Saturday, September 22, 2012

Transcendental bonobos: Ecofeminist theologian who looks into apes' souls will look into charges levied at Great Ape Trust director

On September 11, 2012, the Board of Directors of Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Research Foundation publicly announced that they would investigate serious issues raised by the Bonobo 12, concerning the health and safety of the bonobos under the care of Sue Savage Rumbaugh. While the board’s announcement stated that the investigation “will be conducted by members of the board, veterinarians and ape welfare experts,” I am unable to find any ape welfare expert who has been asked to participate. Based on letters emanating from the Trust, it appears that recently appointed board member Nancy R. Howell is leading the so-called “investigation” (that is ignoring 99% of the devastating history presented by the Bonobo 12.)
Who is Nancy R. Howell, and what qualifies her to conduct an investigation, even a farcical one, into appropriate ape care and welfare? According to her published papers, Howell peers into the souls of bonobos… But her expertise does not seemed geared toward the very real and practical issues of ape management.
Howell is a professor of theology and philosophy of religion at Saint Paul School of Theology, and is the author of A Feminist Cosmology: Ecology, Solidarity, and Metaphysics. According to Howell’s bio, available on her website (and here in Google Drive), her research interests are “science (primatology, genetics, ecology), philosophy of religion and theology; feminist, womanist, mujerista theory and theology; cultural diversity and philosophy of religion and theology; [and] Whiteheadian philosophy and theology.”
Howell's research interest in primatology is interesting, especially considering that in the entirety of her 17-page resume, she lists no employment in organizations involved in primatology. She lists no education in primatology. She lists memberships in 19 associations but, despite her stated interest in primatology, she lists no memberships in associations related to apes or primatology (even though the Great Ape Trust's IRS Form 990 lists her as a director in 2011.) She lists no professional activities in primatology. Howell’s extensive lists of awards, grants, honors, and recognitions shows nothing related to chimpanzees, apes, bonobos, or primatology.
(Image from The Followers of the
Magical  Monkey Goddess
Her resume does show a proclivity for writing about the spirituality of apes, however. Howell’s prolific writings in the 1980s and 1990s were devoted largely to feminist theology, and the relationship of theology to science. In 2001, she started writing about apes and religion. (See a list of her ape-related articles at the end of this post.) It might be more than coincidence that Howell’s scientific quest to find religious meaning in human kinship with primates fits neatly into Savage-Rumbaugh’s transcendental beliefs about her relationship with bonobos.
Savage-Rumbaugh explained her stream of consciousness connection to bonobos, during an interview on Radiolab. (Listen to the Kanzi segment.) “When I am with bonobos, I feel like I have something that I shared with them long ago, but I forgot,” she says. “As we’ve clothed ourselves and separated ourselves, we’ve gained a wonderful society but we’ve lost the kind of soul-to-soul connection that they maintain. And it sometimes seems to me as though we’re both a kind of a disadvantaged species. They have things that I’ve lost, I have things that they don’t have. I feel like if I could have their abilities, and keep mine, I would be whole.”
Feeling kinship with the apes is common to all ape advocates and ape lovers. Taking it a step further, owners of exotic pets often cite a need for that feeling of “completeness,” wanting their pet chimp or lion to fill a hole in the owner’s emotional life.
In my humble opinion, the immersion of Howell into primate connections with ecofeminist theology lacks the professional underpinnings that are necessary for a review of the practical issues that must be considered for the health and welfare of the bonobos. It is especially troublesome when considered in context with Savage-Rumbaugh’s mysticism. For instance, one has a sneaking suspicion that, when determining whether it was appropriate for Sue to take baby bonobo Teco to be blessed at a public Buddha Relics Tour, Howell might view this religiosity as goodness, regardless of the potential health consequences for Teco.
Howell and Savage-Rumbaugh share a spiritual affinity, with each other and with the apes. That may help their perceptions of their immortal souls, but it may also interfere with an objective and professional investigation that is necessary to help the bonobos at this critical moment.
Howell’s list of ape-related articles and papers (as listed on her resume):
·         “Embodied Transcendence: Bonobos and Humans in Community,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 44:3 (September 2009): 60-12.
·         “Relations between Homo Sapiens and Other Animals: Scientific and Religious Arguments.” In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, ed. Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson, 945-961. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
·         “The Importance of Being Chimpanzee.” Theology and Science 1:2 (October 2003): 179-191.
·         “A God Adequate for Primate Culture.” Journal of Religion and Society 3 (2001) [journal online]. Available from [Note from Dawn: Disappointingly, this article is no longer on the website.]Internet accessed 2 May 2001.

·         “Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and the Future of Theological Education.” Science and Religion Roundtable Series. St. Andrews Presbyterian College. Laurinburg, NC, March 2009.
·         “God and the Great Apes.” Willson Lecture 2008. Oklahoma City University. Oklahoma City, OK, October 2008.
·         “Embodied Transcendence: Bonobos and Humans in Community.” Science, Technology, and Religion Group and Animals and Religion Group. American Academy of Religion. San Diego, CA, November 2007.
·         “Embodied Transcendence: Bonobos and Humans in Community.” Conference: Visions of Integration II (STARS Grant Conference). James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, October 2007.
·         “Chimpanzees: The Overlooked Aliens.” University of Great Falls, Great Falls, MT, March 2007.
·         “The Importance of Chimpanzees for Ecofeminist Theology.” Conference: “Exploring the Connections: Process- Relational and Women’s Theologies.” Center for Process Studies. Claremont, CA, April9 May 2004.
·         “Simians, Souls, and Solidarity.” International Conference. Highlands Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought. Dobogoku, Hungary, August 2003.
·         A Longing Look at Chimpanzees: Learning about Women through the Eyes of an Other: I. “Seeing the Other Chimpanzee,” II. “Seeing Ourselves in Relation to the Other Chimpanzee,” III. “Seeing Justice for Ourselves and the Other Chimpanzee.” Women’s Dialogue Seminar. Highlands, NC, June 2003.
·         “98% Chimpanzee, 100% Image of God: Embracing Humanity through Kinship with Nature.” Faculty Forum. Saint Paul School of Theology. Kansas City, Mo., May 2003. Fall Symposium: “Becoming Human: Exploring Scientific, Theological, and Biological Issues.” Saint Paul School of Theology. Kansas City, MO September 2003.
·         “98% Chimpanzee, 100% Image of God: Finding Religious Meaning in Human Kinship with Animals.” Kansas City Religion and Science Dialogue Project. Rock Hurst University. Kansas City, MO April 2003.
·         “The Chimpanzee Challenge to Human Uniqueness.” Beck Lecture. Southwestern College. Winfield, KS, February 2003.
·         “An Ecofeminist Stake in Chimpanzees.” Women in Religion, Ethics, and Science: Soul 2 Soul III Conference. Berkeley, CA, April 2002.
·         “The Challenge of Chimpanzees.” Danforth Associates Northwest Conference: What Chimpanzees Can Teach Us about Life, Love, and Learning. Ellensburg, WA, October 2001.
·         “Theology of Sociality and Primate Culture.” Primatology and Human Nature Research Seminar on Sociality. American Association for the Advancement of Science Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. Washington, DC, January 2001.
·         “Whitehead, Washoe, and Primate Culture.” Center for Process Studies. Claremont, CA January 2001.
·         “A God Adequate for Primate Culture.” Religion and Science Group. American Academy of Religion. Nashville, Tenn., November 2000. Women in Ministry. Saint Paul School of Theology. Kansas City, MO, October 2000.

Stay up to date on developments at the Great Ape Trust Bonobo Hope.


  1. Oh my. Let's review: no outside bonobo experts have been consulted, no zoo veterinarians skilled with bonobo medical problems has been asked for advice (hmm, the past 2 bonobo deaths at GAT could easily have been anesthetic deaths), we have extremely over weight bonobos sitting in a crazy nut house. Potential health problems that are life threatening are highly likely, cardiac issues, hypertension, diabetes, etc. Yes, bonobos have souls and they are begging to get the hell out of crazy town. Also, the argument that the bonobos live as "one happy family" at GAT is ridiculous. They do not, there are natural splits and separations in the troop of bonobos. Do not buy any discussions of "breaking apart a family", etc. These bonobos have never lived as one cohesive group. Outside experts need to be pulled in to evaluate the social dynamics of the GAT bonobos in order to best place them in pairs or small sub groupings at other institutions where they can learn and slowly integrate into larger troops. This whole mess continues to be a huge cluster **** and the board should be highly embarrassed and ashamed. This is being watched internationally.

  2. This really does not take me off guard about this place. Just look at the people they have put in charge of this place in the past... They know NOTHING about running a place like Great Ape Trust,.. sad, very sad..

  3. I wonder if any of the past employee's will be contacted? Not the 12 who are on this list, but others..


      Of course she spoke up primarily to market her book, but also provided some interesting insight.

    2. I was just contacted yesterday, and I am not part of the bonobo 12, however I am a past employee. So yes. Nancy is trying to be fair.

  4. I hope they let me know if they are contacted. This "investigation" is absolutely unacceptable, so far. As I understand it, Howell first said the investigation would be limited to events after January 1, 2012, because anything prior to that was covered by a prior inquiry. Evidently, no one knows what that inquiry was (my guess: nothing). Then she adopted Savage-Rumbaugh's media talking point, saying she is restricting the inquiry to January-August, because that's when SSR was director (which is irrelevant since she was already running the lab before that).

    So, will Howell expand the inquiry to others? Only if the other board members -- who must be looking on in horror as their reputations take a huge hit -- force her. Or when they call an end to the charade and ask for help from professionals.

    1. The bonobo community is quite small as you may expect. Nobody has been contacted.

    2. Thanks fro bringing this issue to light. Watching all the media praise of Savage-Rumbaugh through the years, I always felt that there was something a bit off about her and it surprised me that the likes of PBS and Anderson Cooper never questioned some of her approaches. Is taking a bonobo on a hike and making a campfire really benefiting primate research? And her living 24/7 with little Teco kept seeming weirder and weirder. I hope the bonobos land in an appropriate sanctuary soon.

  5. There has been no valuable research out of GAT, and it's been decades since anything of value came from Sue. Too bad all those millions went up in smoke and the whole thing is on the brink of a meltdown. Even if money can be found to buy a bit more time, the end is here. It's over. Nobody will fund this crazy nut house and if they do they will quickly find out what reality is. No grants will come, no huge donors. There is NO science here. In fact it is a shameful scam where many highly paid crooks took what they could and ran with it. Time is wasting. Those bonobos need total physical and psychiatric evaluations by experts in the bonobo field. The GAT bonobos are not normal, those who work with the GAT bonobos unfortunately do not have a good reference point for comparing normal healthy bonobos to the GAT animals. It's time to do this. It's time to say it's all over and the GAT bonobos need a second chance. There is no respected science going on at GAT. Nothing. The sooner it stops the sooner those bonobos can start to be rehabilitated and integrated slowly into normal healthy families.The rehab will be very slow and methodical with the utmost care given to detail and the psychiatric needs of all.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I'd like to remind readers to follow the comment guidelines. Please keep your comments on-topic and courteous. The comment I removed supported Howell. I will be happy to approve supportive comments if they follow the guidelines.

  7. "Howell first said the investigation would be limited to events after January 1, 2012 because anything prior to that was covered by a prior inquiry"

    Well thats news to me.. I know Sue has been placed on leave before and I think its very funny how he will not look at anything before Jan of 2012.. I know for a fact that some of the issues Sue has had, the safety issues, injured employee's, etc.. are documented in reports made by security people and I also know the people running this place from Kirk, Jim, to Bill and also Al, who was in charge of the "PR" for the Trust were VERY aware of the things that happened on campus.. and you see what they did with that information,.. Sue is still with the Trust and she made times 100.. I mean really???.. Wow. For any of these people to look the other way on this and to keep a smile on their faces when Sue was in the spot light just really upsets me.. you really have to ask yourself why these so called leaders even came to the Trust..