We wanted to interview this next young woman so badly--we went all the way to the Congo in Africa to find her!
Well, not exactly.
Vanessa Woods, science researcher and author of three children's books and the ever-popular It's Every Monkey For Themselves, is currently honed up in the jungle, chasing monkeys, trying to keep them safe, and helping to maintain some of the orphan Bonobos found in the area.
Sound like something you might want to do? Well, it's not quite that simple. In a series of questions and answers, let Vanessa tell you herself how truly difficult this task really is--but so utterly rewarding.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get started working with chimps and bonobos?
I did a chimp census in Uganda 1999, we were counting the population in the forest, which no one had ever done before. Then I worked a while with orphan chimps at Ngamba island. But it wasn't until 2004, when i met my husband who was obsessed with bonobos that i ever thought about working with apes again. I guess I got sucked in. Bonobos are the most incredible creatures. They have these eyes, that are just so human. Bonobos are also incredibly silly, they will run around the room for half an hour before you can get them to pay attention. chimps are just focused on the food. they want the peanut, they are obsessed with the peanut and will do anything to get it. Bonobos don't even seem to care about food. they just want to have fun.
What do you do with them?
We work in sanctuaries, where the parents of these apes have been killed it he bushmeat trade and the orphans were sold as pets. This is illegal, and when the orphan is confiscated, there needs to be some place for them to go, and this is often to a sanctuary. There are 17 chimp sanctuaries around Africa, but only one bonobo sanctuary, Lola ya Bonobo. The games we play are to find out how they think, how similar their minds are to ours. basically, we're trying to find out what it is that makes us human.
How similar are chimps and/or Bonobos to humans and in what ways? Why do they need to be researched? What can we learn from them?
We have a very chimpanzee centric model of humans. chimps, like us, have war, they kill each other. they beat females and kill infants. Bonobos on the other hand are female dominated. there is very little violence in their societies and they use sex as a kind of tension reliever, so aggression very rarely gets out of hand. I think there is a little chimpanzee and Bonobo in us. The tragedy is no one really knows anything about Bonobos. Over 95% of the scientific literature on our 2 closest relatives are on chimps, only 5% is on Bonobos. and with numbers dwindling fast (there could be as few as 10,000 left in the wild), they may soon disappear. and that will be a great loss because without Bonobos, we will never fully understand ourselves.
You published your first article about a chimp named Baluku, who used to pee on her bed. Tell us about your experience with him and how that shaped what you are doing today.
Baluku was the first chimp i fell in love with. I looked after him for a month before he went to Ngamba Island sanctuary. His parents had been shot, and poachers wanted to sell him as a pet. There is still an illegal traffic in chimpanzees to the US, and it's easy to forge papers that say the chimp was captive born in the US, when in fact they were shot from their mother in the African rainforest. So Baluku was so scared when i first met him. he cried every night for his mother. but chimps are resilient; they are survivors. After a month, i could see this endearing, mischievous personality, and yes, he loved to pee on my bed.
In the bio on your official website, you write that you've watched the people around you morph into monkeys. Explain what you mean by that.
We like to think that as humans, we're a cut above everything else. but if you put people in the right situation, like Big Brother or Survivor, you quickly start to see these primate relationships emerge. People start behaving exactly like their primate cousins. There are alliances and wars and politicking, and fights over sex and dominance and hierarchy. In some ways we've come so far, and in other ways, not far at all. You don’t advocate having chimps as pets. Why not?
Wild animals are not pets. In a domestic animal like a dog, there have been thousands of years of selection pressure. They have evolved to become less aggressive. there have been biochemical changes to their genetic make up that make them sweet and easy to live with. Even though they sometimes bite, they don't bite nearly as much as a wolf would, even if it had been raised by humans.
I know how sweet chimps seem. especially as babies, which is when they perform on television and in commercials. but these guys are just infants. Chimps grow to be up to 200 pounds, and while they are still capable of love and kindness, when they snap, they really snap, and they can kill you. Because in the wild, this is what they do. They tear off testicles. They twist off limbs. They occasionally torture and kill each other, and this is just part of who they are. You can't change that, no matter how sweetly you bring them up. And chimps live for 50 years. They are 'manageable' for about 5 years. Someone we know just gave up her pet chimps when she realised what was in store for them (a lifetime living in a cage) and she's started a blog to help other people give up their pet chimp.
Tell us about the research you’re doing now in the Congo with chimps and Bonobos? (Your current situation.) We compare Bonobos and chimpanzees to children to find out what makes us human. we're interested in how they think, what might have changed first as we evolved from our last common ancestors. we play problem solving games to try and figure out how they are different and similiar to us. What is the plight of chimpanzees and/or Bonobos? Why have they become endangered species?
Bonobos are especially in trouble because they only live in one country, the Congo. Their population is as low as 10,000. Worse, everyone knows what a chimp is but barely anyone in the US knows what a Bonobo is. this is truly awful because they could soon disappear, and no one will even know what they've lost.
What do you hate about what you do? What do you love? What makes it worthwhile?
I hate seeing the orphans come in. they are so scared. Their mothers have been killed right in front of them, and you can see the trauma all over their face. I love seeing them survive, watching them grow into happy, healthy Bonobos who will hopefully one day return to the wild they were stolen from. But there isn't always a happy ending.
Yesterday I went into Kinshasa to see a man who said he wanted to give the Bonobo to the sanctuary. When we got there the Bonobo jumped into the arms of Clemence, our vet. But the man wanted money, $150, about two years salary for a policeman. We said no. You can't pay for a Bonobo in Congo because the next week, four more will arrive, shot from their mothers int he forest. The poacher got angry, he demanded the money, and when we refused, he snatched the Bonobo right out of Clemence's arms. The Bonobo cried so piteously, he was so starving and frightened, but we had to let him go.
Buying a Bonobo will just continue the trade, and if we just took him and ran, well, eventually someone will get angry and know where to find us. The Congolese government has to be the one who confiscates the Bonobo. It is the Congolese law, poachers must answer to, not us. So the ministry is looking for the man now. I hope they find that little Bonobo. i would love to see him safe.
All the money goes towards the orphans at Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary, where they run education programs all over the country to stop people hunting and killing Bonobos. Also, this year in June, they are releasing the Bonobos into the wild for the first time ever! it is a very exciting time in Bonobo conservation and the work Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary has done is truly giving Bonobos a chance for the future.