Project highlights

  • Opportunity to collect behavioural data from great apes housed at zoos 
  • Developing novel techniques to build resilience and improve welfare of zoo-housed great apes 
  • Generating evidence base to support sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres in improving resilience in their apes, thus improving the outcome of reintroduction programmes. 


Great apes held in captivity need resilience: the ability to ‘bounce back’ following setbacks. This is particularly true for apes entering sanctuaries or rehabilitation centres, as they have usually endured traumatic conditions, including killing of their mother and separation from their social group, which can have lasting psychological effects, impairing their resilience. This in turn threatens to reduce the effectiveness of conservation programs involving rehabilitation and release of ex-captive individuals, as reduced resilience may make it less likely that apes will be able to thrive in the wild. 

However, even zoo-housed apes may need to build their resilience. One of the factors contributing to low resilience is experiencing a lack of agency. This affects captive apes in all settings because they often have no choice about when to feed and forage, what to eat, or which individuals to socialise with. Routine management practices which are important for the apes’ health or their conservation may impose stressful or frustrating situations which they cannot escape or avoid (e.g., regular veterinary health checks or treatment involving capture and sedation/anaesthesia, temporary or longer-term separation from their social group during treatment and recovery). Collection management (such as species breeding programmes) may mean that individuals are moved between institutions and must integrate into a new social group. Unlike dispersal in the wild, captive apes have no control over when this occurs and which group they join.  

We will build on pilot research in our group on orangutans and gorillas housed in zoos, which has identified promising avenues for progress in addressing this problem. We have integrated research on fostering resilience in humans and other non-human animal species and used it to design interventions to build their resilience. In this project we aim to develop and test these techniques on great apes, as well as investigating how management techniques can be altered to provide apes with a sense of agency. As a result we hope to develop techniques which will build resilience, improving the welfare and conservation outcomes for great apes in zoos, sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres. 

A photograph of a gorilla in an enclosure.

Figure 1: A captive Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) using a stick to extract peanut butter from a puzzle feeder which has bolts blocking access. Photo: Lelia Bridgeland-Stephens. 


University of Birmingham


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

Dr Jackie Chappell, University of Birmingham


Prof. Susannah Thorpe, University of Birmingham

How to apply


  1. Literature reviews of the behavioural ecology of the chosen species, including social behaviour and social structure, cognition and locomotion, as well as reviews of welfare issues of captive apes in zoos, sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres. 
  2. Field work in zoos. This will include: behavioural observations on animals (probably using Zoo Monitor); designing and implementing experimental interventions for animals, including providing puzzle tasks and similar problem-solving situations, and assessing their influence on behaviour and aspects of resilience. 
  3. Quantitative analysis, interpretation and presentation of the data collected, using R. 
  4. Following evidence gained in 2 and 3, modification of enclosures, enrichment or management of the apes, with the aim of improving resilience. Data collection and analysis would then be repeated and compared to determine whether the changes had been successful in improving resilience. 

Training and skills

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD. 

This PhD studentship is part of a broad research programme in which we are working with a number of partners in conservation and rehabilitation of a variety of species across the world. This includes zoos in the UK (e.g. Chester, Twycross, Drayton Manor Zoos), as well as NGOs in ape conservation in range countries (e.g. SOCP, and BOSF). We also work with the Orangutan Veterinary Advisory Group, who are a representative body for orangutan sanctuaries. Thus, the student will be embedded in a dynamic network of organisations. 

Training in the specialist methodologies required for behavioural fieldwork will be provided by both supervisors. Chappell will provide training in sampling and recording behavioural indicators of welfare status, cognitive and social behaviours and in designing the experimental interventions. Thorpe will provide training recording movement and understanding ecology. Chappell and external training will provide additional training in the specific programming and statistical techniques required (e.g. R, linear modelling techniques, Bayesian analysis etc.). Both supervisors will support skills development in delivering impact and engagement from the project with zoos, sanctuaries and the public. 

Further details

Further details on how to contact the supervisor for this project and how to apply for this project can be found here: 

For any enquiries related to this project please contact Dr Jackie Chappell, [email protected] or Prof. Susannah Thorpe, [email protected]. 

To apply to this project: 

  • You must include a CENTA studentship application form, downloadable from: CENTA Studentship Application Form 2024. 
  • You must include a CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three) who can comment on your academic abilities. 
  • Please submit your application and complete the host institution application process via: Please select the PhD Bioscience (CENTA) 2024/25 Apply Now button. The CENTA application form 2024 and CV can be uploaded to the Application Information section of the online form.  Please quote CENTA 2024-B7  when completing the application form. 

Applications must be submitted by 23:59 GMT on Wednesday 10th January 2024. 

Some experience (through a formal qualification or self-taught) of programming is essential. Experience of collecting behavioural data would also be an advantage, and field work experience would be desirable. You can find information about our project on great apes here, and a talk on our previous work on parrots here. 

Possible timeline

Year 1

Literature review of the behavioural ecology of the species to be studied. Development of observational behavioural data collection on resilience indicators, and development of experimental interventions. Training in developing data collection protocols using Zoo Monitor. Initial training on data analysis and statistics. Field work at zoo(s) – initial data collection at zoos.

Year 2

Data analysis on baseline data and experimental interventions. Iteratively improve experimental interventions, depending on outcome of initial experiments, and analyse.

Year 3

After modifications to enclosures and/or management procedures, collection of post-modification dataset on behavioural indicators of resilience, and comparison to baseline data to determine if outcomes have improved. Write and publish resulting papers.

Further reading

Chappell, J., Thorpe, S.K.S., 2022. The role of great ape behavioral ecology in One Health: implications for captive welfare and re-habilitation success. American Journal of Primatology 84, e23328. 

Lyons, D.M., Parker, K.J., Schatzberg, A.F., 2010. Animal models of early life stress: implications for understanding resilience. Dev Psychobiol 52, 616–24. 

Scheffer, M., Bolhuis, J.E., Borsboom, D., Buchman, T.G., Gijzel, S.M.W., Goulson, D., Kammenga, J.E., Kemp, B., Melis, R.J.F., van Nes, E.H., Romero, L.M., 2018. Quantifying resilience of humans and other animals. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 115, 11883–11890. 

Wu, G., Feder, A., Cohen, H., Kim, J.J., Calderon, S., Charney, D.S., Mathé, A.A., 2013. Understanding resilience. Front Behav Neurosci 7, 10.