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.