Aug 19, 2010


Though the Lucy experiment would largely be called a failure, could there be a way to re-do it... but better? Producer Soren Wheeler visits The Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, to meet Kanzi the bonobo. Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh uses lessons learned from her time with Lucy in her current research with great apes, and Bill Fields explains the basics of bonobo-human communication, and ruminates on the differences between bonobo culture and our own, as illustrated by a swift and painful bite to his hand.

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Robert Krulwich: Three, two, one. Hey.

Jad Abumrad: I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: Wow. That was a big, "Hey."

Jad: Sorry. Just I was feeling it. I was feeling it.

Robert: [chuckles] I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: This is Radiolab. We shouldn't be laughing because we've been listening to a really, really sad story about a chimp named Lucy, who--

Robert: Who was born as a chimp, raised as a human, and died in, well, under-- because she ran into a human that she trusted and probably shouldn't have.

Jad: Yes. The question that we want to ask now, and we asked this question to Charles Seever, a guy who wrote a lot about chimps is, what's the lesson that we should draw from this?

Robert: It's a good question. I think what it says, it points back to something that I said earlier, that the only option now, and the best way to dignify and honor what they are and who they are, they're more than what, is to fence them ourselves off from them in little pockets of their home that we leave alone. That would be coexistence. [music] If you can't do it that way, and there's a very good reason why you couldn't do it that way, because there are about now 6.8 billion people in the world, soon to go up to 9 billion.

Jad: Too many of us.

Robert: Too many us.

Jad: What do you do?

Robert: Well, one thing you might try-- It's a far out notion-- you could go back to the Lucy experiment, the one we just described.

Jad: That ended very badly.

Robert: Yes, but this time you do it-- How shall I put this?-- You do it differently.

Soren Wheeler: Test. Test. Test.

Jad: There's a place in Iowa where this is happening, kind of. We sent our producer, Soren Wheeler, to check it out.

Soren: Getting ready to go visit Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.

Jad: To set things up, what was the name of this place?

Robert: The Great Ape Trust. Although I think the name is in flux.

Soren: Test. Test. Test.

Robert: Anyway, The Great Ape Trust, which is this place in Des Moines, Iowa, where it's a compound where they keep a very special group of bonobos.

Jad: Is it bonoclos or bonobos? How do they say it?

Robert: I think they say bonobos.

[sound cut]

Soren: Hey, the microphone's not working again.

Jad: When I got there, Bill Fields, who's the director of the place.

Soren: Director of Scientific Research-

Jad: That's him right there.

Soren: - on Bonobo Studies. Bill took me inside, and then there's this place where they keep the bonobos. Bill had to go in there ahead of me-

Bill Fields: Going without his authority?

Soren: - and ask-

Bill: Kanzi-

Soren: - if they are ready to see me.

Bill: - do you want the visitor to come see you?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Bill: That's Kanzi. [laughs] Okay. All right. We're going to bring the visitor to see you.

Soren: I walk into this room, which is this big concrete room.

Bill: Here comes Kanzi. He'll be brought till here.

Soren: The rules are when there are visitors, that the bonobos are kept behind this fence.

Jad: Oh, there's a fence in the room?

Soren: Yes. Just on the other side of the fence is Kanzi.

Kanzi: [squeals]

Soren: Whoa.

Jad: What does he look like? Is he big?

Soren: He's pretty big. Well, you look cute.

Kanzi: [squeals]

Soren: Maybe if he stood completely upright, he'd be a little bit shorter than I am, but he's built. More than that, he's just got this presence. He looks at you directly in the eye. He was standing there with his arms just swinging. His fingers are amazing.

Bill: They're so soft and sweet.

Soren: It's not like going to a zoo. Yes, they're long and huge. It's a little bit more like there's another person on the other side of that wire. [background noise] Here's one of the first things that Kanzi does when I come in. There's these two-- like a big plastic salad bowl. He would take these two big plastic salad bowls face down on the concrete and put his hands on him and run them [background noise] around the room. [background noise] Round and round circle and then he just slams himself up against the wire.

Robert: Wow.

Jad: Why? What do you think he was doing?

Soren: I didn't know what to think. Kanzi's run away. Can you stay with him there?

Bill: Do you like him?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Bill: You do?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Bill: I like him too. All right.

Kanzi: [squeals]

Bill: He likes you.

Kanzi: [squeals]

Bill: Okay. What shall I ask him?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Soren: You see the microphone?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Soren: Here's Kanzi's story. You remember Sue from the last story?

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh: Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.

Jad: Oh, yes.

Soren: After she worked with Lucy, this is about 30 years ago, she got Kanzi, and she raised him.

Jad: From a little bitty--

Soren: Bonobo.

Jad: Wow.

Soren: She would carry Kanzi around with her all the time.

Sue: Loving him as much as I love my son.

Soren: She becomes like-

Sue: We'd watch movies when we went to bed at night. They had--

Soren: - a mother to Kanzi. This sounds a little bit like the Lucy thing, but the difference here is that-

Sue: With Kanzi, we never wanted to take him away from his mother, Matata.

Soren: - Kanzi also has a bonobo mother.

Sue: Matata was born in the Congo, so she carried the knowledge of the bonobo's culture as best she could across to Kanzi. I was a member of a different species. I had a different kind of language, a human kind of language.

Soren: Sue says that the whole idea of the experiment was to create an emotional bond-

Sue: Emotional bond.

Soren: - between her and Kanzi that would fill Kanzi with an--

Sue: An innate desire to understand what I was going to say, to understand how I felt to want to communicate with me.

Soren: Pretty soon, Kanzi is using this-- They have a special keyboard with these symbols and you can touch the symbol and it makes a-- a computer voice says a word.

Kanzi: Egg.

Sue: Good. Can you find milk?

Kanzi: Milk.

Sue: Good. How about apple?

Soren: He's using this symbol keyboard-

Kanzi: Apple.

Soren: - to communicate with Sue.

Sue: Very good. How about Sue?

Kanzi: Sue.

Sue: Very good. How about peanuts?

Soren: This is the two of them sitting in front of the keyboard practicing.

Kanzi: Peanut.

Sue: Great.

Jad: How many words can he do?

Sue: How about chow?

Soren: Go over 600.

Jad: Really?

Soren: Yes.

Kanzi: Chow.

Robert: Wow.

Soren: Then this is where, to me, it just gets-- Kanzi, as he got older, started being able to communicate without the keyboard. She would talk to him and he would talk back.

Robert: What?

Soren: I'll give you an example. When I was there, there was one point where we were outside.

Bill: We're here, Kanzi. Where are you?

Soren: Kanzi has this outside space and we're outside too, but he's still fenced in like before. Bill and Kanzi are having this back and forth.

Bill: What's out there? Do you see something?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Soren: Kanzi seems to be saying, "There's something I want to show you," or, "There's something you need to see." It's not quite clear what's going on.

Bill: I don't see it yet.

Soren: Bill can't quite figure it out either, so Kanzi takes us then from the tool site over to this other place where, out in the yard, there's this big pit-

Bill: Let's go down here and look and see.

Soren: - that we can't see into because we're behind this fence.

Bill: What is it?

Soren: Kanzi is basically pointing down in the pit.

Bill: There's something down in the hole.

Sue: There's something down in the hole. You have to go in to look at that, Bill.

Soren: According to Bill and Sue, he's saying there's something there.

Sue: There's water.

Jad: How is Kanzi saying this?

Soren: To you and me, it would sound like, [mimics] "I want."

Kanzi: [squeals]

Bill: Is it in there? It's down there?

Soren: I could tell that Kanzi was gesturing at something.

Sue: He's saying you got it. You got it. In here. Come in here. Is it dangerous?

Bill: What is it?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Soren: Bill and Sue are hearing-

Sue: Does it live under the mud?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Soren: - words.

Sue: Has it got teeth?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Sue: It's got teeth. It's got big teeth.

Bill: You want us to get rid of it?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Bill: Are you scared of it?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Bill: Not too much. [laughs] You can handle it?

Kanzi: [squeals]

Bill: Well, I can't come in there right now, but I can in a little bit and we'll check it out.

Jad: We were so interested in this situation that you're hearing right here.

Bill: It's too cold out here. I'll come and look. I'll come and look.

Kanzi: [squeals]

Jad: Are they really talking? We decided to call up Bill Fields. Hello?

Soren: Hello. Hello. Hello.

Bill: This is Bill.

Jad: Hey, Bill. We heard a bit of tape that Soren recorded where you guys were outside and Kanzi was pointing in a hole or something.

Bill: That was very nice of you to invite some of them.

Jad: It just sounded like you guys are having some kind of real bilingual exchange. Is that really what was happening?

Bill: Yes, that's what was happening. We have begun to be able to decode his speech. If you say, "Kanzi, what do you want for breakfast?", he'll point on the lexigram keyboard he wanted--

Kanzi: Grapes, onions, tofu.

Bill: I say, "Okay. I'm going to go tell everybody we're going to have grapes, onions, and tofu." He will just respond with, "Right now."

Jad: Vocally?

Bill: Yes.

Jad: What does that sound like?

Bill: I'm going to see if I can do it. [mimics] "Right now."

Robert: So it's in English?

Bill: Yes.

Robert: Oh, man.

Bill: Yes. When he speaks to me and I understand it, it's in English.

Jad: The first time it happened, says Bill, he was a grad student, and he and Kanzi were outside.

Bill: I was sitting on a stump.

Jad: Kanzi was in a field nearby. At a certain point, he says Kanzi stopped what he was doing, turned right to Bill--

Bill: I'll do my best to reproduce it for you. He said to me, [mimics] "Ch-ase," like that.

Jad: He said what?

Bill: He said chase, but it was very hard for him to say it.

Jad: Don't you just ask yourself like, "Really? Am I sure that's what I heard?"

Bill: Not anymore.

Jad: [laughs]

Bill: I used to. It is such a common occurrence in our lab. It's not just my experience. It's my staff's experience. It's Sue's experience.

Jad: Soren, what about you? You were there. Do you buy what he's saying?

Bill: Kanzi speaks words.

Soren: I still don't know. The science isn't there, but what I do buy is that there's real communication going on. I think it may be a new communication. This is something I don't think has happened anywhere else. Bill and Sue have literally created a third culture, a culture that is neither just bonobo or just human. It's something in between. I think that that culture and those relationships are real. Now the weird thing about that is that with all the great things that come out of that, there are also moments of real confusion.

Jad: Like what?

Bill: Well, one time, we had a principal investigator who was visiting the lab at that time. She was having a very strong disagreement with Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh about method. This really upset Kanzi.

Jad: Why? Was the investigator screaming at Sue? What was she doing?

Robert: Why do you call in an investigator? Is it some kind of academic visitor? Is that what we mean?

Bill: That's how scientists are referred to. You have the principal investigator, the co-investigator.

Robert: It's not Columbo with a gun packing a gun. This is just some guy from some college somewhere?

Bill: No, it's a scientific investigator.

Robert: Okay.

Jad: Just to fill out the scene, you've got Sue, Bill, and this investigator in one room, and Kanzi in a different room behind some glass.

Bill: Very thick, clear glass.

Jad: Kanzi can actually see what's happening in their room. He can see that this investigator is getting angry with Sue, his human mom, getting more and more animated.

Bill: It was professionally aggressive and loud.

Jad: What was the argument about? Do you remember?

Bill: Oh, yes. It was about the format that we were going to use for archived video.

Jad: That's it?


Robert: Well, you know wars have been fought over stupider things. [laughs]

Jad: As Sue and this lady are arguing, what was Kanzi doing?

Bill: He was banging on the window, so I went to speak to him.

Jad: He walked into Kanzi's room. Kanzi then went to the keyboard and told him, "You have to punish that investigator for screaming at Sue."

Bill: He wanted me to go in there and stop her from doing this. It was my responsibility to take care of things, and that if I didn't do it, he was going to bite me.

Jad: Really?

Robert: Were you being told, "Man up. This woman is being attacked, and you're supposed to pound or bite that investigator. If you don't bite her, I will bite you."? Is that essentially--

Bill: Yes. I defaulted to human culture. I said, "Kanzi, I really can't go argue. I can't interfere." I just defaulted to the way things would happen in the human world. Later, I tell Sue that Kanzi told me he was going to bite me. She said, "Kanzi is not going to bite you." 24 hours later after he threatened to bite me--

Jad: He says Sue was putting Kanzi back in his enclosure, but Kanzi pushed past her, ran down the hall, found Bill in his office--

Bill: He came and found me, and he bit me.

Jad: He bit you?

Bill: Yes.

Robert: Where did he bite you?

Bill: On the hand. It was really serious. I lost a finger.

Robert: Oh.

Jad: Jeez.

Bill: What happened was the hand was bitten and they had to reattach all of the ligaments so that the rest of my hand would work. I had three surgeries that week. The first one was 14 hours, the next one was about eight hours, and the third one was about three hours. The problem was I apparently had sensitivities to drugs we didn't know about. They had given me morphine and I arrested. It stopped my breathing and my heart.

Jad: You almost died.

Bill: Yes.

Jad: Wow.

Robert: Do you think if you'd bit her, then he wouldn't have bitten you?

Bill: I'm certain of it.

Robert: You were so haunted from that day?

Bill: Yes.

Jad: What did you do then? Did you just come back to the lab and pretend nothing happened?

Bill: I came back to the lab about 14 days after the event. I was not ready to, but I didn't know what else to do. For eight months, I didn't speak to Kanzi. He kept trying to make up with me.

Jad: How would he do that? Would he type in his keyboard, "Sorry."?

Bill: He never. He refused to tell me he was sorry, but he would keep calling me.

Jad: Bill says he'd use the keyboard to ask the other researchers to get Bill. "Get Bill."

Bill: What he wanted me to do is just come down and renew my friendship with him and just act like nothing had happened. I simply wouldn't go and see him. Sue came to me and tried to talk me into going to see him and I said, "When Kanzi is ready to apologize." She'd come back and say, "No, Kanzi is not going to apologize. He doesn't think he should." I just stood on my ground. "Kanzi is going to apologize to me."

Jad: Finally, one afternoon, eight months later, one of his colleagues came up to him and told him--

Bill: "Kanzi wants to tell you he's sorry." As soon as I got down there, he threw his body up against the wire pressing up against me, and he just screamed and screamed in my mouth, which was this very submissive scream. It was very clear he was sorry and he was trying to make up with me. I ask him on the keyboard, "Are you sorry?" He told me, "Yes."

Jad: Wow.

Soren: When you say he threw himself against the wire, that means against the separating device between you and him?

Bill: Yes. He just pressed his body up against that wire. I put my body up against him and we just pressed up against each other.

Robert: Do you see what's happening here? You're telling us a story which reads more and more and more like a soap opera between a community of beings. The fact that one of them is a little bonobo and the other one is a guy is almost incidental to the story. I could put this on Channel 5 if I wanted.

Bill: [chuckles] It's just prinates.


Singer: We are all the same, really.

Bill: Just primates.

Singer: I am all alone now, plain old human me.

Bill: Currently, the Great Ape Trust is not just Kanzi. There's about seven different bonobos there and a dozen or so staff and researchers. While they're certainly not the same, they have created, at the very least, some middle ground. For Sue, that's not about a solution to any conservation problem or some scientific breakthrough. It's something deeper and more personal.

Sue: When I am with bonobos, I feel like I have something that I shared with them long ago but I forgot. As we've clothed ourselves and separated ourselves, we've gained a wonderful society, but we've lost the soul-to-soul connection that they maintain. It sometimes seems to me as though we're both a disadvantaged species. They have things that I've lost. I have things that they don't have. I feel like if I could have their abilities and keep mine, I would be whole.


Jad: You can find more information about anything that you heard in this hour at our website, We've also got Lucy pictures, and Janis, and Kanzi pictures there. You can subscribe to our podcast, that's at I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: Thanks for listening.

[sound cut]

Voiceover 1: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad.

Voiceover 2: Our staff includes Michael Raphael, Soren Wheeler, Ellen Horne, and Lulu Miller.

Voiceover 3: With help from Adi Narayan and Tim Howard.

Soren: Special thanks to David Garland.

Bill: This is Bill Fields signing off.

Robert: Bye-bye.


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