Thursday, April 30, 2015

New book reveals amazing details about the Iowa bonobos, other apes, and the researchers who exploit them

“He and his colleagues wrote about the evolution of morality deep in the primate order, about how empathy is alive and well among the apes, and had very effectively shown that humans and bonobos and chimps and orangutans are almost the same in capacities to think and feel. Yet they gleaned their insights mainly by studying apes imprisoned for life in places no one wanted to show me.”

book cover for SMARTS
Exactly! Finally, someone understands what has been bothering me about Frans de Waal for the last several years. In a newly released book, SMARTS, author/journalist Elaine Dewar looked behind de Waal’s public facade, and has the guts to call him out.

Even better, she’s looked into the unpaid taxes, court records, and “research” history of the Great Ape Trust / Iowa Primate Learning Center / Bonobo Hope / Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative, and has uncovered details behind the shenanigans that have made them a laughingstock. The fights over ownership of the bonobos, the dysfunction as the ever-changing board of directors keeps kicking Sue Savage-Rumbaugh out of the picture, the continuing funding debacle, and the legal “scorched earth” strategy (promised by Savage-Rumbaugh’s attorney) is so much worse than I imagined.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ape justice

People can have a schizophrenic view of great apes.

On the one hand, we want to protect apes in their natural habitat, and condemn those who traffic in the black market for the pet trade. On the other hand, we condone Leonardo DiCaprio and others who support the exploitation of captive apes for human entertainment.

In the latest news, we resoundingly applaud the news that a New York County Supreme Court Justice has granted legal standing on behalf of two chimpanzees being used in biomedical experimentation, to force their release to Save the Chimps. (See this blog post from Born Free for the best explanation I’ve seen on the “writ of habeas corpus” excitement.) On the other hand, we ignore the plight of two gorillas living for years in trailers while a defunct language experiment enters its final death throes.

The public has been intrigued by blondes and apes
since King Kong fell in love with Fay Wray in 1933.
Oh, I see the difference. The secretive biomedical industry is made up of evil men committing unspeakable acts, while the open and transparent language experimenter is a pretty blonde who cuddles with her captives. However, the differences may not be as wide as we imagine.

People are trying to free two chimps -- Hercules and Leo -- from a university research program. Some information is out there on Stony Brook University’s research on chimps. Dr. Susan Larson wants to determine if “australopithecine bipedality was transitional between that of apes and humans.” One of her students, Nathan Thompson, is “performing a kinematic investigation of head motion and its relationship to gait in both humans and chimpanzees.” Dr. Brigitte Demes’ current research “addresses the facultative bipedal locomotion of nonhuman primates (capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees) with the goal of better understanding the evolutionary changes related to the adoption of habitual bipedal posture and gait in early hominins.” I assume they are using Hercules and Leo in this research. (Let me clear: I think the research is of questionable value, and it certainly is not worth the life-long price demanded of the chimpanzees and monkeys.)

Now let’s compare this to the information available about Koko and Ndume, at The Gorilla Foundation. We don’t know if any research is being conducted. We don’t even know, for sure, that both of the gorillas are still alive. They have always treated feces-flinging Ndume like shit, but now he has dropped entirely from sight. As recently as April 9, the Foundation was touting its “most comprehensive conservation effort to-date (sic) – featuring BOTH Koko and Michael.” Not Koko and Ndume, but LONG DEAD Michael, who passed away 15 years ago.



Seeing the latest list of Gorilla Foundation employees adds fuel to the speculation about the gorillas. A couple of years ago, in its heyday, the Foundation employed nine caregivers. The information on their website now shows two caregivers (who also handle administrative functions) and a recent high school graduate working as nighttime monitor. That is not a sufficient crew to take care of two screwed up adult gorillas. (It is interesting to note they boast FOUR executives and a personal assistant to the director, in addition to two administrative staffers. Speaks volumes about priorities, doesn’t it?) So, are they understaffed for two gorillas, or staffed barely well enough for one?

I heartily support the efforts of the Nonhuman Rights Project to get the New York chimpanzees released to a safe sanctuary. I wish we could do the same for the California gorillas. Even if we can’t send Ndume to a sanctuary or to a zoo more responsible than his owner (Cincinnati Zoo), I wish we could know that he is alive and well. And that Michael has not come back from the dead.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Keeping the record straight on Great Ape Trust – Bonobo Hope – Iowa Primate Research Sanctuary – Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative

Former Des Moines Register reporter Perry Beeman, who previously wrote glowingly of the dysfunctional Great Ape Trust, has written another puff piece for the beleaguered bonobo facility. In Resurgent ape center looks to expand, allow visitors, Beeman unquestioningly repeats the recycled plans presented as the way forward for the (now called) Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative. 

We’ve heard it before. Over the years, ACCI and its predecessor organizations have hyped almost every single item on their recently unveiled “plan” list. I hope that this time they are truly trying to remove the stigma conferred on them by their previous pie-in-the-sky ideas (Kanzi leading an artist colony, robobonobo, etc., etc.), but the plans, as reported by Beeman, do not inspire confidence.

Will "retired" research chimpanzees join Kanzi for more research?
They “have plans” for “a multi-million-dollar endowment to provide long-term care for the apes”? I hope there’s a donor associated with that plan. They are going develop “a revamped public visitation program”? One hopes they aren’t thinking of re-instituting their carnivals or bonobo cuddles.

I was particularly interested in their plans for acquiring “up to 25 chimpanzees from national primate centers… with possible financial support of up to $425,000 per year from the National Institutes of Health.” So I asked Renate Myles, chief of the News Media Branch, National Institutes of Health about it. She tells me, “NIH has no plans to relocate NIH-owned chimpanzees to the Iowa facility and we do not provide any funding to that facility.”

Let me repeat that: NIH has no plans to relocate NIH-owned chimpanzees to the Iowa facility and we do not provide any funding to that facility.

Jared Taglialatela, the unpaid research advisor for ACCI, thinks “bringing in chimpanzees would allow researchers to compare the cognition and communication abilities of chimps and bonobos on a single campus.” Like the world needs more ape language research studies. To the contrary, we need to end them.

Besides, let me break the news to Jared: the federal chimps are being retired. Period. We’ve studied them to death, literally. So just stop salivating for using them as bait for federal funds. Let them live the rest of their lives in peace, in a sanctuary.

Acquiring and using the chimps to boost their financial fortunes is first on the facility’s wish list. The NIH statement makes it pretty clear that the retired federally-owned chimpanzees won’t be available for Iowa’s latest scheme. Maybe there is another avenue open for chimpanzee acquisition, though… Maybe one of the primate research centers is going to donate some of their non-federal chimps? With a big wad of cash? Jared is, after all, a former research associate with Yerkes National Primate Research Center. And Yerkes recently announced that they were sending some of their research chimpanzees to a zoo in England, and was looking at "additional donation opportunities."

I look forward to Jared’s explanation of how he plans to acquire and use "retired" chimpanzees. I hope he didn't intend to imply that ACCI was getting federally-owned chimps, because that would be misleading. He needs to set the record straight.