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.)


  1. Excellent article, Beth!

    I apologize for this next comment being totally off topic but I just had to thank Dawn for your post about the upcoming movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that you wrote about in June. Only because of that article of yours was this even on my radar. (I've never seen any of these movies) I certainly intend to see this one! This review confirms your preview article from June.

    Many Thanks! Oh, also do you recommend any of the earlier renditions?

    1. Nancy, you should try to see the first one, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, before going to this one. It's not necessary, but you'll love knowing the story from the beginning. Some of our theaters are having a "double header," showing both Rise and Dawn.

  2. Russell H. TuttleJuly 13, 2014 at 10:41 AM

    The time has come (albeit belatedly) to move the remaining bonobos (Pan paniscus) to a sanctuary like La Vallée des Singes near Poitier, France, or in the USA, Canada, or better yet the Republic of Congo, where they can breed and live out their lives in a more characteristic social group. The 4 males and only one female at Bonobo Hope are atypical of bonobos in the wild. The BH bonobos, especially recently deceased Panbanisha and Matata, have revealed much to science (see Apes and Human Evolution, HUP, 2014 for comprehensive summaries), most particularly underscoring remarkable intelligence, sociality, and awareness. Now we should provide them with facilities that encourage agency and natural dignity, not continue to use them for the amusement in dys-educational stunts.

    Russell H. Tuttle
    Professor in Anthropology, Evolutionary Biology, Morris Fishbein Center for the History of Biology and Science,
    and the Biological and Social Sciences Collegiate Divisions
    Director of Undergraduate Studies in Anthropology
    Director of the University of Chicago Paris Program on Primates and Human Evolution

    1. That ship has probably sailed. These bonobos have been raised to full adulthood in the hybrid culture they've been brought up in. Being inserted into a natural bonobo culture would be no more comprehensible to them, than for you and I to be dropped off in St. Petersberg without so much as a Fodor's,and told to live our lives in Russian now.

      For better or for worse, this is their culture now, and they should be allowed to continue in it (albeit in a dignified way without being turned into circus apes) for their natural lives.

  3. Saw this trending on Buzzfeed:

    I find it very hard to believe that Koko gives a rat's ass about Robin Williams, and shame on Penny for exploiting that man's tragic death to get her foundation in the news again.