A guest article by Beth Dalbey, a former employee of the Great Ape Trust
Shame on everyone involved in this trick-pony show. (“Bonobo Kanzi will help judge Fair food contests,” Des Moines Register, June 24, 2014)
One question: Will a scientist with standing be on hand to explain what Kanzi’s choices mean, or even that he sometimes beats at the glass during visits to show he doesn’t suffer fools quietly? Or will the public’s 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 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 – Matata’s two weeks ago and Panbanisha’s 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 director’s insistence that they’re focused on transparency at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative.
After Matata died, the ACCI promised to release the results her necropsy, There’s 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 they’re 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 Panbanisha’s 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 Panbanisha’s 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 Teco’s 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 they’d 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 don’t move during invasive brain imaging (MRIs)? Do they share ?
As part of ACCI’s claimed conservation mission, do Hopkins, Taglialatela, Steve Boer, Tami Watson and others associated with the ACCI have concerns that ?
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.)