Rosalià Abreu and the Apes of Havana


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Abstract

Rosalià Abreu (1862–1930) was a wealthy amateur collector and keeper of primates, including apes. She was the first person to keep orangutans and chimpanzees alive in captivity for their natural lifespans, and the first to breed chimpanzees. Although not a scientist, she made her animals available for scientific study, and it was on her animals that the first published observations of chimpanzee mating, birth, and development were made. The system of husbandry that she designed for apes, with an emphasis on spacious cages, vegetarian diet, cleanliness, and social contact (preferably conspecific, but heterospecific where conspecifics were not available), were groundbreaking in their time. Through her extensive correspondence, her methods of husbandry spread and formed the basis of captive ape practices around the world. Though much of Abreu's work was forward-looking, other aspects, such as her belief that chimpanzees were monogamous and had psychic abilities, strike modern readers as eccentric. Nonetheless primatologists today may be helped to see the cultural assumptions that underlie today's research by noting those that guided research in the past.

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