Extreme Weather Is Coming. Someone Has to Tell the Chimps.
posted in 12 Aug 2023

How do you teach 300 chimpanzees to seek safety in a storm? With cowbells, sound machines and a bright orange Frisbee.

When Michelle Reininger went to bed on Thursday, June 15, she wasn’t worried about the weather. The last time she checked, the forecast had called for scattered showers. But in the middle of the night, an emergency alert blared on her phone: a severe thunderstorm warning. Winds were expected to reach 80 miles per hour. People should take cover in their homes. “I thought, Is this a joke?” she recalled.

Ten minutes later, she lost power as the storm tore through.

By 5 a.m., the worst had passed. Ms. Reininger dressed quickly in the dark. She needed to go check on her charges: the more than 300 residents of Chimp Haven, the chimpanzee sanctuary nearby, where she served as the colony director.


In recent years the area has been hit by torrential rains and hurricane-force winds. Tornadoes have spun through with disconcerting frequency; in December, two people died after one touched down in Keithville. And the danger is expected to grow as climate change supercharges storms, making hurricanes more intense and heavy downpours more frequent. Droughts, floods, wildfires and heat waves are all increasing threats.

So Chimp Haven is now running extreme-weather practice drills to teach the chimps to take shelter inside, quickly, when employees sound the alarm. Being able to recall the chimps on command will help the sanctuary to secure the chimps inside before a storm hits, keeping them safe — and keeping them from escaping, if new opportunities suddenly appear.

During one recent winter storm, for instance, the moats that serve as natural barriers began to freeze. “We could have an escape situation if chimps walked over,” said Rana Smith, the president and chief executive of Chimp Haven. “Or the ice breaks and they fall into the water, which would be an unfortunate situation.”