In 1969, my husband and I took our two toddlers to the St. Louis zoo one afternoon. In those days, there was no admission fee and walkways opened directly onto the public sidewalks. We parked by one and took the kids’ hands and walked in. It was a quiet, overcast Sunday afternoon and we saw only a few visitors along the walking paths.
As we paused at each animal enclosure, we noticed they weren’t very active that day, just resting or hidden inside their concrete “houses.” The kids were on the verge of boredom and we considered leaving to avoid the inevitable whining.
But then something happened that not only surprised everyone, but taught us a lesson as well.
As we approached the primates area, the monkeys and apes lounging behind their fences barely acknowledged our presence and largely ignored us. I didn’t blame them.
And then we saw the chimpanzees, down another path, off by themselves. Unlike the others, they were staring intently at us. So we stared back. I was thinking, “Well, THIS is fun” and suggested we leave. My husband said, “No, wait a minute. I think they’re trying to analyze us. Let’s see what happens if we act interested in them.”
So we begain talking to them and increased our level of interest to outright enthusiasm. The kids squealed and we laughed.
Almost instantly, three of them formed a Conga line and marched, in lock-step, from one side of the cage to the other, making faces at us along the way. We no longer had to fake it…we were really laughing now! They gave us quite a show for nearly an hour, and then we really did have to leave, though now reluctantly.
We never learned the real history of those chimps, but we came up with the theory that they had been circus performers and were now retired. Perhaps they missed the “good old days” and, like retired vaudeville stars enjoying a reunion, they went into a favorite routine to relive the happy feelings. Certainly, having an appreciative audience played a major role in their behavior.
That day has since become one of the most memorable times of our lives. And the lesson we learned? Well, if you are genuinely interested in others and show it, they often will reward you with their best work.