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Great Apes

28 June 2006

Yesterday the girls and I visited the Great Ape Trust. It’s a research facility that does intelligence and behavior research (currently with bonobos and orangutans). Now, since most of you don’t live in Iowa, you probably aren’t thinking “Wow! That’s amazing!! They let you in?! I thought it was off-limits to the general public!!!” Yes, you’d be using more and more exclamation points. See, at first they weren’t letting anyone visit:

We’re a research facility, not an entertainment facility. Yeah, but, you sure are taking a lot of Iowa state funds, aren’t you? And we the taxpayers like those “Your Tax Dollars at Work” signs by public projects, see.

Aherm, well, we don’t have enough toilet facilities for lots of visitors to come through. How about if we promise not to pee while we’re there?

We wouldn’t want you to stress out the apes. This is a serious research facility!

Then, someone must have mentioned subtly that any institution that would like to grow and receive money from the outside might want to consider making the tiniest effort to be nice to the folks you’d like to get money from.

So this summer they’ve instituted 2-hour visits. They are free (but who doesn’t buy a cap, t-shirt, or book at the end of the tour?). The rules: You must be 10 years old. You must sign up ahead of time, and once the visit is full, it is full. You must be 10 years old. You must sign in at the security gate, and follow all the directives given to you by the staff. You may not take photographs. You must be 10 years old. The apes understand English, so you must speak respectfully about them in their presence. In fact, in the bonobo house, YOU MAY NOT SPEAK AT ALL!!!!! And, oh, you must be 10 years old.

People, did you know that you visit the blog of a rule-breaker? Yes indeed, Peaceable Imperatrix brought her “will-be-10-in-6-weeks” daughter on the visit. (Come on, Trixie is totally a great ape person. She belongs to Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program, and even got to say hello to Dr. Goodall when she visited Iowa last year! Plus, she sat in on a presentation by a woman who is trying to save the bonobos in the Congo [the only place they live, which, if you haven’t heard, is in the throes of violence, with very little responsible control on the part of any of the factions].)

Well, for all my complaints, it was a great visit. Did you know that bonobos love to cook? And that the ones at the Great Ape Trust have learned language since babyhood, and that they are teaching it to the next generation themselves? Coolness.

In the bonobo house, we were taken in groups of four to stand by the window where we could observe the bonobos. When I went, the bonobo came up to the window, looked at us, and then wandered off. (Of course she would! She’s an intelligent person, and there we were standing like mute statues, afraid to even smile at her because we were afraid the staff were going to kick and beat us if we spoke!) But our guide got a group of four kids to go up (my two, our friend, and some random kid), and Kanzi, the “head” of the bonobos, came to the window and signed “chase”. One of the staff played chase with him. But that’s not what he wanted. He wanted the kids to play chase. So they did. He then said “chase, again!” and Impera and Trixie did. How cool is that? Interaction with another great ape! That in itself made the visit worthwhile, in my opinion.

Look, we’re all intrigued by the possibility of communicating with other species, aren’t we? That just feels so magical to me. I would LOVE to raise a bonobo as one of my family (not that we’re allowed to. But hey, once you break one rule … it’s a slippery slope, I tell you). If I had my school days to live over, I would SO study anthropology. In a heartbeat. Supposedly Spain is considering passing a resolution that gives personhood to great apes. And I think: Go Spain! Maybe we should move there.

Anyway, the visit was fantastic. Thanks to my friend D for inviting us along, and for confirming that my rule-breaking is an OK thing to do, if the circumstances are right. (And she’s a lawyer, so hey, if she says it’s alright, then it’s alright!—Right?)

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