Sunday, July 6, 2014

More questions about Iowa bonobo management

Noted ape researcher Frans de Waal posted an update on his public Facebook page, noting that “Kanzi is a language-trained bonobo at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative (ACCI) in Iowa.” I also referred to the latest incarnation in Iowa as ACCI, but Frans' post got me wondering (again) about what is going on in Iowa.

I checked the USDA APHIS lists for anything on ACCI. Nothing. Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary – Great Ape Trust – Bonobo Hope (yes, the federal government uses all three names) is still listed as Kanzi’s owner.

I checked the IRS listing of charitable organizations for anything on ACCI. Nothing. IPLS is registered, however.

Frans also stated that “Bill Hopkins, the new director (together with Jared Taglialatela), sends me an updated photograph of Kanzi, who has lost 20 Kg (44 pounds) in the last 6 months. BTW - The dessert contest was not their idea.”

The Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary has a Facebook page, active as of this weekend. It lists Steve Boers as director, not Bill Hopkins. That may explain why “the new director” was not able to stop the use of Kanzi in a public relations stunt: because he isn’t the director of the organization that owns and manages the bonobos?

Once again, there are more questions than answers about what the hell is happening in Iowa. I'd love to celebrate progress evidently reported by Yerkes scientists de Waal and Bill Hopkins, and Yerkes research associate Jared Taglialatela, as many are, but I'm concerned that they may not have much say-so, besides changing Kanzi's dietary regime. Who is actually in charge? And why can't the organization stay with one friggin' name? 

(And where is Sue Savage-Rumbaugh? I can’t believe she is sitting idly by…)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

No Dignity in Asking Kanzi, the 'Ape of Genius,’ to Judge Unhealthy Iowa State Fair Foods

A guest article by Beth Dalbey, a former employee of the Great Ape Trust

One question: Will a scientist with standing be on hand to explain what Kanzis choices mean, or even that he sometimes beats at the glass during visits to show he doesnt suffer fools quietly? Or will the publics understanding be limited to the explanation from a breathless volunteer: "Kanzi loooooves dessert”?

This is a cheap trick to play on a bonobo who blurred the line between human and non-human primates when he acquired language simply by being exposed to it, as human children do, demonstrated an aptitude for stone tool making, and is a precious scientific treasure.

To be mocked and put on display as he eats food that is unhealthy and bad for him is the ultimate indignity to this very dignified bonobo who is self-aware enough to know he is a star.

Instead of exploiting an obese ape with a heart  condition – the biggest concern in the article seems to be that Kanzi will “snarf everything down and then dismiss us” before the photographers can get decent video – the Register might look at four bonobo deaths at the facility since they arrived in Des Moines in 2005.

That includes two in recent years – Matatas two weeks ago and Panbanishas in 2012, which is still shrouded in questions. The public was told Panbanisha died of a “cold,” yet the necropsy report has never seen the light of day, despite the current directors insistence that theyre focused on transparency at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative.

After Matata died, the ACCI promised to release the results her necropsy, Theres nothing to suggest this ape in her mid-40s died for any other reason than natural causes, but a history of ape deaths at the facility should at least make reporters curious enough to stop mocking these rare, endangered great apes for humans entertainment long enough to ask questions when some of them die.

While theyre on the subject of deaths in this one-of-a-kind bonobo family – there is no other group like them in the world, and the studies taking place with three generations of bonobos raised in a unique bicultural atmosphere can never be duplicated – they might ask for clarification about Panbanishas death.

The loss of Panbanisha is significant – and a tragedy that may have been preventable.

Like Kanzi, she also had receptive competence for spoken English and many scientists considered her “the true ape of genius,” despite that moniker more often being assigned to Kanzi. She was a complex individual and elegant in her ability to manipulate situations to get what she wanted. There was always a “maybe” in Panbanishas response to requests.

If Panbanisha did die of a cold, as the public has been told, did veterinarians rule out as a possible factor young Tecos well documented travels around the city, where he was pictured on social media in public settings that included a large auditorium that hosted the Buddha Relics tour? What are the odds that the guests there were asked to wear masks or provide proof theyd had flu shots and had passed TB tests, common protocol when sharing the same air space as apes, who are vulnerable to human respiratory ailments?

Intellectually curious reporters might ask if the scientific mission has changed.

Is ACCI still focused on the same non-invasive language collaborations these valuable research apes have been involved in throughout their lives?

Or will scientists Bill Hopkins and Jared Taglialatela begin “knocking down” apes with anesthesia, ensuring they dont move during invasive brain imaging (MRIs)? Do they share documented concerns in the veterinary community that certain anesthetic protocols may exacerbate or artificially induce signs of cardiac disease?

As part of ACCI’s claimed conservation mission, do Hopkins, Taglialatela, Steve Boer, Tami Watson and others associated with the ACCI have concerns that using apes in entertainment perpetuates not only the notion that great apes are ours to mock and profit from, but also the misconception that they are common and ordinary, and not a blink away from extinction?

Apparently not. Please call this off.

Failing that, will Kanzi at least get a lousy Size 3X Des Moines Register/Iowa State Fair T-shirt out of the deal?

If they must do this, the architects of this travesty should at least have Kanzi judge fresh fruits and vegetables, foods that are actually good for him.

Oh, and to give Kanzi back some of his dignity, the people who cooked this publicity stunt should be streamed live over the Internet eating ape chow so we can all sit back and laugh and jeer as they point at their favorites.

(Full disclosure: I worked as an editor in the communications department at the former Great Ape Trust from 2007-2010. For the record, if I'd suggested something like this, I probably would have been fired – for good reason.)