This blog has moved!

Please go to my new Psychology Today blog to see what I'm up to. To buy the book, Bonobo Handshake, please visit my website. To follow the adventures of the Lola ya Bonobo orphans, please visit Friends of Bonobos

Monday, October 29, 2007

Don't forget to write!

Don't forget, if you want me to let you know when the blog starts up again next year, send an email to: with the subject: Bonobo Handshake List

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Until next year...

Well, I'm back in Germany. My face gets frozen every time I go outside and all the snot in my nose has dried up because I've gone from 100% - 0% humidity in a couple of hours.

I've had the most fun ever writing this blog. Over 32,000 people have read about their remarkable weirdness, and instead of feeling alone in my bonobo world, I feel somehow connected.

Thank you to all those people who read the blog. Thank you to all those people who wrote wonderfully warm and encouraging comments, you really made my day every time I felt your enthusiasm in the sweltering Congo summer. Thank you to all those people who had questions and criticisms, and giving me an opportunity to share what I knew, and to take on board what you knew.

To all those who want to help bonobos, go to . You can adopt a bonobo from the sanctuary, help translate newsletters, or better still, go and visit them yourself.

For those who want a more armchair experience, I'm giving 10% of the profits of my new book, It's every monkey for themselves to Lola ya bonobo sanctuary. To buy a copy click here. To read more about it, and check out reviews, go to my website,

Anyone who wants me to let you know when I start the blog again next May, send your email to with the Subject: Bonobo Handshake List, and I'll shoot an email just before the next blog starts.

Finally, I want to show you some pictures that you haven't seen yet, that are my favourite memories.

Once again, and a million more times,

Thank you.


Max, being as beautiful and rippling as a bonobo boy can be. They call Max, le gorille, because he spent years in a gorilla sanctuary. When he arrived at Lola, he actually spoke gorilla, that is, low rumbling calls, instead of high bonobo squeaks.

I love this photo of Isiro. She looks like a dancer. And I love the way her toe almost touches the log, but not quite.

Baby Bisengo, the undisputed king of group 2, having a little sip of mummy's breast milk.

Claudine and Kata. Every bonobo, from the youngest to the biggest is fascinated by her flaming red hair.

Lomela getting chased by the chicken. Lomela was so scared she screamed and jumped into my arms.

Lomami's hand. Every single one of his fingers, some of his toes, and bits of his penis were sliced off to use in black magic. Witch doctors use bonobo parts in black magic. When Lomami arrived, all his wounds were in different stages of healing. Which means they kept him in a cage, chopped on one of his fingers off. Left him for a few days, came back and chopped off another finger. Claudine said, he was so sick and listless from all the torture, she didn't think he would make it. He spent his first year in a tree, alone. Even now, he doesn't come near people.

Lukaya, picking Lomami's nose.

Semendwa asking for an apple. She doesn't beg with an arm outstretched like other bonobos. She stands up tall and proud as a queen. Then when I still took too long to give her an apple because I was taking a photo, she threw a handful of mud in my face.

Noki with her bedroom eyes.

Kata laughing for the first time. It was soon after I thought she would die. I'd been playing with her and tickling her for weeks, but she never smiled, and looked so sad when I tried to play. When she laughed, I would have given anything, anything at all to keep her laughing all day, every day for the rest of her life.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Over 30,000 bonobo handshakes

Well, this blog has been running for just under 8 weeks and already we've have 32,000 people visit. This has absolutely blown me away. I thought maybe a couple hundred people would come through and learn something about bonobos, but the sheer amount of interest has left me excited and touched.

You've all been super supportive and I have been close to tears with how truly wonderful people can be, even all the way across the world. Today, I want to revist some of the hundreds of comments that you guys have sent, and answer them as best I can.

From An educated man
wanharris said...

Where will he go -- I know you can't take any more but what will happen to the little guy -- I just don't know how you cope!!! it is horrible to see the forest go and the chimps homeless! did he take him to another place is there a chance for the little chimp?

Hi Wan,
It's a Catch 22 . The biggest problem with baby chimps and bonobos is that the poachers think they can sell them. JGI can't take any more chimps or the ones they have will start to suffer. And unfortunately, there is nowhere else for them to go. I think what will happen is that the man who bought him might keep him for a few years and then try and sell him to a lab or a zoo. It's tough, really tough. And I don't do the coping. It's the people in charge of the sanctuaries who have to look the baby chimp in the face and turn them away that have to live with the choice. Chimpanzees aren't dogs, you just can't throw them in a big group and expect them to all get along. They grow up, they start to get violent, and it takes extreme amounts of time and money to make sure they don't end up tearing each other to pieces.

From Chimpanzees are not dogs

slb said... Excellent, excellent post, Vanessa. I would add that everyone should buy only products that are cruelty free, and carefully research any drugs your doctor prescribes - a lot of chimpanzees are used for all sorts of product and pharmaceutical research. I believe the HSUS puts the number of chimps in testing facilities in the U.S. at 1,300. THIRTEEN HUNDRED.

All those adverts that feature animals in some human incarnation make my blood boil. Don't even get me started on the circus ...

Dear slb,
As of March this year, the NIH (National institute of Health) has permenantly banned breeding of laboratory chimps. This is fantastic news, as chimps in labs can be horribly abused, even just by sitting completely alone every day for their entire 50 years.

The problem is, people who depend on chimpanzees for medical and psychological research are going to have to find a new source. Where will they go? Will they buy baby chimps from Africa then set up in a country with no regulations for welfare, like China or Lebanon?

Keep your ears open folks. When the current population of laboratory chimps starts to die, things are going to get interesting.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm going to be the devil's advocate here. How is your interaction with the chimps any different than anyone else's? Plus I don't recall you mentioning that Marcel was used in the entertainment industry, therefore perhaps this indicates that there is no difference. I do enjoy your posts, however you have to realize that you are not a chimpanzee or a bonobo yourself. Your interaction with these monkey's is the same as any human interaction (minus the ones that are beating the monkeys).

Dear Devil's advocate,
Thank you so much for your comment. I think your perception of researchers is a common one, especially about researchers in sanctuaries. Thank you for sharing.

The difference between researchers who work in sanctuaries and people who have chimps as pets (incl. those who work in the entertainment industry) is

1. Sanctuary chimps live in a huge forests with other chimps. They live in a natural social group, forage trees for fruit, and live similarly the way they do in the wild. Pet chimps grow up alone, in a confined space, with humans. They are often heavily disciplined to control them when they start behaving the way they would in a forest, ie. breaking the family china

2. Sanctuary chimps are orphans. Their mothers were shot in the bushmeat trade. Pet chimps were forcefully taken from their mothers so they could be handreared to be more human like

3. Sanctuary chimps will live their whole lives in a forest with other chimps just like them. There is a chance that in the future they will be released back into the wild.
Pet chimps grow to about 7 or 8 and then they become unmanagable and violent. They are then sent to biomedical facilities or somewhere similar to live out the rest of their 40 years in a cage.

4. Pet chimps fuel the pet trade in Africa, and sanctuaries stop it. Because once a chimpanzee is forcefully confiscated from poachers, there has to be somewhere to put them, unless you want to shoot them in the head.

If you want to know more about sanctuaries and why they exist, and how and why we do research there, go to

From Happy birthday mummy
Anonymous said...

Hey Vanessa,
Why is it that Bonobos never have any STI's???? If humans were to behave this way in hunter gather societies of prehistoric times they would have been wiped out long ago. Prior to the advent of antibiotics even a urinary tract infection could kill. PID, Syphilis, viral illnesses just to name a few would have had devestated effects on human populations. Thoughts?

Hi Anon,
Bonobos have these cauliflower warts all over their penises. So this could be an STI that bonobos have. We know that other primates have STIs. But there really hasn't been any research on lethal STIs in bonobos. But interestingly enough, chimpanzees get HIV, but it doesn't develop into AIDS and kill them, like it does in humans. So one idea is that chimps have lived with HIV for so long that their immune system has evolved to handle it.

From Across the Congo river
Obi-wan Cenody said...

I'm curious, do the bonobos or chimps recognize you when you return after being gone for several months? And do you actually believe there ever could be a Planet of the Apes?

Bonobos and chimps recognise people as easily as we recognise them. So while at the start we look the same, after you work for them for a while, they remember you. So Tambikisa, a chimp who was only 3 last year, hasn't seen me for 12 months but when I walked into the forest she jumped into my arms and sucked on my cheek, even though she is gigantically fat now and nearly broke my arms. The chimps I didn't know took I lot longer to approach me.

By Planet of the Apes, do you mean a bunch of chimps that live like people, driving cars, eating with chopsticks etc? I don't think so. Apes are not humans. They never will be. Something changed in us, millions of years ago that allowed us incredible creativity and flexibility. What our research is interested in looking at is what changed and why.

From Kata is better
Jerolyn said...

I'm with anonymous, WHAT exactly DO you do with the spiders(and their million babies)? Obviously they are too large to SMACK with a shoe, throw a shovel at it perhaps? eeewww I am so freaked out by that picture yet I keep looking at it to make sure I'm still THAT freaked out about it.....and that would be a YES!

Hey Jerolyn,

Check out this...

It was gigantic. It had giant mandibles (mouthparts) and a stinger in its mouth and its bum. It took 4 hours for it to die. This is the can of insecticide it took to kill it.

From Kikwit
Anonymous said...

Saw this online you really masturbate them?? or this faulty reporting?

"They also communicate through touch, but while infants want cuddles for reassurance, older bonobos require the researchers to masturbate them during scientific tests. "When we have them in the testing room and they don't understand what's going on, they will scream and screech. They have a high-pitched voice and will waggle their crotch towards us. At the beginning I thought, 'Do we really have to?' But it's more like if we don't do it now they will not do the test.

"It calms them down, it regulates tension, it reassures them that you are friendly and that you have friendly intentions and you won't hurt them."

Weeeeeeeeell, it's not so much we give them a hand job, its more that the girls want to g-g rub you and if you hold out your hand they will drag their clitoruses across it a few times, and the boys just want a reassuring pat on their penis. Does that count?

From Playing ball
Jason J. Loya said...

This is extraordinary. As you said above, I had never heard of these guys before. Is there any way a species like this could be relocated (partially of course) to a different area of the world so they could breed and grow in number? I feel like intelligent relatives such as these should not be threatened due to man made war. Could they live somewhere else outside of captivity? In any case, this is a really cool blog. A rare gem with some wonderful, interesting, and valuable content. Thank you!

Bonobos only live in the Democraic Republic of Congo, and are very specifically evolved to live in this area. Relocating them to another part of the world would be like chucking an Amazonian river dolphin into a bathtub and expecting them to survive.

Having said that, Lola ya bonobo sanctuary is working on a release project, to release some of the Lola bonobos back into the wild. Hopefully, if all the bonobos die out (heaven forbid), there will be a reserve population. Much like the wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

From Uh oh...

Well, now that your mother has seen the blob, she knows that she can start worrying as of this very second about ebola, about rebels with machetes... Actually, there is no point in worrying because nothing has ever stopped you from living life passionately. I shall celebrate quietly with a gin and tonic when I hear that you are back safe and sound from Kinsasha, yet again.

Your mother.

It's a BLOG mum. Not a blob. A BLOG.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

An educated man

Yesterday evening, a man yanked open the door of our car.

'Are you JGI?'

'That's the director right there,' I said pointing to Rebeca.

'You take chimps right?'


'You take chimps. Because I've just bought one of the bloody things.'

Oh shit. Apparently the man, a botanist professor, was in one of the national parks and saw a baby chimp for sale. He bought it.

'We can't take it,' Rebeca said flatly. 'We have too many.'

'But you're JGI!' yelled the botanist. 'You have millions.'

'Did you buy the chimp?' asked Brian.


'Well that was your first mistake. When I go back to that forest, there'll be 10 baby chimps there.'

So an educated man, a European professor, was yelling at JGI for not taking a chimp he paid for.
I couldn't understand why he didn't get that what he'd done was a problem. And if someone like him didn't understand, what chance did we have?

I think a lot about the state of the human condition. We live in Germany. I've spoken to enough Germans to know they are still being punished for what happened to the Jews in WWII.

'How could you just let it happen?' Total strangers ask Germans who weren't even born.

But I think I know. When we first came to Congo two years ago, trucks were carrying giant logs out of the forest. The trees were so big, that only one or two could fit on a truck. Yesterday, on the way to Pointe Noire, I saw another one. The tree trunks were smaller.

Rebeca said she never sees the big trunks any more. They've all been cut down. At a talk in Berlin, a paper showed a map of how much of Central Africa was promised to logging contracts. Almost all of People's Republic of Congo was gone. The government sold their massive trees for about US$40 each.

And watching that logging truck, with the much diminished tree trunks, I knew I was witnessing something terrible. Something whose consequence would be felt generations into the future. But I was overcome with a strange mixture of despair and helplessness. And I did nothing.

Nazi Germany could have happened anywhere. Because when people see something awful, something on a such massive scale they feel powerless in the face of it, we chose the easy way.

So the botanist who saw the baby chimp with a chain around his neck, he felt bad, he wanted to stop feeling bad, so he bought it without thinking about what this would mean for the guy who shot the chimp's family and just made more money than he made in a month by killing them.

So in the end, I understand human nature a little more every day. But I wish we could change. I wish we could. I wish...

Monday, October 22, 2007

My friend Nelly

copyright Fernando Turno

This is my friend Nelly. She looks after the nursery group in the forest, which is shocking if you've ever seen 16 chimpanzees under 5 running haywire. Think kindergarten on crack, speed and steriods. She catches me up on all the gossip and I nag her to make this electrician she's been going out with for 3 years marry her. I would start to rant about how men seem to suck up the best, most reproductive years of a woman's life then dump her just as her ovaries start to decline at 35 just because technically he can reproduce till 70, but I won't. It's not that kind of blog. Anyway, Nelly is really cool. Her dad was a gorilla ranger before he got shot in the Brazzaville war and now Nelly works with chimps. I think her dad would be super proud of her.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lara Croft, the artist & King Kong

Nothing much happened today. Lots more ball throwing. Brian is going bonkers because chimps aren't supposed to throw the ball back but they do.

Rebeca and Fernando, two Spaniards, look after Tchimpounga, which is run by the Jane Goodall Institute.

This is Rebecca feeding an orphan gorilla confiscated from poachers.

Don't be fooled by her long beautiful hair and gentle smile. She is an ass kicking Lara Croft type and if you were dropped in the middle of a jungle and had to survive without food or water for a month, Rebeca is who you want with you. I think she is secretly Tarzan.

For instance,

copyright Fernando Turno

copyright Fernando Turno

Those photos are also to deter those who thought the cute little gorilla she was feeding in the first picture would make a good pet because this is what the cute little munchkin will grow into. In case you are wondering what the hell she is doing, she is helping out PPG, the gorilla sanctuary, with a health check.

This is Fernando

and this is his civet.

Fernando is an amazing artist, filmmaker, and photographer. He is also a sucker for animals. Every time we come here there is some weird new creature in their house that has been abandoned or its mother was killed etc. Last time it was a putty nose monkey and a baby chimp. The other time there was a baby gorilla. Anyway, the civet's family was killed by chimps in the forest and he was the only one left. He started off the size of a tennis ball, and now as you can see, he is the size of a footstool. Soon he will be the size of a labarador. The night watchment are terrified of him. He has already bitten one of them. But Fernando rolls him around on his back, tickling him. Let me tell you a civet laughing is the weirdest sound I have ever heard. I can't even begin to describe it.

These are the bugs that live on Rebeca and Fernando's window. I don't know if you can tell but there are, like, a million.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

My hand will never be the same...

Today Coyumba raped my hand. We were doing the Ball Experiment, see post , and Coyumba is our champion ball thrower. He is, I'm afraid, better than all the bonobos put together. He really throws the ball back and he really wants you to play with him. Some scientists don't think it's possible for a chimp to be interested in objects like a ball in similar ways to a human child, but I think Coyumba is. i don't know if you can tell but he is my favourite chimp ever.

But during the interruption phase where I'm supposed to sit quietly with the ball within reach for 30 secs, Coyumba grabbed my hand and rubbed it vigorously on his erect penis.

It was such a bonobo behaviour I can understand how some researchers say that juvenile chimps and bonobos aren't that different in their sexual behaviour.

The difference is that when chimps present their genitals, they want to play. While bonobos do it for a lot of different reasons including play, and also if they're anxious, or if they havne't met you before, or if they have met you before, or if they think you might hurt them, or a million other reasons. Also, a bonobo genital present is accompanied by an ear piercing shriek. It will seriously break your eardrum in a confined space.

That's why I was interested in my bonking baby bonobo study, see post. Because I havne't tested the infant chimps yet, but I've spent a lot of time in orphan nursery groups and they don't fall about having sex whenever the food arrives.

so you'll recall these were the positions I predicted for bonobos:

Well here they are in real life:

Position 1: Missionary

Position 2: Doggy

Position 3:

Position 4: Upright doggy

Position 5: Almost 69 (The most popular position, especially with the girls)

What most surprised me, was that I thought that young bonobos would have been taught their socio-sexual behaviours by their mothers or older bonobos in the group. But the nursery group are all orphans whose mothers were killed at a very young age and who have never lived with older bonobos.

So my preliminary conclusion would be that socio-sexual behaviour in bonobos is something that is present from a very young age, and dare I say it - a genetic predisposition. While Im sure that the enviroment in some way shapes the sexual behavior of the bonobos as they age, the presence of all this sociosexual behavior in young infants suggest that its something pretty tightly controled by their genes.

I haven't yet done the nursery chimps, but I doubt I'll see even one version of the bonobo karma sutra during feeding time.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Chimpanzees are not dogs

Ok guys, I've lasted this long without my favourite rant, and now I'm going to hit you with it.

I'm sitting in Tchimpounga, with its 140 orphan chimpanzees. Today we did one of our tests with Marcel, a young chimp about 5 years old. We know he's smart because one of our friends has worked with him before.

But before the test could even start, he lay down on the floor and started rocking. It's a signal of trauma. It happens when chimps are taken from their mothers when they are very young and kept in a confined space. It's a rare behaviour here because normally, chimps are really resiliant, and when they have a new peer group, and a forest to play in, they quickly recover.

In other words, it's really hard to fuck up a chimp. They are total surviors. So watching Marcel rock on the floor, something he'll do for the rest of his life, made me really sad, and really angry.

Because so often, people think that Africa has all these problems because Africa is a fucked up continent.

But chimps like Marcel get screwed over because of things like this:
and this:

Using chimps in the entertainment industry, advertisements, and keeping chimps as pets like this asshole:

all lead to chimpanzees getting shot and infants taken off their mother to be sold as pets or to the entertainment industry overseas. And of course every pet dealer and entertainment person will tell you their chimps were bred in country but the papers to prove this can be forged with a wordprocessor. And even if their chimps were born in country, the purchase and sale of infant chimps fuels the pet trade in Africa. And not just with chimps.

This is Malou.

She's a baby bonobo that was found in the luggage of a European couple at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

The main problem is that chimps and bonobos start out like this.

Totally sweet and adorable. But they eventually turn into this.

Any one of these grown chimps would be perfectly capable of throwing Arnie Swarzanneggar against the wall while he was in his Terminator prime days. (Btw, did you know that Michael Jackson had a lot of Bubbles'? Because a Bubbles could only be carried around and look cute for so long, then he got thrown into an enclosure with all the other Bubbleses)

This is an excerpt from a Washington Post article about a couple that raised a baby chimpanzee and were later attacked by two ex-actor chimpanzees in their teens:

LaDonna watched as one latched onto St. James’ head, the other onto his
foot. She chokes on the words: “They virtually were – I don’t know how
you say it – eating him alive.”

Davis says she screamed, and the Brauers’ son-in-law, Mark Carruthers,
came running. Carruthers retrieved a handgun, according to Davis and
police accounts. As Buddy lifted his head, Carruthers fired a single
bullet into the animal’s brain.

As Buddy fell away, Ollie began dragging St. James’ mutilated body
away. The 62-year-old man was conscious but near death. He had lost his
nose, an eye, most of his fingers, both testicles and much of the flesh
from his buttocks and face and left foot.

It's the most amazing article I've ever read and you should read it in full: Go to the article

I've had my head slammed against iron bars by a chimpanzee and been pretty deeply bitten by a bonobo, both under five years old. (ok it doesn't look that bad but it hurt like a bitch and notice the extensive brusing)

So what happens to chimpanzee actors and pets once they turn around seven and start biting people's fingers off? You need to control them with force. So then comes the electric shock collars, pulling out their teeth, extensive beatings.

But you can't beat a chimpanzee into submission forever. Because they know they're stronger than you and if I've learnt anything, it's that they are smart, super smart. And just because they aren't rocketing to the moon or driving cars, doesn't mean they won't outwit you from time to time.

And that's when they get put down. Or sent to biomedical laboratories. Zoos won't accept them because they are too fucked up to fit into a social group.

And it all comes back to little Marcel, rocking on the floor of his enclosure.

So please, don't buy products from companies who use chimps in advertising. That would be Pepsi, Puma, and Dolce & Gabbana (sorry girls). If you can be bothered, write a letter or an email to the companies that use them. A good draft of a letter to write was written by Jane Goodall

If you see chimps in a circus, be aware that they beat them backstage or use some other kind of force (there is lots of video documentary of this).

And for God's sake, do not buy a chimp or a bonobo. They might not make it the next 50 years in the wild. Don't make it any worse.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

happy birthday mummy

This is John Moboto putting his life jacket on backwards. they were complicated. I think mine was on backwards too.

Today I called my mum for her birthday in Australia. I was a bad daughter and totally forgot on the day. She said 'hi sweetie, where are you?' and I said ' uh, I'm in a small fishing village in Congo waiting for my boat.'

Technology is crazy.

Today we went up the Colou river. The water was like glass.

There is a beautiful island that Tchimpounga might release some chimps onto. They need somewhere to release them because they have 140 chimps that start out like this:

then they grow into this, 75kg balls of muscle as tall as me and 7,000 times stronger.

I got scratched by this weird plant that left a mark like this. It's all blistered like a burn and it stings like crazy. I didn't see what the plant was. I've sprayed some antiseptic on it. I hope my leg doesn't fall off. Has anyone else ever had something like this? Will my leg fall off?