April 20, 2005
Apes May Help Determine Human Nature
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh sounds like a proud mother when she speaks about her brood of bonobos, eight ultra-intelligent apes that will take part in unique language research meant to shed light on their nature and maybe our own.
The first two bonobos will make the 16-hour road trip from the Language Research Center at Georgia State University to their new $10 million, 13,000-square-foot home near downtown Des Moines later this month. All eight - three females and five males - will arrive at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa by mid-May.
Bonobos, a species of ape from the Congo, are the most like humans, Savage-Rumbaugh said. They constantly vocalize "as though they are conversing" and often walk upright.
"If you want to find a human-like creature that exists in a completely natural state ... that creature is the bonobo," said Savage-Rumbaugh, an experimental psychologist who is one of the world's leading ape-language researchers.
If the apes are able to learn language, music and art, once thought to be distinct to humans, then "it strongly suggests that those things are not innate in us," she said.
"Those are things that we have created, and create anew and build upon from one generation to the next ..." she said. "Then we have the power to change it and make it any other way. We could have an ideal world, if we but learn how to do it."
The bonobos will be able to cook in their own kitchen, tap vending machines for snacks, go for walks in the woods and communicate with researchers through computer touchscreens. The decor in their 18-room home includes an indoor waterfall and climbing areas 30 feet high.
The longevity of the project is unlike any other.
The animals, which have a life span of up to about 50 years, will be allowed to mate and have families - and develop cultures that will be studied for generations to come, Savage-Rumbaugh said.
Visitors are allowed, but they must understand that the Great Ape Trust is not a zoo, she said.
Using a network of cameras and computers, the bonobos can see visitors who ring the doorbell - and will be able to choose through a computer touchscreen who will be permitted into a secured viewing area.
"Only if they want to open the door can you enter," Savage-Rumbaugh said.
Karen Killmar, an associate curator at the San Diego Zoo, said the Great Ape Trust is unlike other research programs.
"There's studies all over the place in terms of intelligence and learning ability and behavior," she said, "but to be able to sort of pull it all together in one place I think is a wonderful opportunity to give us a much clearer picture of what our closest relatives are."
On the Net:
The Great Ape Trust: http://www.iowagreatapes.org/