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!


  1. Thanks Dawn, at least Ndume is getting some attention. More smoke and mirror BS coming from TGF and Cinci Zoo. They can say anything about the conditions and quality of life for gorillas Koko and Ndume and there's no outside or third party to confirm or deny the KOKO spin machine, and Penny and Ron would not have it any other way. Penny and Ron are spin machine experts with over 40 years of experience.

  2. Oh and the pic, seriously wtf? Go figure, Evans claims to be at TGF to check on Ndume, but they only show a pic of him sitting with Koko? Ndume just can't catch a break, Koko Koko Koko always about Koko.

  3. This just breaks my heart. Betty White needs to know about this. She would be livid!

  4. Please check out this article:
    Maybe it's time to contact lawyer Steven Wise who has been filing habeas corpus lawsuits.

    From the above article: "Under the partial heading “The Nonhuman Rights Project Inc. on behalf of Tommy,” the legal memo and petition included among their 106 pages a detailed account of the “petitioner’s” solitary confinement “in a small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed”; and a series of nine affidavits gathered from leading primatologists around the world, each one detailing the cognitive capabilities of a being like Tommy, thereby underscoring the physical and psychological ravages he suffers in confinement."

    Thank-you for this very sad update. I feel angry about the calculated indifference to both of these beings.

  5. It's easy to vilify either organization as cruel, misguided, or exploitative... and there are serious and difficult ethical situations going on. At least in the case of the Iowa Bonobos, it seems to be driven more by desperation to keep the organization afloat, and keep these human-socialized animals cared for, than simply by cruelty and mismanagement.

    Kanzi's needs more activity and a healthier diet for his aging metabolism, certainly. His is not a typical Animal Sanctuary situation, though, and along with respecting his personhood and socialization, we need to recognize that his needs are more complex than those of a Wild Bonobo. Public exhibitions, like a community food-tasting, may not even be opposed to his interests.

    There's a world of people who need to understand what he represents... and right now, that means interacting with and relating to the public in a Human way. Also, note that the organization the Bonobos rely on for care needs funding in order to provide that care... and a quality facility, the necessary oversight to keep the staff in line, and maintain healthy conditions is at least partially dependant on how well funded that organization is. Fixing their funding situation is a continual issue, and the first step toward improving their lives. With the nation's mismanagement, the loss of research and non-profit funding, and general financial instability right now, that's simply not going to happen unless they seek out public funding and support.

    You could relate the situation of the Bonobos to the social contract between an employee and employer, or to a farmer and their work-horse. In order to feed and house them, they perform work, which in this case involves interracting with the public in some capacity rather than manual labor.

    I haven't worked with these organizations, and don't have the benefit of an inside view... but I have worked for and helped operate an understaffed and overworked wildlife rescue on a shoe-string budget. There were months we struggled for enough funding to keep the lights and heat on, or had to turn away (and possibly condemn) otherwise treatable cases due to being beyond capacity for our building and staff. It's hard when lives are at stake when fundraising, and frankly I'd have expected far more desperate measures than we see.(1/2)

  6. For my former organization, funding shortages could mean making painful decisions, like euthanizing animals who could have made a full recovery, but still required another month or two of rehabilitation and medical care. For sanctuaries or research facilities, a loss of funding means condemning individuals like Ndume to greater suffering, shipping them off to other organizations who don't understand who they are and what they represent, nor can be trusted to offer the same care or consideration. It's a frightening thought, but the Iowa Bonobos could meet the same fate as Ndume, if not something worse, unless the funding situation changes.

    It's the unfortunate nature of American culture and economics, that research without immediate monetary benefits is practically an afterthought. Whatever may be happening there, however misguided their management has been at different times, and whatever means they may be resorting to just to stay afloat... these are acts of desperation meant to preserve something that has never existed before, and will never exist again. Individuals like the Iowa Bonobos, who put their personhood on display in bold letters, and the work that has been done with them stands to challenge the world's understanding of what defines animals like us as "People". Would that they were able to still focus on research as they once did. Would that they could be true Cultural Exchange programs, respecting the social and biological needs of Bonobos or Gorillas, but still allowing them to interact and communicate with Humans as they have been, and even furthering our ability to connect with other Hominids as People.

    If you take nothing else from this, realize that the staff and managers of these organizations are jumping through just as many hoops as the animals entrusted to their care. They have to put on a show to keep their organization alive, and broadcast a message. And widespread receipt of that message could mean a paradigm shift for biologists, anthropologists, and the people of Earth... Human and otherwise. (2/2)

  7. I appreciate your perspective. But it doesn't seem to matter who is in charge, they resort to these gimmicks. Their original "business model" was to be a first class research facility. That ended when Rob Shumaker left. Then it was to be a artist colony. Or a sanctuary. Or a business conference center. Or whatever. Now the executive director tells the Des Moines Register that their new business model is to be open to all. That's fine, but then they can't pretend they are a cognition (oh yeah, and toss in "conservation" for good measure) initiative. Perhaps, one day, they will bring in a board and professionals who know what their doing and can regain the trust of advocates and academia.

  8. Reputable (and what I would call real) sanctuaries raise money by effectively telling the stories of their residents and how they nurture them back to health. The animals come first, which means no shows, no gimmicks, no b.s. And the good primate sanctuaries belong to the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance --

  9. It's curious how the picture you posted of Kanzi goes from 2011 to 2013, not 2014. Kanzi has lost quite a bit of weight since last year and looks much better. He has been on a strict diet. Also, Kanzi will not be "scarfing down" various desserts. He will be receiving ONE bite from 3 different desserts (the 3 favorites selected by judges present at the fair). Also, many people see this as exploitation of Kanzi but he loves this stuff. He loves interacting with people and engaging in activities. This is a fun and exciting activity for him, and I don't see how it's doing him any harm. The ACCI has had its struggles in the past, but it is under new leadership now, and the people that work with the bonobos would do anything to keep them healthy, safe, and happy. They are trying to connect with the community in a positive way and to spread awareness about bonobos - not only the ones in Iowa, but also the endangered ones in the wild, about whom awareness needs to be spread. Maybe you should try to get all the facts first before taking advantage of the first potentially damaging snippet of information you find and twisting it further.

    1. Sorry you don't like the latest verified picture I could find of Kanzi. I couldn't find a website for ACCI, and the IPLS website photo gallery is completely empty.

      I would take your word for Kanzi's health, but since you are anonymous there is no way of judging your expertise.

      I don't doubt that Kanzi loves this stuff. I'm not arguing that he is being forced to eat. It's obvious he loves to eat. My point is that it is an inappropriate way to educate the public, in line with the unfortunate BBC marshmallows video. (BTW, he looks pretty hefty there.)

      I have asked to interview the new management, as I said in the blog. Even this morning, I told a bonobo expert that I hope that the Kanzimobile, etc., is just a big public relations goof up, and that ACCI is sincerely trying to establish themselves as a reputable organization. Using Kanzi as a public joke (and primo marshmallow eater) isn't the way to do it. Legitimate sanctuaries tell their stories without gimmicks, and earn professional respect and the approbation of thousands of donors... Why can't ACCI?


    3. Hey anonymous, thanks for posting the Des Moines Register's latest version of events for Kanzi's food judging. Now they tell us that Kanzi won't REALLY judge the State Fair food entries they are speeding to him in the Kanzimobile! No, he's going to judge "bonobo-friendly" versions. So, in other words, it isn't really a contest. It is really and truly just a publicity stunt. The rest of the article is more words about how cool Kanzi is. Yes, he is, we all agree. The point that the Iowa bonobo organization (what is it called these days???) and their cheerleaders at the Register don't seem to understand is that publicity gimmicks like this (and like Doc Antle's exploitation of young chimps at a showing of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) don't educate people, and don't contribute to ape welfare. These crass and classless stunts are meant to titillate, to inspire contributions. I'm all for giving the bonobo group the financial resources they need -- IF they could demonstrate serious efforts to become a sanctuary or a research facility or an SSP member or anything other than a Doc Antle-type sideshow. So far, that ain't happening.

  10. Zoo's make so much money off these animals and what they give back to the conservation of them is only like 1%. If that:(((

  11. Has anyone asked the apes what they think about this in sign or other language they can understand?

  12. The apes are great animals we have to care for them like they are our own because they are ,they take care of themselves in the wild but in captivity it's our job they need space enough food medicine and lots of love they count on us

  13. I love Kanzi I wish I could meet him one day it's on my bucket list for sure he has a great personality and his smile is the best