Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Using Koko to exploit the death of Robin Williams

The Gorilla Foundation says this is Koko lamenting
the death of Robin Williams. Former caregivers point
out that this is her everyday funk.
I see that Penny Patterson is now exploiting Robin Williams’ death to promote her Gorilla Foundation. It’s one thing to recirculate a video taken more than a decade ago, when Robin met Koko, if the point is to pay tribute to a good man. It is quite another thing, however, to take pictures of Koko in her everyday funk and tell gullible media – who are searching for ANY new angle on the Williams story – that Koko is so terribly sad about the death of a human she met more than ten years ago. Naturally, ape lovers who don’t know better will give $$ to Koko in honor of Robin. And that’s the whole point of this disgusting exploitation, isn’t it Penny?

This week marks a new low for The Gorilla Foundation.

(BTW, if this use of Robin Williams is tempting you to contribute, you might want to review The Gorilla Foundation's rating on Charity Navigator. It has a low rating, only 2 stars. There are better ways to support gorilla conservation and welfare.)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Petition ends for Ndume after pleas by thousands fall on deaf ears

Poor Ndume. Over 3,000 people tried to convince Cincinnati Zoo and the AZA Gorilla SSP to end Ndume's isolation at The Gorilla Foundation, but those efforts have evidently failed. It may be because of the reason that former Ndume caregiver John Safkow wrote: "He's too screwed up for a zoo." Decades of living in a trailer can do that to a silverback.
Ndume gets junky "enrichment" on his birthday.

Recently, the zoo's public relations department started sending FB critics a message asserting, despite voluminous first-hand evidence to the contrary, that Ndume was receiving enrichment and socialization at TGF, and was in daily contact with Koko.

We know that Ndume and Koko do not, in fact, come into daily contact. They don't have any physical contact, period. And enrichment? The "enrichment" activities are enough to drive any silverback crazy, if you ask me. On "sock day," caregivers tie socks with nuts and treats inside. On "box day" Ndume gets treats inside cereal or other food boxes.  On "clothing day," Ndume gets articles of old clothing stuffed with nuts and treats. On "pill bottle day" (caregivers say they always had hundreds if not thousands on hand from all of Koko's required pill popping), caregivers would put nuts and treats in pill bottles and scatter them in the yard. Then there was the glorious "scatter day" with bare stuff placed around the outdoor enclosure. If that is "enrichment," then I'm a monkey's uncle.

Over a month ago, I asked the Gorilla SSP if they agreed with the zoo's assertions. I asked if they had withdrawn the recommendation in the draft gorilla management plan that called for the zoo to bring Ndume back into the zoo population. Still no answer.

In recognition of reality, I have ended the petition calling on the Cincinnati Zoo to bring Ndume out of his isolation. If Ndume is too far gone for integration back into normal zoo populations, and there are no gorilla sanctuaries in the U.S., then it looks like he'll have many, many more "pill bottle days" at TGF. I'm sure he appreciates the enrichment.   

Sunday, July 6, 2014

More questions about Iowa bonobo management

Noted ape researcher Frans de Waal posted an update on his public Facebook page, noting that “Kanzi is a language-trained bonobo at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative (ACCI) in Iowa.” I also referred to the latest incarnation in Iowa as ACCI, but Frans' post got me wondering (again) about what is going on in Iowa.

I checked the USDA APHIS lists for anything on ACCI. Nothing. Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary – Great Ape Trust – Bonobo Hope (yes, the federal government uses all three names) is still listed as Kanzi’s owner.

I checked the IRS listing of charitable organizations for anything on ACCI. Nothing. IPLS is registered, however.

Frans also stated that “Bill Hopkins, the new director (together with Jared Taglialatela), sends me an updated photograph of Kanzi, who has lost 20 Kg (44 pounds) in the last 6 months. BTW - The dessert contest was not their idea.”

The Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary has a Facebook page, active as of this weekend. It lists Steve Boers as director, not Bill Hopkins. That may explain why “the new director” was not able to stop the use of Kanzi in a public relations stunt: because he isn’t the director of the organization that owns and manages the bonobos?

Once again, there are more questions than answers about what the hell is happening in Iowa. I'd love to celebrate progress evidently reported by Yerkes scientists de Waal and Bill Hopkins, and Yerkes research associate Jared Taglialatela, as many are, but I'm concerned that they may not have much say-so, besides changing Kanzi's dietary regime. Who is actually in charge? And why can't the organization stay with one friggin' name? 

(And where is Sue Savage-Rumbaugh? I can’t believe she is sitting idly by…)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

No Dignity in Asking Kanzi, the 'Ape of Genius,’ to Judge Unhealthy Iowa State Fair Foods

A guest article by Beth Dalbey, a former employee of the Great Ape Trust

One question: Will a scientist with standing be on hand to explain what Kanzis choices mean, or even that he sometimes beats at the glass during visits to show he doesnt suffer fools quietly? Or will the publics understanding be limited to the explanation from a breathless volunteer: "Kanzi loooooves dessert”?

This is a cheap trick to play on a bonobo who blurred the line between human and non-human primates when he acquired language simply by being exposed to it, as human children do, demonstrated an aptitude for stone tool making, and is a precious scientific treasure.

To be mocked and put on display as he eats food that is unhealthy and bad for him is the ultimate indignity to this very dignified bonobo who is self-aware enough to know he is a star.

Instead of exploiting an obese ape with a heart  condition – the biggest concern in the article seems to be that Kanzi will “snarf everything down and then dismiss us” before the photographers can get decent video – the Register might look at four bonobo deaths at the facility since they arrived in Des Moines in 2005.

That includes two in recent years – Matatas two weeks ago and Panbanishas in 2012, which is still shrouded in questions. The public was told Panbanisha died of a “cold,” yet the necropsy report has never seen the light of day, despite the current directors insistence that theyre focused on transparency at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative.

After Matata died, the ACCI promised to release the results her necropsy, Theres nothing to suggest this ape in her mid-40s died for any other reason than natural causes, but a history of ape deaths at the facility should at least make reporters curious enough to stop mocking these rare, endangered great apes for humans entertainment long enough to ask questions when some of them die.

While theyre on the subject of deaths in this one-of-a-kind bonobo family – there is no other group like them in the world, and the studies taking place with three generations of bonobos raised in a unique bicultural atmosphere can never be duplicated – they might ask for clarification about Panbanishas death.

The loss of Panbanisha is significant – and a tragedy that may have been preventable.

Like Kanzi, she also had receptive competence for spoken English and many scientists considered her “the true ape of genius,” despite that moniker more often being assigned to Kanzi. She was a complex individual and elegant in her ability to manipulate situations to get what she wanted. There was always a “maybe” in Panbanishas response to requests.

If Panbanisha did die of a cold, as the public has been told, did veterinarians rule out as a possible factor young Tecos well documented travels around the city, where he was pictured on social media in public settings that included a large auditorium that hosted the Buddha Relics tour? What are the odds that the guests there were asked to wear masks or provide proof theyd had flu shots and had passed TB tests, common protocol when sharing the same air space as apes, who are vulnerable to human respiratory ailments?

Intellectually curious reporters might ask if the scientific mission has changed.

Is ACCI still focused on the same non-invasive language collaborations these valuable research apes have been involved in throughout their lives?

Or will scientists Bill Hopkins and Jared Taglialatela begin “knocking down” apes with anesthesia, ensuring they dont move during invasive brain imaging (MRIs)? Do they share documented concerns in the veterinary community that certain anesthetic protocols may exacerbate or artificially induce signs of cardiac disease?

As part of ACCI’s claimed conservation mission, do Hopkins, Taglialatela, Steve Boer, Tami Watson and others associated with the ACCI have concerns that using apes in entertainment perpetuates not only the notion that great apes are ours to mock and profit from, but also the misconception that they are common and ordinary, and not a blink away from extinction?

Apparently not. Please call this off.

Failing that, will Kanzi at least get a lousy Size 3X Des Moines Register/Iowa State Fair T-shirt out of the deal?

If they must do this, the architects of this travesty should at least have Kanzi judge fresh fruits and vegetables, foods that are actually good for him.

Oh, and to give Kanzi back some of his dignity, the people who cooked this publicity stunt should be streamed live over the Internet eating ape chow so we can all sit back and laugh and jeer as they point at their favorites.

(Full disclosure: I worked as an editor in the communications department at the former Great Ape Trust from 2007-2010. For the record, if I'd suggested something like this, I probably would have been fired – for good reason.)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Bad news for fans of bonobo Kanzi and gorilla Ndume


They are at it again. The Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary / (and now) Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative has emerged from a short hiatus when many of us hoped they were reorganizing as a serious sanctuary. Fat chance. They are up to their old carnival tricks again, exploiting poor Kanzi. Again.

Bonobo Kanzi will help judge the [Iowa State] Fair food contest,” Des Moines Register reporter Jennifer Miller writes. Yes, poor overweight Kanzi – who several experts fear may be a heart attack waiting to happen – is going to eat whatever fat-laden desserts the Iowans send him, to determine which one he likes best. It’s an educational effort, we’re supposed to believe. Ya know, teaching the public how endangered bonobos scarf down cakes, pies, fried foods, and other unhealthy fats and carbs as they sit in their disappearing African habitats.

Kanzi in 2011, and in 2013.
At least the latest gimmick doesn’t involve another RoboBonobo, a bright idea from earlier years. Instead, this one has a Kanzimobile to get the food to him, fast. So much more in line with a serious “conservation initiative."

It is clear that they are doubling down on their attempts to promote themselves as an entertainment venue, abandoning their earlier claims to being a sanctuary. I’ve given up on them, with all the sympathy I have for Kanzi and the four remaining others. (I was so sorry to hear about the death of Matata last week.) But even though I’ve thrown up my hands and lost hope that anyone will ever give these bonobos the environment and care they deserve, I am more determined than ever about one thing: this outfit cannot be allowed to bring more apes into their shenanigans.

Last January, after the most recent switch in leadership, an ape expert close to the situation told me there was talk about moving some chimps there, “which will bring in some funding.” That news didn’t come out of the blue, because one of Iowa bonobo volunteers was on Facebook talking about the organization getting 20 or more chimps. They were (are?) looking to feed at the federal trough, with more chimpanzees due to retire from research facilities – supported by federal dollars.

I predict that if the Iowa bonobo folks try to compound the travesty they’ve inflicted on these poor bonobos, by bringing more apes into their operations, the howl from ape advocates everywhere will reach a crescendo that has never been heard before.

Update August 14: The results from the contest are in and... ta da!... Kanzi recognized grapes! Woo hoo! See Bonobo judge steals State Fair show. (This is science? This is journalism?? So sad.)


Unfortunately, the news out of Iowa isn’t the only bad news for U.S. captive apes. Despite a recommendation from AZA’s draft gorilla management plan, Cincinnati Zoo is evidently leaving Ndume at his rundown trailer home on the grounds of The Gorilla Foundation. The zoo’s Ron Evans and the SSP’s Kristen Lukas reportedly visited Ndume and, after a couple of hours watching Ndume and drinking the Gorilla Foundation kool aid, have decided to abandon him there. (I say “reportedly” because the TGF illustrated the visit with a picture – of the two humans with Koko! Why no picture of the two with Ndume? Weird.)

The Gorilla Foundation presentation to the AZA Gorilla SSP included this slide, showing zoo officials visiting Koko --while supposedly assessing Ndume. Funny how they didn't show a picture of them with Ndume. 
The Cincinnati Zoo is sending out Facebook messages to people who have asked why the zoo is not assuming their responsibilities for Ndume. Cincinnati Zoo is, shall we say, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the truth when they explain their abandonment. 

“Most importantly, there is clearly value in the relationship between Ndume and the female gorilla ‘Koko,’” the zoo’s public relations department wrote to a FB questioner. “While the two do not cohabitate they do have social opportunities daily that are mutually beneficial and enriching.” I’ve heard from several former Gorilla Foundation employees who tell me, emphatically, that is not true. Koko will not abide another gorilla. Not Michael (who died), and not Ndume. The silverback lives by himself, with only human keepers -- one at a time, never more -- trying their best to give him "enrichment."

In a strange quirk, the zoo and The Gorilla Foundation are sending out cross-messages. Cinci public relations says “moving forward, the Cincinnati Zoo, the Gorilla SSP, and the AZA will continue to work with The Gorilla Foundation to help them provide increasingly professional standards of care for both Ndume and Koko.” But what does The Gorilla Foundation report in the recent presentation (given by Ken Gold) to the Gorilla SSP? That they plan to “mine the data” from Koko and Ndume “to help captive management of all gorillas…” etc., etc. So what are they? An operation that needs help (per Cincinnati), or a shining example of gorilla management (per TGF)? My personal opinion, after listening to people who have worked with Koko and Ndume and hearing from people who know Ron Evans: I’m not impressed with the spin coming from the zoo or TGF. I think it’s about money for both organizations. Cinci doesn’t want a feces-flinging silverback interfering with their continuing exploitation of gorilla Gladys, and TGF wants to keep up their decades-long fa├žade. All for the money.

Money, money, money. Whether it’s the broke and broken down bonobo group, the Koko krazies, or a zoo, the bottom line is money. The exploited apes suffer, as they have in the past and as they will in the future. And there’s not a damn thing you or I can do about it.

Postscript: If you want to tell Cincinnati Zoo what you think of their decision, join over 3,700 of your fellow advocates and sign our petition.

(Note: I asked the Iowa bonobo organization’s executive director for an interview last spring, with no response. I’ve written several emails to Cincinnati Zoo officials, with no response. I’ve also sent questions to the Gorilla SSP through their Facebook page, since they don’t have contact information on their website, and have received no response. The Gorilla Foundation kindly wrote me a letter several years ago, threatening me. I can understand TGF and bonobo group, but this lack of public transparency from the zoos is another reason why a growing number of people reject zoos and everything they stand for.)

July 4, 2014 update: Beth Dalby, who formerly worked at the Great Ape Trust, wrote this powerful and insightful post on her Facebook page. I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could be a new dawn for apes in entertainment

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was more than a fantastic movie. To those of us who love great apes and who are determined to end their use in entertainment, the movie went beyond raising deeply important issues of human prejudice and empathy. To us, Rise of the Planet of the Apes – and the next movie in the prequels to the iconic 1968 Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – may represent a turning point for ape welfare. Because, you see, these movies are proof that human actors, with the assistance of technology and creative genius, can tell the ape story. They can BE apes.
Incredible human actors play apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Thousands of people have come to this blog by using the Google search phrase, “how real is Planet of the Apes?” They saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and they couldn’t believe they weren’t watching real chimpanzees, a real gorilla, a real orangutan. The human actors who played the apes were so true to life, true to the spirit and essence of their ape characters, that the audience believed them. And because they were able to connect with their audience, the actors did a better job than real apes could in telling the apes’ stories.

The method that brings these ape characters to life is called “performance capture.” In a recent interview, Staci Layne Wilson of Dread Central was talking to Andy Serkis (who plays chimpanzee Caesar) about the method, and asked if it was helpful “to have a lot of other actors also doing motion capture” in the movie.

Karin Konoval as orangutan Maurice
“It's a great ensemble cast, really talented actors,” Andy responded. “I don't actually see myself as the best of motion capture. I think I’m a relatively good actor, but there are amazing actors in this film… Karin [Konoval], who plays Maurice, is fantastic; she turns in a wonderful performance.”

Andy is right about Karin, of course. Maurice is the orangutan in the movie, and anyone who has ever looked into an orangutan’s eyes will recognize the honesty of Karin Konoval’s performance. 

So how does one do it? How does one BE an ape? 

If you haven’t seen video of performance capture in the raw, before the technological wizards do their magic, you should check it out. During filming, the ape actors wear grey body suits rigged with sensors that track every movement of their body, a helmet camera that tracks facial expressions in meticulous detail, and a sound microphone. Then, in post-production, the geniuses at Weta Digital apply the "digital make up," adding anatomical layers until the actors look like apes.

The result is magic for audiences around the world. The result may also lead to end of Hollywood's use of apes in movies. See the magic, and see a real dawn for apes in entertainment.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in U.S. theaters on July 11.