June 1, 2006

Iowa Ape Research Facility to Offer Tours

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The three orangutans and eight bonobos living at the Great Ape Trust will interact with more humans starting in June when the research facility is opened to the public.

Tours of the 230-acre forest, lakes and great ape housing areas will be available to small groups from June 6 through Sept. 7.

"We want to begin to educate people about why it's important for us to understand apes, why it's important for us to realize the degree of similarity between ourselves and apes and what we can learn about ourselves by studying apes," said Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a lead scientist at the trust focusing on studying the behavior and intelligence of bonobos.

After 23 years at Georgia State University's Language Research Center, Savage-Rumbaugh brought her studies to the trust. She has developed methods of communicating with bonobos that involve using symbols.

As she approaches the fenced-in area of the bonobo living quarters with several camera-toting journalists, one bonobo shows a toothy grin. She said he's smiling for the camera.

Another grabs his symbol chart and goes to a corner, which Savage-Rumbaugh said is a signal that he wants to talk to her.

She goes to the corner and said the bonobo asked her to get him some grapes. As she continues to talk with visitors, the bonobo becomes irritated and flings wood chips lining the floor of the caged area through the fence. She tells him he can't have grapes if he behaves that way.

The Great Ape Trust has eight bonobos. They have dark brown fur, but walk on two legs and are the most humanlike in appearance of the great apes, Savage-Rumbaugh said. Bonobos, which are smaller than an adult human, are believed to have the most peaceful society of the great apes.

The bonobos will soon have a large waterfront forested area to dwell. Large dirt-moving machines were putting the finishing touches on an outdoor area that will have two caves, a variety of areas for climbing, trees and a lake.

Savage-Rumbaugh said the area will be designed so people and bonobos can be near one another fostering easy interaction.

"We can have places where people and apes go side by side with a nearly invisible barrier between them," she said.

The three orangutans live in a separate building with a caged outdoor area. They too will eventually have an 80-acre river forest to run. For now, they climb the fire hoses hung from the top of their outdoor cage about 1 1/2 stories high.

Azy, a 28-year-old male orangutan with long orange-colored hair, watches visitors carefully through the fence. Weighing 260 pounds and an arm span of 9 feet from fingertip to fingertip, he is an imposing figure.

His massive upper arm strength enables him to climb to the upper levels of the cage with ease. Slightly shy, he greets Savage-Rumbaugh and researcher Rob Schumaker as they approach with visitors. He dwells with them a few minutes then retreats to a corner keeping a close eye on all who walk around outside the fence.

Less shy, a 120-pound female named Knobi hangs around the visitors, toys with Savage-Rumbaugh, offers her a kiss and reaches for her cap.

Schumaker said his goal is to better understand the mind of the orangutan by studying their ability to name objects with abstract symbols and combine them into meaningful sentences.

He's also studying how they learn, remember and organize their knowledge.

One ongoing study also looks at the stress in the orangutans' lives. Urine samples are collected daily and analyzed for the content of an enzyme that's elevated when the orangutans are stressed.

He said the goal of opening the facility for visitors is to increase the understanding of the great apes and increase conservation efforts of their habitat in the wild.

"There's an awful lot that needs to be done and we hope that people will have a real change in perception after visiting here and maybe be motivated to becoming more involved in some of the issues presented to great apes right now," Schumaker said.

The free public visits will be held Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Groups will be limited to 30 people per day and visitors must be at least 10 years old. The two-hour tours will include an orientation on the plight of great apes in the wild and an overview of the trust's conservation efforts.

Reservations will be available only through the trust's Web site.


On the Net: http://www.greatapetrust.org