Thursday, September 13, 2012

Great Ape Trust bonobos need sunshine

Former Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” In other words, transparency can cure a lot and may even stop the growth of the malignant atmosphere enveloping the bonobos at Iowa’s Great Ape Trust. So far during this latest crisis, however, the Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary seems more interested in burnishing their public image than shining light on the growing problems at the Trust.
In a public statement on September 11, the board explained that this week they are starting an investigation of the charges raised by the Bonobo 12, and it “will be conducted by members of the board, veterinarians and ape welfare experts.” Members of the board are not appropriate investigators, since the Bonobo 12 say “it is our belief that the Board of the Trust has neglected to act in the bonobos’ best interests...” The board cannot investigate itself, at least if it wants to pass the laugh test. And we don’t know who the vets or ape welfare experts are. I’ve reached out to ape experts across the country, and couldn’t find anyone who had been asked to serve. Not from ape welfare organizations, not from sanctuaries, not from zoos, not from research offices. I still haven’t heard from everyone I tried to contact, but I shouldn’t have to do this. If the board wanted sunshine and transparency, they would tell us who will be investigating the Great Ape Trust.
The board should ask a special unaffiliated arbitrator to select a blue ribbon panel to truly investigate their entire operation, including financials, ethics, and board responsibility, in addition to all the other issues raised by the Bonobo 12.
In a statement to the Des Moines Register on September 13, board president Ken Schweller announced that they passed a surprise USDA inspection on September 12. Besides the fact that the allegations against the Great Ape Trust do not have anything to do with the cage sizes or paperwork that APHIS inspectors usually check, the sun is not shining. “USDA came out yesterday and everything looked good,” he said. “The USDA report was not immediately available,” wrote the reporter. Since the Great Ape Trust is representing the inspection results to the public, I asked USDA when their inspection agency would release the report.
“Whenever we conduct an inspection, our inspector will share the inspection report with the facility. But USDA does not publicly post that report for 21 days, because of the standard 21-day appeal window. So, we will not release the Great Ape Trust report right now,” Dave Sacks, USDA spokesman at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told me. “But USDA has no control over what this or any other facility releases to the press or public. Facilities have the right to release all, some or none of what is on those reports. On our end of things, we post the reports as public information after those 21 days, so long as the facility does not submit an appeal. In that case, we don’t post until the appeal has been settled.”
Great Ape Trust can and should release their USDA inspection report, now.
I realize the Great Ape Trust has many more problems than being pestered by a blogger. Now that charges voiced privately for nine months have become “official” with the public airing by the Bonobo 12, the Trust’s insurance company is probably putting a lot of pressure on them. People have to be concerned about any liability associated with Savage-Rumbaugh's interactions with the animals and staff. And with word seeping out of Iowa that Savage-Rumbaugh may be spending about five hours a day at the facility even though she is supposed to be on “administrative leave” ‒ I wouldn’t blame them for their concern.
Finally, watching Ken Schweller’s public show of shock and amazement would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Schweller would have television viewers think that the statement from the Bonobo 12 raised issues he had never heard of. (Captain Renault, in Casablanca: “I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”)
But the group made the record clear tonight.
“The Bonobo Hope Board and Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh cannot be surprised by these allegations, as similar concerns have been raised before,” members of the Bonobo 12 wrote in a statement to the media. “In December 2011 many staff members resigned because the board did not act upon their concerns for ape and human health and safety with Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh in the lab. In addition, leadership did not respond to Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh's accusations in the Des Moines Register that the staff had cut the infant bonobo Teco's feet and possibly physically abused other apes, despite email admissions to caretakers that they knew those allegations were false.”
“The Board has indicated that we will be invited to contribute to the investigation, but we are still waiting for that invitation.”
(Statement issued by Megan Buecher, Jen Draiss, Andrea Jackson, Tyler Kasperbauer, Susannah Maisel, Jackie Mobley, Daniel Musgrave, Stephanie Musgrave, Janni Pedersen, Tyler Romine, and Heather Taylor)
It’s still awfully dark at the Great Ape Trust.


For more information, see our Bonobo Hope post.


  1. What a joke. Of course the board, Sue, Liz and all the others knew that USDA was coming to check for dirt, debris, cage sizes, and out dated medications. They cleaned it up the very day Sue was removed. Big deal. USDA will notice starving animals, animals ankle deep in manure, rotting food, sick or injured animals. So what. We all know Kanzi and Co are NOT starving for calories. However....they are starving for nutrition, may have diabetes, most likely are heart attacks waiting to happen, are mentally damaged for life, live with a crazy person, are treated like pets, etc. USDA does not know the history. They walk in and see a tiny snap shot in time. That's it. Do not fall for this as a Good Housekeeping gold star. Time is of the essence. Those animals are morbidly obese and have had poor diets for years. WHen proper medical work ups are finally done (if ever) it is almost a given that there will be serious medical issues. Life threatening problems. An independent team of professionals who deal with chimps and bonobos daily needs to be assembled.

    1. I have to agree with this,.. I know at one point when the USDA came on campus, security was told to hold the USDA at the gate so they could clean somethings up before the USDA could come in and I am sure the board and others knew that the USDA would been coming and I am sure that hours after the letter hit the news, they started cleaning up the place.

  2. What does it benefit savage Rumbaugh to have the bonobos unhealthy, mistreated or otherwise harmed. How does that elevate her status, thicken her wallet or otherwise help her? I do not know, truly. I just know from experience that accusations like these generally are substantiated by there being benefit to the perpetrator and I don't see it.

  3. Magistra - perhaps the "benefit" is control. SSR's long, long, association with Kanzi easily could lead to a sense of his "belonging" to her and that she can do and will do as she pleases.

    I truly hope that SSR's mental or physical health has not deteriorated to the point that she cannot be trusted to see that the bonobos are safe, eat healthy diets, and are not harmed.

    While visitation days were still held, I drove for three days to get to GAT to participate. It was almost a life-altering experience to have Matata place her hand against mine on the plexiglass window wall. The grounds and buildings were heavily sprinkled with staff, grad students, and volunteers who were unfailingly courteous, friendly, and helpful even to me who had two black eyes from falling that morning.

    The membership and visitation programs, I believe, were invaluable as public relations tools and as public awareness and interest pathways for anyone curious about our world and the place of all those in or on this world.

    The unfortunate incidents involving ape and staff safety and the subsequent publicity made it clear management had to change. Kanzi's huge weight gain in a short time which threatens his health should ring an alarm for management change.

    Long before Teco was born, I emailed Dr. Fields about the possibility of Kanzi's becoming a father. I received a response outlining the bloodline and Kanzi's sterilization. Supposedly Kanzi's fertility regenerated itself and Teco was born. However, more recent online items about the possibility/probability of Teco's not being Kanzi's child have not received a response from GAT/BH as to results of any DNA testing and definitive statement of Kanzi's parentage.

    The continuing complaints about SSR's personal management style and seeming disregard of safety, environmental, and staffing concerns make her reinstatement a decision to be questioned. I have great respect for her years of dedication to ape research but fail to see the research in the statements to Kanzi such as "put the onions in the refrigerator" or similar statements other than to enhance SSR's reputation and "prove" to scientists who doubt ape language that apes have and comprehend language.

    True, Kanzi and Panbanisha are/were genius apes. They not only could talk among the other apes but could respond appropriately to questions and statements from non-bonobo persons. Most of all, they mastered that incredibly intricate, almost nonsensical, lexigram board! How many of us could do that? These two bonobos could speak three languages while most of us speak only one.