Happy bonobos make great research subjects at Des Moines’ world-renowned Ape Initiative

Ape Initiative residents and best friends Clara and Kanzi hang out. — courtesy of Ape Initiative

Des Moines is known for a few things: the Traveler’s Insurance sign, Slipknot and, I suppose, the Iowa state government. But in zoologist circles globally, Des Moines is famously the home of the only facility dedicated to the research and conservation of bonobos.

Ape Initiative is an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited nonprofit organization located in southeast Des Moines that currently houses seven bonobos, cared for by a small but mighty staff of researchers. Amanda Epping is one of them.

“As research coordinator, I just kind of liaison between our collaborators, our director, our staff and all our partners,” Epping explained. “I’m the middle man. Or, woman, I guess.”

After getting her Masters in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Epping maintained an interest in primates, specifically because of the multi-female groups many species live in.

Bonobos are the closest living relatives to humans, alongside chimpanzees. There are quite a few similarities between chimps and bonobos, including their complex communicative abilities, Central African habitat, and preference for living in troops. But bonobos are smaller in stature, matriarchal, have a reputation for sexual promiscuity — even using sex to bond and solve conflicts — and endangered, with as few as 15,000 remaining in the wild.

Being able to work closely with bonobos while also studying them made sense for Epping, so she started working with Ape Initiative in 2017.

Before the facility was called the Ape Initiative, it operated under many names — most notably, the facility was Great Ape Trust (GAT), an organization founded by Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend and spearheaded by primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. While Townsend’s goal for the facility was to offer STEM opportunities to students living in rural Iowa communities, GAT was the focus of consistent media coverage for other reasons. Some of these reasons included mistreatment allegations, the death of a beloved and relatively young bonobo, and lack of funds. In 2013, 10 years after the building was constructed, the facility was in dire financial straits and Townsend removed himself from the operation.

Breaking up bonobo family groups can be detrimental to their health, so to ensure the bonobos wouldn’t be separated during the financial hiccup, Dr. Jared Taglialatela and Dr. Bill Hopkins founded Ape Initiative. Through Ape Initiative, the bonobos remained in the same building, but were put under the care of a new team of researchers committed to resurrecting the research program and providing the apes with a long-term home.

“It was really important to our co-founders to keep the five bonobos together, to keep Kanzi and his family as one unit, and to keep a really large focus on research and educational outreach,” research associate Sara Skiba said. “And we’ve been quite successful in that. And so that’s something we’re very proud of.”

Bonobos mill around their indoor play area. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

Today, Ape Initiative is home to seven bonobos: 22-year-old Maisha, 12-year-old and sole Iowa native Teco, 24-year-old Nyota, 42-year-old lexigram master Kanzi, 12-year-old Clara, 15-year-old Mali, and 24-year-old matriarch Elikya. The majority of the group has lived together most of their lives and experienced the move from a facility in Georgia to Iowa together when Savage-Rumbaugh and Townsend initially started GAT. They are siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews to each other. Because of this, and because of the strong family ties bonobos keep throughout their lives, Ape Initiative’s focus on keeping them together has proven to be beneficial for their well-being, which in turn helps with the facility’s research.

“If you’re gonna be housing animals, you should be doing the best you can by them,” Epping said. “And I think there’s been a huge change in research to look at that. What can we provide them with? How can we make their days as good as possible?”

At Ape Initiative, making a bonobo’s day as good as possible involves a lot of choice. Rather than forcing a bonobo to participate in a study or training session, bonobos are given the opportunity to participate. They let researchers know what they want either by using a lexigram, a symbol used for simple communication, or positively responding when a research activity is presented to them.

“People always say, ‘How do you know what they want if they don’t use the lexigrams?’ It’s so obvious. They point at doors, they look right at you and gesture, and it’s very obvious,” Epping said.

Ape Initiative does a range of different research exercises with the bonobos. Teaching lexigrams and other point-and-click games are only one part of it. Ape Initiative also conducts husbandry training, where bonobos show body parts, practice getting their blood pressure taken, and track their heart rate with EKG machines so they are comfortable when and if they ever need to receive medical attention. Since bonobos are predisposed to heart disease, husbandry training is important for both research and for the bonobos’ overall well-being.

After participating in research projects or husbandry training, bonobos are rewarded with a snack or an enrichment activity. Enrichment, according to Epping, is an activity researchers give bonobos to encourage natural behaviors. Enrichment could look like making their food a little bit harder to eat or providing them with nesting materials.

“They have different tastes, different likes and dislikes,” Epping explained. “Teco and Nyota like to watch movies; the others don’t really care. Mali loves to groom with the other bonobos. It just really depends. They definitely have their own unique personalities.”

Kanzi noms on a snack. — courtesy of Ape Initiative

But perhaps the most distinguished bonobo at Ape Initiative is Kanzi, the oldest bonobo in the group, who turned 42 in late October. Brother to the late Panbanisha, uncle to Nyota and Teco, and adopted brother to Elikya and Maisha, Kanzi is world-renowned for his proficient use of lexigrams and understanding of spoken English.

A study conducted in the mid-1990s showed that Kanzi was able to respond correctly 72 percent of the time to 660 novel English sentences he was exposed to, outcompeting a 2-and-a-half-year-old human child, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Researchers believe Kanzi’s exceptional skills are likely a result of absorbing lessons in his youth.

“He was a year old with his mom, Matata, when researchers were trying to teach the symbols to Matata. And what the researchers quickly realized was that Matata was not very good at the lexigram symbols, but that 1-year-old Kanzi was starting to pick up the spoken English of the scientists as well as starting to use the symbols to communicate,” Skiba explained. “And so they switched gears very quickly and focused more of the studies on Kanzi.”

Kanzi’s nephews, Nyota and Teco, also use lexigram symbols to request snacks, enrichment, and sometimes actions, like “chase,” which is essentially a game of tag. But not all bonobos are able to use the lexigrams, and that doesn’t make their needs any less important. In fact, finding ways to communicate just as thoroughly with bonobos that don’t use these tools is an ongoing focus of researchers at Ape Initiative.

Epping said that for bonobos like Clara, who are less comfortable with lexigrams, the researchers at Ape Initiative have been working on developing clipboards with pictures of items that are easier to understand than the lexigram symbols.

“I think research in general is less about, what can we teach apes to do? and more about, what are they doing on their own?” Epping said. “And how can we understand? What can we learn about ourselves and about them through that?”

The other cornerstone of Ape Initiative is sharing these lessons through educational outreach for K-12 students. Since Ape Initiative’s facilities are not open to the public, they get creative with how they work with schools. They offer a variety of courses about apes through their website as well as private tours for classes through the facilities.

The facility doesn’t open its doors to ape enthusiasts in the city, but public support is still an integral part of the Ape Initiative’s survival.

“I think in order for long-term success for the facility, the community has to get involved and see it as a resource,” Epping said. “Because a lot of zoos get funding from the city they’re in … But we’re not a zoo. And just because [people] can’t come visit on a Sunday afternoon,” she added, they should still think of it “as an important resource that they should want to keep here in Des Moines.”

Reframing the idea of what is considered a resource could be a positive thing for Des Moines. Although the bonobos don’t exist here for the city’s viewing pleasure, they are the reason that researchers from all over the world travel to Des Moines. And the researchers at Ape Initiative are leading the way in bonobo research and care. Perhaps it’s enough to be a Des Moines resident and know that seven well-cared for, ultra-smart bonobos call the city home, too.

Lily DeTaeye is a Little Village Central Iowa reporter. This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 008.

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