Riverside Discovery Center: Helping a Species Survive

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Things To See in Western NebraskaRiverside Discovery Center: Helping a Species Survive


Frannie takes a grape from zookeeper Sierra Spears during enrichment time at the Riverside Discovery Center (RDC). She is one of five chimpanzees who live at the zoo as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) program. Crista, another female chimpanzee looks up at Spears, who asks Crista to show her hand for inspection first. After checking her fingers, Spears gives Crista a piece of banana.

By: Irene North
Published May 16, 2022

The troop at RDC consists of four females and one male – Christa, Jewelle, Frannie Rebecca, and Steward – who were donated to the zoo by Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Not only do visitors get to see and learn about the species, they know RDC is playing a part in helping the critically endangered species to survive. The zoo is one of 30 in the United States participating in the Chimpanzee SSP, a collaborative partnership that helps ensure the long-term health and well-being of the species.

On most sunny days, visitors can see the chimpanzees going about their life and daily routine. Steward and Jewelle enjoy hanging out together. He often grooms her before the pair stretch out for naps in the sun or runs around having fun. Frannie likes to observe people and chimpanzees and Crista and Rebecca will wander around entertaining themselves as they see fit.

The five chimpanzees have full access to their outdoor enclosure and two-day rooms, which are connected via a two-level tunnel. Having access to all areas at all times allows the troop maximum space to roam as well as the opportunity for visitors to always catch a glimpse of at least one chimpanzee during their visit.

Keepers spend time each day teaching chimpanzees new behaviors, which is important for everyday husbandry and is directly related to the animal’s mental and physical health. Keepers have chimpanzees present their hands and feet to see how they are physically and chest to listen to their heart for irregularities.

They are also taught how to present their arms and accept a syringe for vaccines. Everything is done voluntarily, so if a chimpanzee isn’t feeling like getting its shot today, keepers will try again tomorrow.

“We recently started a brush behavior so we can brush their teeth,” Spears said. “They already know how to open their mouths when asked and this builds on it.”

Before arriving at the zoo, a thought was made to put the chimpanzees in the wild, but it was not safe to do so. Spears said while keepers and researchers like the idea, many of the troops’ social interactions are not how they would be in the wild. Regardless of location, each troop of chimpanzees has its own dialect. By placing these chimpanzees in the wild or even separating them into different zoos, each chimpanzee would need to learn a new dialect. The result would likely be a chimpanzee who would not survive in the wild and who would have a difficult time integrating into another troop. The chimpanzees were also born under human care, making wild reintegration a safety and survival issue. The best decision for the five was to keep them together.
“The issue is really complex,” Spears said.

The goal at RDC is to provide chimpanzees with the most realistic opportunities possible to express natural tool enrichment and to breed if they choose to. The zoo hopes Steward and Frannie, who isn’t genetically related to Steward, will have offspring, but the ultimate decision lies with the chimpanzees.

One of the main benefits of having the chimpanzees at the zoo is keepers can help with species survival, give the troop the best care and life available, and teach the visiting public about the animals and the dangers they face in the wild.


Crista is the youngest. She is balder on her shoulders and has a bald head from grooming. She is known as the comforter. If there is any kind of excitement, Crista will reach out and give reassurance to the other chimpanzees by touching their backs. If Steward is riled up, she will be the first to approach him. She and Jewelle rotate between who is the highest-ranking.

Jewelle is the biggest of the females and is sometimes confused with the only male in the troop, Steward. She is Steward’s favorite and the two are often found spending time together. Jewelle has a gray beard and her head is similarly shaped to Stewards. She will also sit back and let the other chimpanzees investigate something new before she approaches.

Frannie‘s most identifiable feature is the mole on her muzzle. She has a lot of freckles and her face is pinker than the other chimpanzees. Her ears stick out the most. She likes coming up to people and being around people. She loves investigating everything going on around her. She loves eating different colored peppers.

Rebecca is the smallest of all the chimpanzees and the lowest ranking. When she has a day full of confidence, she will try to show off how tough she is. She is the oldest member of the troop. She has silver and gray on her backside. She likes sweet potatoes and tomatoes the most, but also doesn’t mind onions or green peppers.

Steward is about middle-aged for a chimpanzee. He is the only male in the troop. He dominates most social situations and often gets what he wants, but he is also sociable with the other chimpanzees and takes care of all the females. He has large, thick, black fur and small ears.


Riverside Discovery Center – Scotts Bluff County, NE

About The Author:

Irene North is a freelance reporter, having spent five and a half years as a reporter and photographer at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald newspaper. You can find her most recent work in Wyobraska Magazine and on Medium. A collection of her writings can be found at Muckrack or Contently.


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