Liz Sauer and Kalli. “When the regulars find out you are passionate about bonobos, they’re, like, ‘Oh, welcome! We get you!’”
  • Liz Sauer and Kalli. “When the regulars find out you are passionate about bonobos, they’re, like, ‘Oh, welcome! We get you!’”
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In late April of 1960, the San Diego Zoo’s curator of mammals, George Pournelle, traveled to one of the most inaccessible parts of the African rainforest on a collecting expedition. His goal was to acquire a female okapi or two. The Belgian government had given the zoo a male okapi a few years later, but to get a mate for “Bayaku” required Pournelle to travel to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the Congo, then take a boat for more than 1000 miles up the Congo River. From Stanleyville, he and the manager of the Leopoldville Zoo jounced overland for 300 miles to reach the Ituri Forest, which Pournelle later described as a “vast brooding wilderness…still avoided by the native tribes that live on its fringes…. Only the Pygmies venture into the dark recesses, and even they speak in hushed tones of the howling spirit that roams its depths on certain nights….”

Why does the zoo hide them?

Why does the zoo hide them?

At the Epulu Game Station, Pournelle and his companion eventually got two female specimens of the rare cousin to the giraffe. They crated them and trucked them back to Stanleyville. Because a DC-6 had recently crashed in the area, their chartered plane had been pressed into service to replace it, and the zoo men had to rustle up another DC-6 from Rhodesia. Eventually they loaded it with the okapis and other animals, including a tiny bonobo named Kakowet. If you go to the zoo’s bonobo exhibit today, you can see four of his direct descendants.

In recent years, scientists have determined that bonobos, along with chimpanzees, are humanity’s closest animal relative. We share more than 98 percent of our DNA with both species. But the bonobos’ range, limited to an area south of the Congo River, is far more restricted than that of chimps, who live on the other side of the river, and bonobos today are far more endangered. About 15,000 are estimated to remain in the wild, whereas chimpanzee estimates are between 170,000 and 300,000.

Lisa and Belle. “Lisa gave me a look, and it was intentional. That was her way of acknowledging me.”

Lisa and Belle. “Lisa gave me a look, and it was intentional. That was her way of acknowledging me.”

In 1960, almost nothing was known about these animals. Pournelle, though, had learned a bit about the tiny individual he later delivered to the Children’s Zoo. Someone had brought it to the Leopoldville Zoo on January 9, 1959, when it was only a few weeks old, nearly dead. Since the Congolese zoo had no nursery, and the zoo manager’s household was already hosting two other baby apes and “a very young leopard,” the manager gave the infant bonobo to a lady who showed up at the facility “asking for a nice young animal.” She visited the Leopoldville Zoo often with her little charge, which appeared to be thriving. But the woman one day shot her boyfriend dead in a fit of jealousy, and the zoo manager had to reclaim the young primate. His own children then looked after it until it was old enough to be transferred to the zoo grounds. Even there, Pournelle wrote in the December 1960 issue of Zoonooz, “[Kakowet] had special privileges and usually was allowed to roam about…. When he was tired of his explorations he always would return to the administration office for a handout — usually a bottle of cool refreshing pop.”

Raphaela Heesen: “I’ve never seen such intelligence.”

Raphaela Heesen: “I’ve never seen such intelligence.”

Some confusion clouds Pournelle’s accounts in Zoonooz of the early life of Kakowet. (The name was a variation on cacahuète, the French word for “peanut.”) In his September 1960 article for the zoological society journal, Pournelle says that on the flight out of Africa, a baby gorilla “had the run of the plane and soon became fast friends with everyone, especially the crew.” Three months later, however, he refers only to Kakowet being on the long flight from the Congo, “allowed free run of the airplane” and becoming “friends with the entire Sabena crew.”

I have to assume that in the first article, the mammal curator was simply mixing up gorillas with bonobos. (The babies do look similar.) It’s a persistent error. On a recent visit, I heard one of the official zoo volunteers chat with visitors to the bonobo enclosure about the “gorillas” behind the glass.

Belle and big sister Maddie

Belle and big sister Maddie

Reaching that enclosure is a great deal easier than traveling to the Congolese jungle. But it’s surprisingly hard to find, given what zoological crown jewels the bonobos are. The bonobo exhibit isn’t labeled on San Diego Zoo maps. To find it, you have to head down Treetops Way, past the flamingos and orangutans. At the intersection with the Hippo Trail, there’s a sign bearing an iconic gorilla image; the trail leads to the gorillas’ spacious home in the zoo’s “Lost Forest” section. Just past the first gorilla viewing area, there’s a stairway on your left leading down, but no hint of why one might want to descend it. At the bottom, another sign bears an image of some unidentified primate. If you don’t enter the aviary but instead turn right, you’ll come upon the first large window into the bonobos’ world.

Several signs around the enclosure do a good job of sharing information about bonobos, although the placards are easy to overlook. I’ve spent hours watching visitors stroll by. Many misidentify what they’re seeing. “Look! It’s a gorilla family,” I heard one little girl exclaim.

“No, honey,” her dad corrected her. “We saw the gorillas upstairs. These are chimpanzees.”

“Chim-pan-zees,” the girl parroted back.

One of the last large mammals to become known, bonobos were first thought by scientists to be a smaller subspecies of chimpanzee. Indeed, the San Diego Zoo was still referring to them as “pygmy chimps” in 1980, the year Kakowet died. By the late 1920s, however, anatomists were pointing out the differences between chimps and bonobos; today the two are universally recognized to be separate species, with bonobos (pan paniscus) varying from chimps (pan troglodytes) as much as dogs do from coyotes. The two species behave quite differently. Male-dominated chimp societies are so aggressive, individuals sometimes murder each other. On occasion, chimpanzees engage in organized warfare. In contrast, no killing of one bonobo by another has been documented either in captivity or in the wild. Bonobos live in habitats so laden with fruit that some observers speculate they never had to fight over food. They developed an unusual strategy for defusing the tensions that might lead to violence: engaging in sex often and indiscriminately — males with females, females with females, males with males, young with old (and with each other).

This sort of behavior catches visitors’ eyes. “They’re playing,” I heard one father mutter when confronted with the sight of 16-year-old Vic assuming the missionary position for sex with one of the young females. “No. They’re making babies,” someone in his family retorted, eliciting giggles. “They’re mating!” one of the kids blurted out.

When 18-month-old Kakowet arrived at the Children’s Zoo in the summer of 1960, primatologists knew almost nothing about the eccentricities of bonobo sexual practices. Only one other zoo outside of Africa claimed any bonobos at that point; the facility in Frankfurt, Germany, had a pair. Kakowet was the first bonobo to survive in North America, and for more than two years, his only companions were some of the other young primates (gorilla, chimpanzee, orangutan) also housed in the Children’s Zoo. In October of 1962, however, the director of the Antwerp Zoo in Belgium shipped a special gift to San Diego: a six-year-old, 46-pound female bonobo named Linda. She and Kakowet soon became the only breeding pair in the Western Hemisphere. Over the next 18 years, they produced 11 offspring, a feat unmatched by any bonobos in the wild, where females typically give birth only every four or five years. But with her babies whisked off to be bottle-fed in the nursery here, Linda would quickly begin to ovulate again.

Loretta, the couple’s fifth baby, was born on January 22, 1974. At 43, she’s the reigning matriarch in the colony today. Because much of her head is bald, zoo visitors often mistake her for an aging male. “But the reason she’s bald is because she’s very popular. She gets groomed a lot,” one of Loretta’s fans told me.

Lana and Sauer in Cincinnati. Sauer took along a photo of a San Diego Zoo member who had been devoted to Lana for many years.

Lana and Sauer in Cincinnati. Sauer took along a photo of a San Diego Zoo member who had been devoted to Lana for many years.

Although the San Diego Zoo may do almost nothing to publicize its bonobo colony, the rare apes command a small but ardent group of devotees. Liz Sauer is one of them. A mutual friend put me in touch with her, and Sauer agreed to meet with me at the bonobos’ enclosure. A San Diego native, she was taken to the zoo while growing up but says she didn’t know anything about bonobos until she was a student at UCLA. There she took a psychology class that included some discussion of our primate relatives.

In the class, Sauer learned about their unusual sexual conduct. “It’s very casual,” she commented. “It alleviates a lot of conflict, and it’s also about bonding and affection.” She found that interesting, and the bonobos’ avoidance of killing their fellows struck her as being even more intriguing. “That’s unheard of in primates. It kind of gives me hope for humans. We look at the chimpanzee model of our evolution and think we’re destined to be this warlike culture that fears outsiders.”

Researchers have demonstrated, however, that bonobos are more likely to share food with other bonobos who are strangers than they are with acquaintances.

“In the wild, if a group comes upon another group of bonobos, they’ll engage in a lot of sexual behavior, and then they’ll share food and groom each other,” Sauer said. Bonobos are more likely to yawn when confronted by the sight of an unfamiliar bonobo yawning than they are by a yawning acquaintance. Contagious yawning is considered to be an indicator of empathy. “They call them xenophilic. They’re welcoming of strangers,” she said. “They’re more willing to share with strangers than with their own group.”

Sauer nonetheless didn’t realize the San Diego Zoo was home to a colony of bonobos until recently. “I loved the zoo and have been a member for a long time, but you kind of tend to follow a certain path that you always take.” Her routine was to stroll by the gorillas and then down to the aviary, then go through it to see the pandas, followed by the polar bears. Only about a year and a half ago, when Sauer was at the zoo with a friend and her two-year-old, did a volunteer suggest they shouldn’t miss seeing the baby bonobo. Sauer and her companions found their way to the exhibit. “Mali came up and made eye contact with me,” Sauer recalled, “That was it for me.”

Sustained eye contact makes most animals uncomfortable. Dogs avoid it. So do gorillas. “But bonobos will gaze into your eyes,” Sauer said. “It’s so intense; it’s like they’re looking into your soul. They’re completely focused on you. When you first make that connection, it’s like a drug.”

Once exposed to them, Sauer resolved to learn as much as she could about bonobos. She obtained a copy of Frans de Waal’s Bonobo, The Forgotten Ape. A world-renowned primatologist, De Waal began his groundbreaking studies of bonobos in 1983 at the San Diego Zoo, which then housed the world’s largest captive bonobo colony (ten members divided into three groups).

“I spent entire days in front of the enclosure with a video camera,” he wrote in a 2006 article in the journal Evolution. De Waal soon distinguished more than 50 behavior patterns, many of them relating to sexual interactions. He concluded that while chimpanzees (“the Machiavellis of the primate world”) resolve sexual issues with power, bonobos resolve power issues with sex.

Before his observations in San Diego, “I had heard that bonobos were sexy,” De Waal wrote in The Forgotten Ape, “but I was nonetheless amazed by the sheer variety of positions and the extent to which the apes mutually stimulated one another. “He concluded that “bonobos have more ways of inviting each other sexually, more ways of engaging in sex, and more different facial expressions and vocalization associated with sexual intercourse than chimpanzees.”

While the chimps’ sex life “is rather plain and boring, bonobos act as if they have read the Kama Sutra,” De Waal reported. Females have loud and enthusiastic orgasms. Tongue-kissing among both species is commonplace. (Based on hundreds of hours of watching bonobos, De Waal added the qualifier that “their sexual activity is rather casual and relaxed…. Like people, bonobos engage in sex only occasionally, not continuously. Furthermore, with the average copulation lasting 13 seconds, sexual contact in bonobos is rather quick by human standards.”)

In the decades since De Waal did his work here, other research has focused on the zoo’s bonobos. Primatologist Amy Parish was one of the key researchers who established that, in bonobo society, females rule. Matriarchy is almost unknown among mammals. Males invariably are bigger and more powerful. Male bonobos are larger, too, but the females team up and form alliances that enable them to exert near-total dominance. Sons stay close to their mothers throughout their lives and depend on mom’s power and authority for protection.

Loretta’s 13-year- old son, Makasi

Loretta’s 13-year- old son, Makasi

On the day I met Sauer at the zoo, she pointed out Loretta’s two sons, 25-year-old Erin and his kid brother, Makasi (now 13). I wondered how Sauer learned to distinguish each member of the group. She said it took a while. Other bonobo fans helped her. “When I first started coming, I met some of the regulars, and they’re a very welcoming group.” Some have been visiting the bonobos for decades. “When they find out you’re passionate about bonobos, they’re, like, ‘Oh, welcome! We get you!’” Sauer visits the zoo once or twice a week, and she finds herself sharing what she’s learned with newer visitors. “I can give them little tricks. Like Mali’s tuft of hair on the side of her face is a little more pointed. Mattie’s face is a little lighter in color. Whatever it is.”

Sauer thinks all nine of the zoo’s bonobos have come to know her. “That doesn’t mean they all are excited to see me and want to come up. But they at least recognize me,” she says. “I get some little acknowledgement from all of them. It might just be a fist-bump on the glass.” Interactions with the two eldest females are the most complex, she indicates. “Queen Loretta,” as Sauer sometimes refers to the matriarch, “forms a relationship with each of her regulars, and she interacts with each person differently.”

Sauer believes she’s not yet included within Loretta’s circle of beloved fans. She says every time she visits, “I always ask myself, Will Queen Loretta be bestowing any favors on me today? Sometimes I get just a little arm-shrug that means, ‘I see you.’ Sometimes it’s the head-bob.” On occasion, though, Loretta approaches the glass and gazes into Sauer’s eyes. “And you just — melt. She does that often enough to keep you hooked.”

The colony’s other matriarch, 36-year-old Lisa, is more subtle and aloof, according to Sauer. But after Sauer had been visiting the exhibit for a while, she began to suspect Lisa had noted her presence. “She was looking at me and looking away, and one day she brought her baby [Belle] over to nurse her right in front of me. She gave me a look, and it was intentional. That was her way of acknowledging me.”

The bonobo youngsters in the colony lack such subtlety. “They’re very intense and excitable.” Sauer says sometimes she has shown them things in her purse, and the animals have reacted with eager curiosity. Last summer, Sauer made a pilgrimage to the bonobo colony at the Cincinnati Zoo (one of only six other American zoos that have bonobos). With her she took a photo of a San Diego Zoo member named David Carr, who had been devoted to a senior female bonobo named Lana for many years. Lana was the second youngest of Kakowet and Linda’s offspring. She and her daughter Kesi were moved to the Ohio city two years ago as part of a species-preservation breeding strategy. Before her trip, Sauer had asked Carr, “What’s the face you would make if you were greeting Lana?” She photographed him mugging, and in Cincinnati when she displayed the picture through the glass, “Lana came right up! This was an animal I had never met before, but she greeted me like an old friend.” When Sauer returned to San Diego, she went to the bonobos’ enclosure and held up a video on her iPad of herself interacting with Lana, who had been well known to several of the San Diego bonobos. Sauer says they jockeyed before the window to see the images of their former companion.

Sauer commented, “The bonobos are amazing to watch, even for a visitor who comes and spends 20 minutes with them. And when you get to know them as individuals, it’s a whole other experience. You’re seeing the subtle social complexities of their interactions. It’s different day-to-day, and you never know what’s going to happen.”

The local bonobo aficionados aren’t the only people engaging in such observations. Although the San Diego Zoo isn’t currently conducting any of its own research on bonobos, a UCSD professor named Federico Rossano has launched a couple of formal scientific investigations involving the colony. A native of Bologna, Italy, Rossano joined UCSD’s cognitive science department in January of 2016. There he created the Comparative Cognition Laboratory to explore the factors that make human social life possible and compare them to the things that shape the social life of other animals. Rossano arrived with an extensive video database documenting how young great apes learn to communicate and interact. Since then he’s been expanding that database by sending undergraduate students to videotape Lisa’s three-year-old daughter Belle, as well as gorillas and orangutans under the age of four at the zoo and Safari Park. The goal is to learn more about “what it means to grow up as a baby bonobo, baby orangutan, and baby chimpanzee” — and to compare that to the experience of very young humans, Rossano says.

Rossano has undertaken an even more complex project along with a German Ph.D. candidate named Raphaela Heesen. The two scientists are focusing on activities that individuals engage in together. For humans, that includes talking, dancing, cooking, building things, walking together, and a myriad of other actions. Humans are very good at engaging in such “joint action,” Rossano says, and we have developed elaborate signals not only to initiate it but also to resume shared activities when they’re interrupted and signal that the end of a given activity is approaching (as when parties to a phone conversation start to wrap things up to saying something like “All right,” “Okay,” or “So…”). Although researchers have learned a lot about joint action among adult humans, they know less about when human children start showing a reliable capacity to engage in it and all its attendant signals. (Toddlers, for example, may talk on a phone but then drop it or hand it off abruptly.)

Even less is known about how and even whether other animals — including our closest relatives — engage in joint action. “What we know from the literature,” Rossano says, “is that there are signals for animals to initiate sex or play.” But do they signal when they’re about to stop participating in a shared activity? Do bonobos, for example, somehow communicate to each other, as humans do, “We’re going to go away from each other now”?

To get answers for some of these questions, Rossano plans to observe the behavior of (human) two- to four-year-olds in local preschools playing together over time. Heesen arrived in San Diego January 10 to train her attention on the local bonobo colony for three months.

“This group of bonobos has been studied for a while,” she told me when I met her late one afternoon in March at the enclosure. “We know a lot about their social bonds and hierarchy. So I had a nice research base to start with.” A third researcher was planning to work on chimps. (The San Diego Zoo collection has not included any of them for years.)

Heesen had wrapped up her day’s work when I met with her. This was a good thing; it’s difficult for her to carry on a conversation while she’s observing the animals. I watched her doing that on other occasions, and it looked grueling. To be able to capture a panoramic view of the group, she used two video cameras mounted on tripods. The presence of four different viewing portals spaced around the large perimeter of the bonobo enclosure makes it possible to see the animals almost anywhere they choose to hang out. But because they move around — sometimes every few minutes — this meant Heesen often had to pick up her cameras and scurry to a window that afforded a better view of them. For six or seven hours a day she did this, while also taking notes on an iPad about anything the animals did relating to any joint action — playing, grooming, copulating, and so on. Later she would upload each day’s video into a computer and review it, to see what she had missed.

“You make a lot of mistakes when you observe. There’s a handshake you didn’t see because you’re writing things down. Sometimes the interactions are very, very fast-paced.” Slowing down the video enables capture of many more details.

“I’ve worked with apes before, and especially with chimpanzees, but I’ve never seen such intelligence,” Heesen commented. “Social intelligence, as in these guys. Never.” Still, she couldn’t yet draw any conclusions from her work. After a three-month stint here, her plans called for several more months of data collection. In an attempt to distinguish what was universal in bonobo society from the idiosyncratic culture of the San Diego Zoo’s group, she was planning to move next to a primate park in France. La Vallée des Singes is home to about 20 bonobos, and there Heesen was planning to use the same observational protocol she employed in San Diego. As a final step, she was hoping to travel in the summer of 2017 to Lola Ya Bonobo, a bonobo sanctuary just south of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Claudine André acquired too many young bonobos to maintain in her home.

Claudine André acquired too many young bonobos to maintain in her home.

Lola ya bonobo means “paradise for bonobos” in the Lingala language. It occupies about 75 acres that once were the country retreat of Mobuto Sese Seko, the dictator who for 32 years terrorized the country he renamed “Zaire.” He looted an estimated $4 billion to $15 billion from the Congolese people. His property became a bonobo sanctuary in 2002 through a series of improbable events impelled by a woman named Claudine André. Born in Belgium, André grew up in the Congo because her veterinarian father moved the family there when she was a little girl. She enjoyed a career as an art dealer, had five children, and was still living in Kinshasa in 1993 when the country imploded in the wake of Mobuto’s departure. She got involved with feeding the starving animals at the Kinshasa Zoo and there encountered a tiny bonobo baby that no one expected to live. One thing led to another, and André acquired too many young bonobos to maintain in her home. Today about 70 animals live at the sanctuary. As Jane Goodall became identified with chimpanzees, so André has become linked to bonobos.

One vehicle that has spread the word about André’s work is a 2010 book, Bonobo Handshake. (The title refers to the startling habit of young bonobo males to offer their penises for a quick pat as a way of starting a social interaction.) I first heard that title four years ago, when my husband and I were visiting the zoo one Sunday morning. We got involved in a chance conversation with a long-time bonobo devotee named Betsy Eaton, and at one point, Eaton asked if we had read the book. Her recommendation was so emphatic, we got a copy. The author, Vanessa Woods, was a young Australian woman who was volunteering at a chimp reserve in Uganda when she met Brian Hare, an American primatologist. The two fell in love, married, and Woods accompanied Hare when he went to Lola Ya Bonobo to conduct research. Wood is a gifted storyteller, often hilarious, and we learned a great deal from her book. It had an even greater impact on Solana Beach resident Debbie Sandler.

“That book changed the trajectory of my life,” Sandler said. “I’m telling you, I picked it up and this arm reached out and pulled me in. Every bit of it resonated with me.”

In 1981, Sandler got an undergraduate degree from UCSD in anthropology and primatology. But she wasn’t cut out for the grubby routines of fieldwork and instead went into advertising sales before marrying and having two sons. By 2010, with her youngest a sophomore in high school, Sandler took a biological anthropology class at a community college. In it, the professor mentioned bonobos, which Sandler had never heard of, despite her primatology degree. She started reading and eventually stumbled upon Woods’s book.

“I wondered, How is it possible that people all know about chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans but bonobos are so little known?” An urgent desire to meet Hare, Woods, and André gripped her, and in August of 2011, Sandler flew off to a North Carolina fundraiser for Friends of Bonobos (the fundraising arm of Lola Ya Bonobo). She wound up getting carried away at a live auction and bought a trip to the sanctuary scheduled for the fall of 2012. As that date approached, however, Sandler was beginning to feel some remorse about traveling, as her son was beginning to apply to colleges. “I was going to put the trip off,” she says. But she still wanted to meet André. When she heard that the Lola founder was going to be in New York City, Sandler flew there to meet her. “I was so nervous about meeting Claudine — the queen mother of bonobos,” Sandler recalls. “But we became best friends instantly.”

Sandler changed her mind and made the trip to Kinshasa. She arrived at night in the rain. A driver greeted her. “To get to Lola from the airport, you’re driving through these shanty towns. Women are carrying baskets of eggs and things on their heads. People were driving on the wrong side of the road, honking. It’s chaos!” Only the next morning did she look out her window and feel she had arrived in a tropical Eden. Her room overlooked the playground for the adolescent apes. Sandler rushed out to join them. She says she spent the next week “filthy dirty, rolling in the mud. All I wanted to do was play with the kids.”

In January of 2015, she returned for another weeklong stay at the sanctuary. “People say, ‘Don’t you get bored?’ Bored? I didn’t want to sleep.”

Ever since her first visit, Sandler has been working to advance the bonobos’ cause. She joined the Friends of Bonobos board and worked to arrange for dubbing and find a distributor for a 2010 French film about André and her progress at releasing bonobos back into the wild. (Since 2009, André has set 13 animals free in a rainforest area where they’re watched by trackers and villagers recruited by André to serve as the animals’ protectors.) Sandler also speaks before conservation groups.

“I’m trying to create an awareness. If you don’t know bonobos exist, you can’t protect them.” She says her goal is for the word “bonobo” to become as well known as “chimpanzee,” “gorilla,” and “orangutan.”

André tries to come to San Diego at least once a year, and when she’s here she spends a lot of time with both Sandler and Ashley Stone.

Today Stone lives not far from the top of Mt. Soledad, but she first learned about bonobos at Emory University in Atlanta, where years ago she took some undergraduate anthropology classes given by Frans de Waal. She thought bonobos were intriguing but didn’t have any contact with them until September of 2013. At that time, Stone was planning a trip to Africa, and she had arranged to observe gorillas and chimpanzees. She’d given up on being able to see any wild bonobos; no outfitters arrange treks to them, living as they do in the dangerous and unstable Congo. But then a friend mentioned an upcoming talk André was giving in North County, an event organized by Sandler. Stone attended, and the conservationist dazzled her. Stone invited André to lunch the next day, “And it was like instant kinship. I said, ‘I wish I had known you before,’ and she was, like, ‘What’s the big deal? Just change your trip and come to the sanctuary.’ And that’s what I did.”

As with Sandler, Stone says the trip to the sanctuary in January of 2014 was life-changing. She joined the board of Friends of Bonobos and threw herself into fundraising. Although she’d done that for other non-profits, she found that “Nobody knew what bonobos were. So it was like starting from ground zero.”

Stone came to think that another problem for bonobo advocates in the U.S. is that “they don’t have a consistent platform through which to work together or collaborate or discuss ongoing issues.” She decided that creating one was a niche she could fill, so in late 2014, she formed a nonprofit organization called the Bonobo Project. She says she heard some concerns about adding yet another nonprofit to “the bonobosphere.... The elephant in the room is: how is that going to actually benefit everyone, rather than take away?” But Stone explains that her dream is “to brand the bonobos so people know what they are — and to create a place of support.”

Last September, the group organized a bonobo communications workshop at the zoo. It drew 40 participants who came from as far away as Congo and Japan. In the course of the meeting, the group approved a marketing concept.

“We’re trying to reimagine the word ‘bonobo’ to mean ‘love,’ and the word ‘love’ to mean ‘bonobo,’” Stone told me. The fledgling group created a campaign around the phrase “I bonobo you.” T-shirts and other products bearing those words were produced and are now for sale online. “From that came the idea of creating World Bonobo Day on February 14,” Stone says. She says the first such day earlier this year raised about $7000 and reached a potential audience of millions through social media platforms.

André didn’t travel to San Diego for the fall meeting or the first World Bonobo Day, but she did make a whirlwind visit to Southern California in the middle of March. She came to be honored by the Annenberg Foundation in Los Angeles, but she popped down to San Diego for a few days, partly to hang out with Sandler, Stone, and other supporters and partly to visit the bonobo keepers at the San Diego Zoo.

Both Stone and Sandler invited me to observe that interaction. When I arrived, I found one keeper waiting who had come in on her day off for the chance to meet the famous Belgian conservationist. In front of the big observation window at the north end of the enclosure, she and I watched the sub-group of apes in the enclosure that morning. After a while, André appeared, escorted by both Stone and Sandler. A striking woman with a curly mane of eye-catching copper hair, André looks a decade or two younger than her 70 years. Somehow she managed to appear elegant, even dressed in jeans, an “I Bonobo You” T-shirt, and tennis shoes. Two other keepers in uniforms soon materialized, drawn to André like fans to a movie star. They wanted their pictures taken with her; one asked for an autograph.

André moved to the window, and Loretta soon approached her. Through the glass, the conservationist cooed to the bonobo matriarch like an old friend. She exclaimed with pleasure at the sight of Loretta’s 13-year-old son, Makasi. André first visited the zoo when he was just an infant; she chose the name that was given him. Since then he’s grown into a strapping young male.

The keepers invited André to view the troop from a private upper viewing platform. While she strolled to that, André told me she feels a special connection to the San Diego bonobo colony. At one point, some years ago, she heard rumors it was going to be reduced to only two animals. This horrified her. “This group cannot disappear. It’s the most well-known group in the world! De Waal was here. A lot of researchers. You can take any book on bonobos and see the San Diego Zoo.”

André told me she and other bonobo advocates have wondered for years about the zoo management’s apparent lack of interest in its extraordinary resource. She shrugged. “It’s politics, I think. But I continue to come here.”

I asked her why bonobos are still being killed in the wild. Do the Congolese think there’s something magical about them? Do they find bonobo burgers especially delicious? She shook her head no. In the areas where she’s working, the killers are young men armed with war guns. “They stay in the forest for one month. They kill every animal — antelopes, bonobos, millions of little monkeys. Everything!” They hire village women to butcher and smoke what they’ve plundered, then they take that produce to Kinshasa to feed the voracious Conogolese appetite for meat. The orphans who find their way to André’s sanctuary only escape because they’re too scrawny to eat.

André shows open contempt for the traditional non-governmental organizations and government agencies that have gobbled up so much conservation money over the past 50 years

“The result is zero conservation!” she cries. “We are at war!” If nothing changes, bonobos will disappear from the earth in three generations, she believes. She thinks the only hope is education. She welcomes 30,000 children to her sanctuary every year, and she’s trying to spread the word among city folk; convince them they must shun bush meat. “My motto is, ‘Conservation begins with education,’” she told me. That’s the only hope.

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