Godsil. Milwaukee has recently discovered that you are the main care provider of the largest group of bonobos in captivity on the planet earth. Might you share some of the story as to how it happened that you are the main care provider of the largest group of bonobos in captivity on the planet earth?

Barbara Bell. I always find it funny when people say I care for the largest group on earth. I always have to stop and think “really?!!!” I don’t count heads. I just count the players in the troop. Some are the shakers and movers, some are just there hanging out. Some are very much involved in the politics, some are not. Right now I do have a lot of players in the troop, because many of my kids are now becoming adults. Once the males hit the pubescent years it can be a living hell for a long time. That is where I am right now. Bonobo hell!

I started out with just 4 bonobos a very long time ago. We quickly added 3 more, then another 2, then a few more, etc. Most had problems and nobody else wanted to take them on. Problems such as diabetes, cardiac disease, reproductive problems, behavioral issues. Many of the bonobos have had a rough time in the world-you can see it in their eyes when they first come to me. They have a very dull look that tells us that this bonobo is just worn out mentally and maybe physically very sick inside. Milwaukee is like a foster home that finally provides stable care for the individual. In that stable world the bonobo blossoms. Along with that comes a staff of incredible ape keepers, wonderful veterinarians who really “listen” to the bonobo and the keepers.

We got a reputation for having good luck with problem bonobos. Many of these individuals were not problematic at all, they just needed a very secure world, good care, compassionate and empathic humans, proactive medical care, and an education from the bonobos already living here. Many of the long time resident bonobos will quickly identify a special needs bonobo and slowly start to educate them as to proper bonobo culture. Once they catch on to bonobo etiquette/culture/social graces, then the world becomes a whole lot nicer for them. When a bonobo comes to me it can take about 2–5 years for them to give up their old baggage and start to enjoy life here at MCZ(Milwaukee County Zoo). Life here is really very good for them. Sure they will fight and argue with each other, but so do we humans. Sometimes the fights get very rough and some individuals will hold a grudge for years. Other times it will “poof” be gone in a heartbeat. Ya just never know.

Bonobos are very high octane, happy, whimsical, and very loyal to those who are faithful and loyal to them. I like that quality a lot. They remember people from long ago, friends from 20 years ago. I think that is very cool. So much for now. Talk to you later.

Godsil. Might you offer some examples of what happens when bonobos “educate” special needs bonobos. How do bonobos educate one another?

Barbara Bell.All living species have a culture. That culture in the bonobo world is very complex and has many subtle cues that can be easily missed. Baby bonobos learn the culture by riding on their mother’s back for many years. They watch, the imitate, and they practice being an adult. Just like us humans, much learning occurs during play. In kindergarten we all play and do many social activities. During this “kindergarten time” in the bonobo culture, the youngsters are rapidly absorbing bonobo etiquette. Sounds very simple and natural huh?

Now, when that very natural upbringing is ruined by either human intervention or some other traumatic event, the groundwork for learning is shattered. Sometimes an ape baby needs to be raised by the humans because of a serious illness, death of the mother, an injury, etc. It is critical that the baby gets back into a bonobo troop as fast as possible to learn the bonobo culture. Otherwise that bonobo starts to behave more human like and is not easily accepted by the bonobo troop. Unfortunately we have many bonobos in the captive population that have been human reared. These individuals have a hard time fitting in to the normal troop setting.

Here at MCZ we do seem to have quite a few individuals that are very accepting of those with disabilities such as: behavioral problems, physical abnormalities, etc. I try to pair up the handicapped bonobo with a “mentor” in the troop. They get protection, help, love, and a chance to slowly learn the ropes. I also give the problem bonobo time alone to regroup mentally, eat a good meal, and to watch the group in action from a safe spot. By observing the family interactions, much can be learned. I also pair up the individual with lots of kid bonobos. Through play, much is learned. Even adults need to go back to the play phase of life before they can fast forward to normal adult behavior.

Even after an individual has become socially educated, they can pay a high price from the established troop members for crossing a social line. For example, one 25 year old male who came to me after living alone for 10 years, dared to grab a mango from the food pile. Low ranking males simply do not do this. The females grabbed him and brutally beat him up. It was a swift punishment for a rule broken. He never did that again!! These lessons seem very harsh, but I think that nature can be very harsh. In the wild survival depends on everyone cooperating and working as a team. My goal is to provide the proper set up for the handicapped bonobo to learn, thrive, not get hurt, and to eventually be a participating member of the bonobo group.


Godsil.You have stressed how important it is for bonobos to learn “bonobo etiquette/culture/social graces.” Knowing the bonobo culture means “the world becomes a whole lot nicer for them.” You gave as an example a low ranking male grabbing a mango before it was “his proper turn” and getting soundly thrashed by a group of females. Is there something like the “Ten Commandments” in the bonobo culture? Are there cardinal rules you’ve observed that absolutely must be followed or there are big problems for those who violate them?

Barbara Bell.This is a tough question to answer. I could just say “yes”. and be done.But, I will take a stab at the question. The rules that the bonobo troop live by comes from deep within them. The wild caught bonobos who lived for at least 2 years on their mother’s backs probably have the purest form of this culture. It is deeply ingrained into their hard drive. Recearch has shown that in these first 2 years, the youngster is absorbing the culture at a rapid pace. This is why it is so critical that mother bonobo raise their babies without human intervention. Of course, on occasion the mother or baby gets sick and human help is needed. During this time that the human is the main caregiver, it is critical that the baby be exposed to the bonobos and not kept isolated. Even if it is just hearing the vocalizations.

The rules that the bonobos live by are probably very simple to them, but at times hard for us humans to “read”. First it is critical that they know their rank in the troop. Are you high ranking or low ranking? A low ranking guy has to wait to eat. A high ranking guy can eat first and take food from the low ranking guy. The bonobos also like to see cooperation from eachother. They expect their troop members to act normal, not have any behavioral problems, and to understand the culture. This is where it gets tricky. If you don’t know the culture, or YOUR interpretation is a bit “off”, then you will most likely be violating these unwritten rules. Then the bonobo gets anxious (acts abnormal to the troop), becomes an outcast, and is seen as a burden to the entire group. If an individual has been human raised, they tend to be clueless to the bonobo culture.

Bonobos can learn the culture, and many become very functional after years of observing the workings of the troop. Many go on to live very normal lives and have a mid-rank status. I find it very interesting that the bonobo troop is very lenient towards youngsters and the elderly. Young kids can act very obnoxious towards the high ranking male and female and get away with it. Once they become teenagers, the elders have a different set of expectations for those who are unruly. I have an old (58years) female that is blind, the bonobo family is very kind to her and helps her find her way to the food pile. The show a lot of empathy, great concern, and have a deep love for eachother.

I hope this helps. BB

Godsil.So what are some of the things that determine a bonobos rank? Is physical power or a ferocious will the primary source of rank? Family connections?

Godsil. Do Bonobos have a sense of “private property” outside the moment of feeding or eating? Is there ever, for example, the notion that this object belongs by right to “me” an noboy else, even the alpha male or alpha female?

Last edited by Nick. Based on work by Tyler Schuster and Olde.  Page last modified on December 11, 2007

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