This is the fourth installment to the Primate Conversation Series, click these links to see parts one, two, and three.
For the past three and a half years, I have been volunteering at the Ape Initiative as part of my research interests in primatology and cognition research. The Ape Initiative is a non-profit research and conservation facility that is home to 7 bonobos (Pan paniscus) and counting! Bonobos are one of the closest living relatives to humans, sharing about 98-99% of their DNA. Their natural habitat is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they are threatened by deforestation, poaching, the exotic pet trade, and caught in the crossfires of the country’s civil war. My own research project just started this month, but I’ve already learned that there’s a lot of work that goes on behind-the-scenes of research with primates, and a lot of it is about taking care of the animals themselves.
On a typical day of volunteering at the Ape Initiative, I’ll walk into the ape kitchen around 10AM. All the food and enrichment prep for the bonobos happens in a kitchen specifically designated for the apes to keep it separate from the human spaces. This helps prevent contamination from food that the bonobos aren’t supposed to be eating or being exposed to human germs that might be detrimental to them. Since they are so closely related to humans, apes are susceptible to human diseases, and a common cold to us can be a deadly virus to the bonobos. Before I even approach the sink to get working on the dishes from the bonobos’ breakfasts, gloves and mask go on as an additional preventative measure to keep my human germs and bacteria away from the bonobos.
When the dishes are done, groceries have already been delivered. Feeding seven bonobos requires a lot of fruits and vegetables, and the Ape Initiative receives donations from local grocery stores to help keep up with the demand. Sorting the groceries includes separating out the older food that’s going bad, putting like items together for easy access, washing food that will be used for meals and enrichment that day, and washing and pulling all the grapes off the vines. Grapes are the “go-to” food item for research and training rewards, so we get a lot of ‘em! By far, grocery sorting takes the longest time, but it’s well worth it because it makes feeding the bonobos and creating enrichment much easier for their caretakers and other volunteers.
I spend the majority of my volunteer time working in the ape kitchen sorting groceries, cleaning dishes, making enrichment, putting together breakfast for the next day, and helping with the laundry. These sound like boring tasks, but they’re incredibly important. Without clean blankets the bonobos can’t make their comfy nests; without fresh, sorted groceries, feeding takes much longer when trying to create meals and snacks that are nutritious and full of variety without going over on calories.
While I’m working in the ape kitchen, the caretakers are working in ape space (the section of the building where the ape enclosures are located) to make sure the bonobos have a clean enclosures, insuring that they’re eating their meals and staying socialized, and also working on veterinary training, and running research trials with the bonobos. Ape Initiative has two full-time care staff, Emily and Chelsea, one part-time care staffer, Gaila, and a Research Coordinator, Amanda, all on site in Iowa. These four are working on the ground everyday to ensure Kanzi, Maisha, Nyota, Elikya, Teco, Clara, and Mali are living their best lives, and I got a chance to talk to them a bit about what it’s like to work with animals on a daily basis. Click here next week to see the full interview, and learn more about what it takes to work with primates!
Ape Initiative: On-Site Staff Bios
 Emily: My job is to take care of the bonobos at the Ape Initiative, which includes feeding the apes, training the apes, running research projects with them, cleaning enclosures, maintaining health and behavioral records, sorting through our food donations, and providing the apes with enrichment and other means of mental stimulation.
 Chelsea: I currently work as care staff. That role entails daily care of six bonobos, including cleaning enclosures, maintaining produce inventory, food prep, and health and behavior monitoring. Additionally, I make and disperse enrichment items, participate in data collection for various research projects, and train each bonobo for voluntary medical procedures.
 Gaila: I am a part time animal caregiver. I started as a volunteer and volunteer coordinator and after retirement became a part time staff member.
 Amanda: Amanda Epping, Research Coordinator. My role at The Ape Initiative is to manage our facility and research program. My job is the catch-all, a little bit of everything!
Meet the rest of the Ape Initiative’s team by following this link!
Thank you to the staff of the Ape Initiative!
Edited by Lana Ruck