Some of the most famous bonobos live behind the gates of theIowa Primate Learning Sanctuary.
“I believe on this side we have Elikya and Maisha,” says Julie Gilmore, the veterinarian for the Sanctuary as she unlocks a door leading to the bonobos cage.
Elikya and Maisha are two of the six bonobos housed at the Sanctuary. This is the first time a member of the media has gone behind these doors and come this close to the apes.
Dr. Sue Savage Rumbaugh is the scientist behind the project. In 2011, Time magazine named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people. She has devoted most of her life to working with apes. She spends her days and nights at the Sanctuary. She literally lives here.
“I’m the one who’s able to understand a lot of ‘bonoboese.'”
She calls herself the intermediary. She claims to understand the bonobos and they seem to understand her. She says others will able to do the same in the future.
This is my first attempt to communicate with them. As I kneel to Maisha’s eye level, he motions toward the door.
“See he’s telling you, ‘let them open the door,'” says Savage Rumbaugh.
Savage Rumbaugh is confident the bonobos have an understanding of free will. They know they’re being held captive and they know who is holding them, but they don’t know why.
“He’s trying to the best he knows how to establish some kind of dialogue and relationship with you,” she says.
The apes clearly have a relationship with Savage Rumbaugh. They know her well and she says she’s safer with them than on the streets, even as Maishia tears the arm off her shirt.
“He didn’t want to hurt me. What he wanted to do was create some type of scene.”
Maisha and Elikya are teenagers. Like human teenagers, they want attention. They were not raised with as much human contact as some of the other bonobos at the Sanctuary and therefore, don’t possess the same language skills.
“I want them to learn how to communicate with humans that they can reach across the boundary, because they tell me that’s what they want,” says Savage Rumbaugh.
One of the best communicators, Kanzi waits in another area of the Sanctuary. He is the star of the show. After working our way through an intricate system of locked doors that separate the bonobos and the humans, Kanzi emerges in a small, glass enclosed room.
This is where Savage Rumbaugh demonstrates her ability to communicate with Kanzi. She uses a complex lexicon, containing more than 400 symbols. Kanzi quickly tells us he wants some water. In addition to using the lexicon, Kanzi demonstrates his understanding of language with pictures.
“Where’s the onion picture?” asks Savage Rumbaugh. Kanzi easily points to the picture of the onion.
In most cases, a glass wall or a cage will separate visitors from the bonobos. But Savage Rumbaugh says under certain circumstances, others will have a more personal experience – an experience like I had with 2-year-old Teco.
Teco enters the room and eagerly climbs into my arms. Savage Rumbaugh directs me to start walking with Teco, “Travel is important. If he gestures, go in the direction he gestures.”
The experience is like none other. But critics say it is too personal. They fear humans will expose the bonobos to viruses that could harm – even kill them. Just last fall, 26-year-old Panbanisha died from a cold.
“We would certainly check into the health of the person, just as we are doing with you,” says Savage Rumbaugh.
I did have to have a Tuberculosis test prior to visiting the facility, but some primatologist argue that’s not enough.
In her blog, professor Barbara King of William and Mary College writes, “I have many questions, among them… Has the Board responded in some substantive way to the observations and evidence that the young bonobo Teco was exposed to risks for transmission of respiratory illness?”
Savage Rumbaugh likens it to the same risk your child might face.
“We’re so closely related that we can pass lots of things back and forth, but of course when your child grows up you have to worry about what might they get if I sent them to public school.”
And while there may be risks, opening the Sanctuary to the paying public may be its only hope of survival.
“We do need contributions,” says Savage Rumbaugh, who says she has not collected a paycheck for more than two years. “I’ve donated all I have.”
Operating costs come to about $300,000 a year and the expansion project will cost much more.
“We will need help to keep the bonobos here in Iowa.”
The expansion includes interactive art and miles of trail for the bonobos and humans on more than 80 acres surrounding the Sanctuary.
“We want the bonobos to be able to travel as they would in the wild and humans to be able to enjoy the area,” says Savage Rumbaugh.
She dreams of a first of its kind Sanctuary.
“There’s no place else in the world that humans can go and have a dialogue with bonobos.”
A place where we can better understand the bonobos and they can better understand us.