Clay has witnessed tragedy as well during his time at the ape house. Last summer, a gorilla named Sam died after a bout with a virus; he was the first adult male to die since Clay has worked there. In April 1986, the then senior keeper was severely injured by an escaped gorilla.

Clay won’t talk about specific injuries he may have received over the years, explaining simply, “Injuries do occur. The animals are wild animals, even though they’ve become accustomed to the presence of people.

“Not a day goes by that there isn’t something of interest that occurs in the private lives of these animals. It’s kind of like ‘As the Ape House Turns.'”

Wednesday night, Clay will show slides from his trip to Rwanda, talk about animal keeping and how his observations of wild gorillas helped him better understand the apes he works with, and give a tour of the great ape house. The program runs 7 to 9; admission is $4, $3 for zoo members. Details at 294-4649.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.