DES MOINES, Iowa — The Great Ape Trust launched with promise in 2002.
It started with funding from a wealthy donor, free land from Des Moines, and a psychologist named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world at the controls.
The facility spent its first nine years conducting groundbreaking research like teaching endangered bonobos to speak and communicate with humans. The problems started in 2011, when the main donor pulled out and the facility struggled to raise the money needed to continue.
The psychologist spearheading the work left two years later, which put the goal of a world-renewed research facility even further out of reach. However, a volunteer stepped in to keep the vision alive.
“There was a time when we didn’t know how we would get to the end of the month,” Doctor Jared Tagliatela said.
The first challenge for Tagliatela was paying the bills and securing support for North America’s only bonobo research facility. He turned to federal agencies, private foundations, university donations, and the community for help, and was able to raise enough money to make the $300,000 annual budget.
“It was a lot of heroic efforts on a number of people’s part that kept us going,” Tagliatela said.
Failure was not an option with the financial stress easing, so Tagliatela was able to turn his attention to running the facility.
Now, though, the days of allowing the public to interact with the bonobos at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative are over. Even researcher Amanda Epping keeps her distance.
“We don’t ever go inside of their enclosures with them, everything is through protective mesh. So the biggest hole you could touch them through is about a two by two-inch square,” Epping said.
The change was necessary in order to protect people from the unpredictable bonobos and to protect the great apes from illnesses carried by humans.
Reduced physical contact is not the only change, though; researchers say the facility and apes now have structure.
“We do a lot of cognitive testing, and usually that takes two forms. Either we use a computer and the ape interacts with a computer via touch screen or even a joy stick,” Doctor Tagliatela said.
At seven years old, Teco is the youngest born at the facility. Like an average seven-year-old, he loves to play video games.
“We are looking at if the apes can take things from the virtual world and understand that they have a real-life connection to the actual, physical world,” Epping said.
That’s just one of more than a dozen tests researchers conduct. The goal is to get all the bonobos communicating and to determine whether the exposure to human language really teaches the apes this skill.
“Or are we just tapping into a way to kind of get at what they’re doing naturally, and that’s really what our focus is now,” Tagliatela said.
The team is also focused on the bonobos’ wellbeing.
“Jared and bill have don an amazing job of taking care of these bonobos first,” said Epping.
But it was not always that way. Many criticized former director Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. In 2011, caregivers complained about mistreatment and had safety concerns.
Earlier this month, Channel 13 visited the facility when the USDA was conducting an inspection, during which officials determined the bonobos are healthy and the facility is clean. This will allow the number of bonobos held at the facility to double, and the director expects its accreditation to process next year.
Mating could take place as early as 2019, with baby bonobos expected in 2020.
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