Bonobos R Us?

By  Jean Farrington

Chimps, orangutans, and monkeys have been animals of scientific interest and study for decades and the work of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and others featured in the popular press. But bonobos, another ape, and also a close relative of us humans, have been largely unknown and somewhat overlooked until fairly recently.

Bonobos only inhabit the Democratic Republic of Congo and face the serious threat of extinction due to the ravages of that country’s ongoing wars, being hunted for food, and being under appreciated for their significance in the overall scheme of evolution.

I first learned about bonobos in a New Yorker article published in 2007 which highlighted research being done by Frans de Waal and others at a site called Lui Kotal.  Now we have the very personal and wrenching account of Vanessa Woods’ time at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary, Bonobo Handshake:  A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo.

Woods reluctantly and with great trepidation accompanied her then fiancé, Brian, to first Uganda and then Congo where he was to study the behavior of chimpanzees and then bonobos to try and determine what behaviors in these animals we see in humans and how we humans have evolved from these two branches of the evolutionary tree.  Unlike chimps whose societies are male-dominated and aggressive, bonobos are female-dominated and are a sexy, fun-loving, largely peaceful community.  Unlike chimps who react with suspicion to any stranger, bonobos are neutral even welcoming; bonobos will share and cooperate to a degree not seen at all in chimps and much closer to the kind of cooperation and tolerance that makes human society work.

Wood’s portrait is a mix of politics; the history of violence, rape and pillage that has been the reality for Congo since its independence, her personal journey; and science in the wild.  Given the space devoted to Congo’s turbulent wars with Rwanda and Uganda, a few maps of the continent and the country would have been helpful.

Woods is an Australian and her descriptions are simultaneously beautiful, sharp and salty; the child of divorced parents and an absent, troubled father who served in Vietnam, she has issues to sort out and a quest for answers about how that war haunted him.  In her search, Woods manages to elicit the tales of several staff who witnessed killings of family members and were themselves brutalized. The sanctuary outside Kinshasa, the capital, is, therefore, a haven for both animals and humans.

The bonobos here all have names and distinct personalities and there are times when you forget or wonder whether Woods is talking about them or real people.  The bonobos are usually orphans or young adults who have been mistreated as pets or wounded by hunters.  The infants are cared for by a set of women dubbed The Mamas who lavish affection on the babies, bond with them and are the recipients of the bonobos’ genital rubbing.  The goal of the sanctuary is to be able to release the bonobos back into the wild; some make it, some do not and the deaths are heartbreaking for both animals and keepers.

Because bonobos prefer females to males, Woods is drawn into running many of Brian’s experiments and finds herself responding to these appealing creatures and eventually even designing her own experiment, a step that leads to a research appointment at Duke.  Their work, his work, is noteworthy and Brian Hare is featured on a PBS documentary and in the popular press:  you might say that while there is a lot more to do to protect them, bonobos have arrived on the scene.

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