Sunday, February 3, 2013

Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary goes ape - and you can too!

A couple of years ago, Sara Gruen wrote Ape House, a novel that used the Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / IPLS as her inspiration. Today, Ape House became a precursor to reality, albeit mightily overstated. On February 1, the bonobos at Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary became public spectacles, subject to paid public tours and personalized “one-on-one” sessions for the rich.

(Please, can we stop the silly charade and drop the highly misleading “sanctuary” from the name? “Learning” should go, too.) 

You, too, can see how bonobo Kanzi has grown morbidly obese
I panned Ape House in my Amazon review, March 5, 2011: “After reading (and loving) Water for Elephants, I was really looking forward to this book. I had it pre-ordered from the moment I heard about it,” I wrote. “But I was disappointed. She touches on some important issues but the story line is weak. Okay, I get it, tough journalist meets sympathetic bonobo caregiver, and evil corporations seek to exploit human curiosity and, dare we say it, perversion. Unfortunately, it is difficult to empathize with any of the characters -- human or ape.”

In Ape House, the evil corporation puts bonobo Bonzi and his group on public display by using video cams to feature them in a reality TV show. Soon fans are lining up outside of their residential facility, salivating at the thought of seeing some of the bonobo sex that has been streaming onto their TV screens. At the real-life Iowa Primate, they haven’t gotten around to public access to video cams (yet), but they have opened up to public tours. And, for $3,000 to $5,000 minimum, you can get the one-on-one session. Whatever that is.

Several ape organizations allow public visits to their facilities, either by collecting “donations” or by wrapping it with a “membership day” moniker, so it would be unfair to castigate Iowa Primate for conducting public tours. The one-on-one sessions trouble me, however. I will leave it to the primate experts to discuss risks of transmission of germs and diseases, especially in view of Panbanisha’s death after she caught a cold. (BTW, where is that necropsy report?) I can raise awareness about other dangers. Based on the organization’s prior history of bites, accidents, and looniness (i.e., “scientists” believing that the bonobos and puppies speak in English), the rich patrons coming in for the one-on-ones might want to keep their fingers to themselves.

Some people are demanding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (America’s regulating agency) step in to stop this. USDA knows about this and condones it. In October 2012, Iowa Primate had an initial inspection in applying for a “public exhibition” license; they flunked it. (See the USDA inspection report.) The inspector wrote them up on six violations and required them to come into compliance with two more inspections, or before January 29 2013, or give up the fee for their exhibitor’s license. They have evidently come into compliance.

One more note. The pictures of Kanzi that lead this post have caused deep consternation among ape experts. Kanzi is morbidly obese, which isn’t good for any primate (including humans), but is especially bad for him because heart disease runs in his family. People want to know why USDA does nothing. I wondered the same thing. I try to give the USDA inspectors the benefit of the doubt, but that is impossible in this case. I had several conversations with USDA about Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary. This is the last message they sent me, on Nov 8 2012, after I renewed my request for a report from their Sept 2012 inspection: 
"There was no inspection report to speak of. A complaint had come in, so we followed our standard protocol and followed up on the complaint by looking into the matter. Our inspector visited the facility and conducted a very thorough evaluation, and found nothing that was out of compliance with the Animal Welfare Act regulations. The animals were each being properly cared for. This closes the matter for USDA."
If any of my wealthy readers decide to go one-on-one with an Iowa Primate bonobo, please let me know how it goes! USDA evidently isn’t interested. (P.S. Send pictures, too.)

For background on the Iowa bonobos, see Great Ape Trust.


  1. if USDA inspectors can't see that Kanzi is horribly overweight (or something worse is going on medically with him) than i guess that tells the whole story of every animal the USDA oversees: they don't. thank you for your continued pursuit of this story. p.s. come workout with me Kansi, i'm also 'overstuffed'

  2. Isn't there a veterinarian in charge of the place? OMG.

  3. How on earth did he get so fat?

    1. He eats marshmallows and burgers all the god damn time.

  4. I I watched with interest over the years as I found the thought of communication, real communication, with another animal fascinating. I had thought that the Great Ape Trust was, outside the wild, the one great ape research project that had the health, both mental and physical, of the apes as number one priority. I see now I've been duped. I was shocked to see a recent video of Kanzi, fat beyond a wild animals best attempt...ever. Last I saw Kanzi, he was fit and running through the fields and woods. I was horrified seeing a female bonobo awhile back who was very large and had an enormous swelling. Since none of the other bonobos looked similarly, I chalked it up to matriarch over-eating, the spoils of being alpha. To be honest, I had always had a bad feeling in my mouth whenever Dr. sue talked about her bonobos a little too personally. It is one thing to love the animals you work with, it is another to boast like a proud mother that you sleep with them and have parties for them. I have an uncle that works unbelievably, and with little pay and thanks, for elephants as a keeper. He has worked in Africa helping at sanctuaries for elephant orphans. I hear him talk about his elephants like a proud papa but one would never mistake him for anything other than a very caring keeper. He has spoken about staying in the elephant barn to watch them, but he is out of touch of the elephants and is only there in the event of an emergency, otherwise he never leaves his very separate room. There are very strict guidelines and when I visited, the only extra attention I got as niece of the head keeper, was a tour of the elephant facilities backstage..... when the elephants weren't there. I seen videos of a birth and physiotherapy for an injured three year old. I never seen, or even heard of a birthday party. For birthdays, the elephants get a meal of their favourite food. So it appears my scowls and uncertainties at many of her comments weren't terribly unwarranted. And I wasn't the only one who saw Teco's birthday party video as looney. Good, I'm not crazy.... We all know who that is shaping up to be.