Saturday, April 14, 2012

Are ape escapes and bites “common” at the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary?

When people say they fear for the apes at the former research facility, they are speaking quite literally. “I fear for the bonobos” isn’t whispered with a tree-hugging heart flutter, or the omnipresent wistful awwwwwww that young ladies write in response to a cute Facebook picture. Apes at the Bonobo Hope / Great Ape Trust  / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary and Halfway House have been escaping and biting caregivers for years, say people who are familiar with the conditions there. Former keepers were afraid for their own safety, the safety of other humans, and for the bonobos.
The Board of Directors knows about the allegations of escapes and attacks.
“For 10 years, I've helped create Great Ape Trust and assist Dr. Sue,” wrote a professional associate with an intimate knowledge of the operations. “I've seen her manipulation and deceitfulness for too many years.”
“Under her watch, we've had an ape escape and ape to a graduate student, the other to a caretaker. Both required medical both cases Sue and Duane wanted it kept quiet. She disregards protocols and puts people in harm's way,” this insider wrote to the board of directors in January.
Big ol' Kanzi loves his freedom!
Others with knowledge of the facility confirm the charge, although it appears that this person may not have known ALL of what goes on there. “There have been more than two attacks and one escape,” one insider told me. “Bonobo escapes were not uncommon,” another said. But, this person explained, “there was a staff there that was trained to deal with it.”
Ah yes, staff. They will re-capture the bonobos and take bitten people to doctors.
So, let’s see, there are seven bonobos at the facility. There must be plenty of staff to handle this! The board wouldn’t accept less than the highest standards of care and security, would they?
I sent a couple of questions to Kenneth Schweller, chairman of Bonobo Hope (at least I think he is chairman of BH, although his email signature block still says Great Ape Trust. Sigh. I get so confused with all these names… but I digress…)
Q. Who is currently in charge of the day-to-day operations at the facility?
A. Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is our Executive Director and in charge of daily operations. We are currently looking to add two additional caretakers so if you know anyone through your connections that might be interested please have them drop us a line.
Q. How many professional caregivers are employed currently?
A. We currently employ three professional caretakers and are actively seeking to add two more, plus many volunteers who help with cleaning, feeding, maintenance, etc.
Three professional caretakers. Ummm, that would be Sue, her sister Liz, and someone else? Ya know that feeling of fear? I totally get it. As a caregiver in an accredited sanctuary diplomatically put it, “a bonobo that is the size of a gorilla like Kanzi and who regularly has to put the ‘pine needles in the refrigerator’ and ‘the soap on the basketball’ is probably not in the best place.” (The pine needles and basketball refer to directions the “researchers” give Kanzi to “prove” he can understand English. Like every chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan I’ve ever met, Kanzi understands spoken directions from caregivers.)
Can a facility with seven bonobos, that has a record of escapes and attacks, really be a “sanctuary” with only three professionals on staff?
I asked another question of Chairman Schweller.
Q. What kind of accreditation does BH [Bonobo Hope] currently hold?
A. We are working with Patty Finch of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to complete our accreditation with them. Most of the paperwork and consultation is done, we are nearly there.
You see, Great Ape Trust lost its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It also lost its federal accreditation as a research facility. So they are now trying to be a sanctuary, as if that requires less of them than they had to provide to qualify for research funds. I asked Patty Finch about the status of Bonobo Hope’s accreditation, and Patty referred my question to Jackie Bennett, who is the deputy director for great apes at GFAS. Jackie graciously responded on a Saturday morning:
“GFAS does not discuss the status of applicant sanctuaries. If you review the GFAS website, you can find a listing of sanctuaries that have achieved either accredited or verified status, and for which that information has been made public. However, at any one time, there may also be sanctuaries that have made inquiries about accreditation, are somewhere in the process of completing paperwork or having site visits conducted, are under review, or which have been denied accreditation after review. We do not publicize or discuss this information.”
“I'll tell you one thing for sure, I did NOT feel safe working in that building,” a former Great Ape Trust worker tells me. Pshaw, why should workers worry about piddly little safety issues, like bites from jaws that can chomp through bone without even trying? But hey, if any brave ape caregiver wants to take Kenneth up on his offer of employment, note it in the comments to this blog and I’ll send you his email address. Just be sure you’ve got all your shots. And you might want to adjust your mindset, to think of bites from a 170-pound bonobo as common little “love nips.”

For more information see our Bonobo Hope post.


  1. I've been with your reporting on this issue up to this point. I feel the need to comment here though.

    As a caretaker at the Trust for 6 years (until December, when I resigned) I saw things like what you report. Though, these types of events were in no way common.

    However, from my own experience and communications with co-workers, my sense was that when we spoke about feeling unsafe in the building, it was never in reference to Kanzi or the apes. We knew the inherent dangers of working with apes and were capable of handling them under normal circumstances. What we really feared were the actions (or potential actions) of specific humans, which could produce abnormal circumstances that we could not in any way handle.

    1. Thanks for your perspective on this! I get where you are coming from. But I also think everyone reacts to conditions differently, especially if there is a difference in experience or other factors. I have to tell you, that when other former caretakers told me that they feared for their safety, it was in the context of discussing the bonobos. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what they meant when they spoke of "apes."

  2. It was always the presence of one or two very specific people around the apes that had people feeling unsafe. The choices those people made, the things they would say to the apes etc. The apes never have been and never will be the bad guys- incidents that have occurred are a result of their exposure ( long and short term) to certain humans or lack of properly following protocols.

  3. I fear for the bonobos as well, and that this will end tragically. Does the USDA or anyone have any oversight here?

    1. USDA conducts an annual inspection, and would investigate complaints. To investigate, however, they would need information from people who are willing to talk to them. So far, I've heard from a dozen people - former keepers, researchers, colleagues in the primate care community - and all of them asked me to keep their identity secret. Are they willing to take their information to USDA investigators?

  4. Someone should also maybe ask about what all these "volunteers" are doing, how much contact they have with the apes, if they've had their TB tests and innoculations. Is Teco, the infant, still sleeping with humans, or is he back with the apes. If he isn't involved in cognitive research, which he can't be in a sanctuary, will that opportunity be lost if Bonobo Hope can somehow - and that's an enormous if – gains research institute status again?

    1. I am a volunteer at Bonobo Hope/Great Ape Trust and spend at least one day a week there since February. I also volunteered at the Great Ape Trust from the time they opened until they experienced a flood and the opportunities to volunteered were ove.
      I have seen none of what the Blog writer speaks of.
      To answer your questions: All volunteers all have a negative TB test and work in areas without any contact Bonobos, with the exception of Teco. No one has alone time with Teco without spending a considerable amount of time and instruction from the care givers. Teco is more than integrated into the lives of the other Bonobos. It is my feeling that safety for the Bonobos and the employees/volunteers is 1st priority. Volunteers, work in the office and in the kitchen cooking and cleaning. They might also clean Bonobo areas when the Bonobos are not in the area or they are outside. There volunteers who do a variety of out side jobs.
      I cannot imagine a volunteer being close enough to a Bonobo to be touched, let alone bit.
      There are a lot of places that need exposed for their treatment of animals (and humans) but, Bonobo Hope/Great Ape Trust is not one of them.
      I will sign this Anonymous so that the Blog writer will not turn her negative attention my way.

  5. A true sanctuary, by definition, does not breed. Does this mean that Bonobo Hope will agree to put all their highly endangered bonobos on birth control? Such as shame, on so many levels

    1. I've never quite understood the connection between breeding (or not breeding) captive apes and their endangered status. After a couple of major failures decades ago, we would never again put a U.S. captive bred ape into an African or Asian natural habitat, so why do some feel it is imperative to keep a breeding population here? I understand the scientific underpinnings of the Species Survival Programs, but isn't the whole concept geared to keeping the gene pool healthy so zoos can produce more apes FOR OUR VIEWING PLEASURE? But this a different debate for a different day, isn't it?

  6. Something is very strange at The Great Ape Trust. Just haven't put my finger on it. Provides employment for a small group of family members. But what about the bonobos. They spend a great deal of time surrounded by cement and iron. Is that fair?