Expressive Therapies for gorillas

Dr. Mariangela Ferrero, a psychotherapist experienced in non-human primates, observed that stress and traumas can cause similar psychological, social and cognitive disturbances, both in human and non-human primates.

Nine years ago, Dr. Ferrero developed a specialist and experimental enrichment, that uses a psychotherapeutic model and Expressive Therapies techniques, revisited in the light of species differences, to help non-human primates in captivity.

Play Picture Making Music Emotional Enrichment

Play Picture Making Music Emotional Enrichment, or PME, offers artistic mediators and an interspecific specialist relationship to improve the psychosocial well-being and to reduce the suffering of the individuals treated. PME takes place in an atmosphere of play and free participation, which excludes any form of coercion and doesn’t provide rewards.

PME in Ape Action Africa, 2015

Painting materials and musical instruments produce contemporary multi-level stimulation (sensory, motor, emotional, cognitive and symbolic) and solicit psychophysical experiences, sensations, feelings, emotions and memories. This gives the specialist the insights to work on developing self-expression, creativity (function of  Ego that tends to integrate perception, thought and feeling), play and concentration. The sessions can be very intense, deep, moving and funny.

Dr. Ferrero realized PME in several different sanctuaries in the world working with different species of non-human primates, mostly chimpanzees, usually bearers of multiple traumas and of psychosocial or behavioural disorders. Considering the good results that PME obtained in the great apes countries of origin, it would be useful to realize it, in a more systematic and prolonged way, to improve psycho-social well-being of captive great apes in non-range countries.

Dr. Ferrero worked with two gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) at Ape Action Africa in Cameroon. Even though both gorillas had a cruel and traumatic history, they had already passed their initial state of prostration, thanks to the experienced care of the Ape Action Africa team. The commitment of Ape Action Africa is important and fundamental for the protection, conservation, rescue and recovery of great apes. And not only that, their work is also crucial for the education of local communities. When Dr. Ferrero was introduced to female gorillas Chickaboo and Luci , they were respectively 6 and 4,5 years old. Both gorillas were reserved but playful and curious. Chickaboo was largely dominant in the relationship with Luci. They were the only inhabitants of their enclosure and needed new stimulations and some fun.

Preliminary report

As literature lacks information on PME sessions the following preliminary report of Dr. Ferrero’s sessions with Chickaboo and Luci could be very useful for other sanctuaries and Zoos worldwide:

We had a total of eight work sessions lasting 45 minutes, one every three days. I began by presenting them painting materials and fabrics and soon after musical instruments. Before the first session we had little time to gain confidence among ourselves, but they were so interested in the new objects that they immediately approached to explore them when the session started. They handled everything with a playful but also impetuous attitude; they licked the tempera paint and tore off the sheets. Both experimented with some of the musical instruments and played a lot with the fabrics I brought them. In the interaction with the materials and with me, the competitiveness among them emerged. At the end of the first session, they tried to get my attention, probably to prevent me from leaving, thus giving to me the feeling of a good start.

Chickaboo playing the drum

In the second session they were less destructive and mainly interested in the maracas and the drum. They also wanted tempera and sheets and used the latter to rub them and spread the tempera paint on the entire floor of the room, which was all colored in the end. When we moved on to the musical instruments and I played the drum, Luci responded several times by beating her chest, adopting a species-specific behaviour that has been repeated several times by both gorillas during the sessions.

There has been significant progress since the first session and they showed increasing interest in musical instruments and the fabrics. With the fabrics, they often played dynamic games, for example by twirling, manipulating, carrying them around the room, or using them as blankets for the head or shoulders. Musical instruments have been particularly successful.

Luci and Chickaboo played the maracas and the drums a lot. Chickaboo even rhythmically played a maraca for about two minutes – which is a very long time – accompanying me while I was playing the drum. Luci instead took a percussion to the forest and it has been moving to hear her playing it through the trees. Sometimes they seemed to respond to me playing the drum by starting a dance, other times they beat their chest. But most of the time they played musical instruments. They used the instruments not only to produce sounds and to express emotions, but also to communicate emotions to me.

They often expressed their excitement and sometimes their disappointment, giving a single blow to the biggest drum. One item in particular gave some frustration as I could not allow them to bring the piano into the room, but only to play it through the bars that separated us. The piano, unlike the other instruments, was a unique piece and I had to avoid it’s destruction in order to use it with the other PME participants. The gorillas made gradual progress in each session and in our last session we came to play all three at the same time. We played for a long time alternating with different instruments, like in a sort of musical band!

Artistic mediators are a powerful means by which to express and modulate emotions, to work on the relationship with oneself and with each other. The modulation was particularly evident in the sessions with musical instruments, that are for example able to convey the possibility of communication and of physical contact which was before blocked. In the course of the work with Chickaboo and Luci the level of exchange and the play between us greatly increased. Working on their relational dynamics, I noticed increased self-affirmation spaces in Luci and greater ability to handle frustration in Chickaboo. Finally, where each of the gorillas initially presented attitudes referable to the same prevailing emotional category, impetuosity-aggressiveness or shyness-submission, in the final sessions some different and varied attitudes were recorded.

Dr. Ferrero hopes she will have other opportunities to continue her work with our close relatives. Their sensitivity, introversion, brilliant intelligence continue to fascinate her.

Photo Credits: Ape Action Africa/Dr. Mariangela Ferrero
Website Dr. Ferrero: