Bonobo Hope at the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary

Bonobo Hope is a scientific and cultural treasure located on 230 acres of natural forest and wetlands in Des Moines, Iowa.  It is home to a world-renowned family of bonobos in two major buildings that have been designed specifically for the care, education, and observation of this unique and greatly endangered species. Bonobos (also known as pygmy chimpanzees) share 99% of the same DNA as humans. They are extremely intelligent and have a great aptitude for acquiring language and learning new skills.

Two of the bonobos at Bonobo Hope were wild-caught in the early 1970’s. Since then, the rest of these bonobos were born in captivity and raised from infants together in a family group environment, able to interact and communicate daily with their life-long human care-takers. The bonobos who were reared in the United States learned important elements of human culture during their crucial first year of life.

Language Acquisition

As a youngster, Kanzi acquired language competency simply by watching humans attempt to teach language to his mother Matata.  Although Kanzi was quick to learn and use symbolic language, Matata never did. Kanzi’s younger sister Panbanisha was raised in conjunction with a common chimpanzee during the second phase of the groundbreaking research to determine whether the ability to learn human language was unique to bonobos. Like Kanzi, Panbanisha also quickly acquired language skills, the common chimpanzee was never as successful.

Panbanisha’s son Nyota is the first ape reared by both humans and a language-competent ape mother, and Kanzi’s son, two year old Teco, provides a unique look into the epigenetic effects of language acquisition.  All four of these bonobos communicate with humans using a collection of over 400 “lexigram” symbols printed on paper or appearing on computer touch screens.  As has been repeatedly documented, these bonobos can think, make plans and understand simple spoken English.

Far-Reaching Impact

Kanzi has been filmed making music, building a fire, and crafting simple stone tools.  More than 400 scientific papers, as well as many books document the near human capabilities of the bonobos and films portraying their achievements have been broadcast worldwide.  Extensive coverage by media and celebrities such as Oprah, Anderson Cooper, 60 Minutes (in Australia), BBC, Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel have provided extensive publicity to Bonobo Hope and been a source of pride to all Midwesterners.

Our mission is to provide a home of dignity and respect for these bonobos and their offspring, to continue the world renowned cross-species, cross-cultural research across future generations and to expand the language work to include other nonhuman species.

It is also to provide educational opportunities to the public to visit and to learn about this research on a first-hand basis though personal interaction. - Sue Savage Rumbaugh