What is it like working with nonhuman primates on a regular basis?
Chelsea: I think the analogy that is most accurate would be working with children, except they are 100 pounds and potentially very threatening. For the most part my day is about keeping them happy and busy – I get to think up off the wall things that wouldn’t be kosher anywhere else. Things like a Spaghetti pinata, they loved it! A game of greased watermelon? They scooped it up in a second flat, but they really enjoyed having a whole entire watermelon. Most days the bonobos are happy and playful and want your attention 24/7. Some days they are mad or upset or you have to clean, but they decided you having the broom is the worst thing that ever happened.
Gaila: It is fascinating and interesting every day. It is also dirty and sweaty and can be physically difficult.
Emily: It’s challenging but very rewarding and fun at the same time. Our bonobos are very strong-willed and can be stubborn at times, which can be frustrating. But it is very rewarding to see them so happy and healthy and know that I’m part of the team that takes such excellent care of them.
Amanda: It’s a tough but incredibly rewarding job. Every day I learn something new about them and how we can help give them the best possible life here in Iowa.
What surprised you the most when you were getting to know the bonobos?
Chelsea: Literally everything amazed me when I was getting to know these guys. I had wanted to work with bonobos for so long, knowing how much of a long shot that was, so when I finally got to do it I was just completely enamored. I was a skeptic of animal language research before coming here too, so the bonobos’ use of the lexigrams blew my mind. They still surprise me all the time after two years of working with them. The other day Nyota started playing a game of catch with his coconut.
Gaila: What unique individuals they are, funny like Maisha, sweet like Teco, and sassy like Elikya. Socially, they are pretty complicated and interesting to work with.
Emily: How different they are; from their food preferences, to the way that they play, and what they think is funny, to the things that make them happy. For example, Teco loves nothing more than to watch a cartoon on a rainy day, but Maisha couldn’t care less about watching movies. He’d much rather get a rise out of his care staff by popping out and jumping at you when you come around a corner.
Amanda: It’s shocking how strong willed they are and how different their personalities are. We do our best to give them as many choices as possible in a day and they all have different needs and wants at any given time. It also surprised me how easy it is for us to understand each other. I am able to figure out what they want and they are also able to figure out what I am asking pretty easily. It’s amazing how we almost work together to make their lives as good as possible.
What’s your favorite part about working with the bonobos?
Chelsea: My favorite part is building a relationship with each of them and seeing how it has evolved over time. It takes a while to get in the good graces of these guys and of course you always need to have a healthy dose of caution when interacting with them, BUT, as those relationships have developed I’ve been able to see different aspects of their personalities and I think that is the reason I still find myself getting surprised by them on a regular basis.
Gaila: The joy I get from being part of their lives, they are really special and amazing. Being able to communicate with great apes is pretty cool too.
Emily: Watching them think and figure out how to solve problems, like how to get the raisin on the floor outside of their enclosure that’s just out of reach. It also makes me really happy when I see them enjoying an enrichment item I’ve created for them. Perhaps my absolute favorite part of working with these language-competent apes is seeing them use lexigrams I’ve never seen them use before, or combining lexigrams to convey an idea. Despite our best attempts to hide it from him, Kanzi saw us eating pizza in the lobby one day and asked for “cheese – bread – surprise” on the lexigram keyboard. He knows EXACTLY what pizza is.
Amanda: My favorite part is how each and every day is totally different. I love the trust between myself and the bonobos and how we can work together to accomplish things in the day. They teach me so much!
The Ape Initiative is involved with research, conservation, education, and science outreach, which part do you find yourself gravitating towards or getting involved with the most?
Chelsea: I’m really interested in training. You have to get inside their minds to figure out how to teach them behaviors and to identify different roadblocks along the way. Seeing their wheels turn, and the light bulbs go off is the most rewarding feeling.
Gaila: I am part time and retired without any background in ape care, so I will do whatever I can to assist in the success of the Ape Initiative.
Emily: Definitely research. We have lots of different studies and projects going on all at once, and all of our apes get food rewards for participating in our studies. Since researchers aren’t able to feed the apes for safety purposes, the staff members are usually the ones running the research tasks and rewarding the apes.
Amanda: Because of my job here, I find myself most involved with the research aspect of the Ape Initiative. We work with researchers from over 40 different universities from all over the world, I feel really lucky to be able to work with so many smart amazing people!
What events at the Ape Initiative are you looking forward to the most?
Chelsea: Welcoming Clara into our group has been the hardest and most rewarding experience I’ve had since being here. It’s been really cool to see her personality open up over the past 6 months. I’m excited to see how the Ape Initiative continues to grow, starting with Mali!
Gaila: Probably the new bonobos. It has been rewarding and interesting seeing our bonobos and Clara and Mali navigate their new relationships and social structure.
Emily: Now that we are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), we are part of the Species Survival Plan and are able to participate in the bonobo breeding program. I’d love to see some our bonobos become parents someday!
Amanda: Since we became an AZA certified facility last summer, I’m really looking forward to how we will grow here. We were already lucky enough to welcome two new bonobos – Clara, last May, and Mali, in November.. I’m really excited to see how we will continue to grow.
What advice would you give someone who wants to get into working with animals?
Chelsea:Talk to as many people who are already doing what you want to do. Ask them what they like and don’t like about the job, and if they’ve found any useful ways to manage the bad parts. There are bad parts to every job, nothing’s perfect, but knowing what you’re signing up for will save you a lot of stress and energy down the road. Also, do internships if you can! If your dream internship isn’t available to you, try the next best thing – just get a better idea of the work you want to do before you commit yourself to it.
Gaila: You’re never too important to pick up poop!
Emily: Take as many internships and volunteer opportunities as possible. Potential employers love seeing that you work hard and have lots of experience working with animals. It’s important to be self-motivated and be able to stay busy cleaning and helping out without having to be micromanaged. Not all of animal care is glamorous, but all of it is necessary. And, the gross parts make the fun parts even better. As Gaila says, “You’re never too important to pick up poop!”
Amanda: My best advice it to take every opportunity to gain experience and ask questions to those in the field. It’s a really demanding career path, taking care of animals means they need to be taken care of every single day, regardless of weather, or holidays, or family functions. Getting experience and asking questions will help decide early on if it’s a career you will still enjoy once the “newness” wears off. A lot of people think it’s all fun and play time with the animals, but in reality it’s a lot of really hard work.
Are there any other thoughts about the bonobos or the Ape Initiative that you would like to share with our readers?
Gaila: Above everything, we are all devoted to the care and welfare of our bonobos. The research done at the Ape Initiative is voluntary and stimulating to the bonobos who participate. At the end of each day we have happy and healthy bonobos.
The Ape Initiative is always looking for more community partners and ways to improve the bonobos’ lives. If you are interested in partnering with the Ape Initiative feel free to contact them using this link! You can also donate by sponsoring a bonobo, order a gift off the bonobos’ Amazon Wishlist or donate directly! You can keep up with the Ape Initiative on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram too!
Edited by Lana Ruck