Great Ape Trust

Susan Savage-Rumbaugh

Iowa Bonobo Sanctuary Mired in Controversy

Liz is a staff writer for Science.

Crisis has erupted at the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary, aka Great Ape Trust or Bonobo Hope. The Des Moines home to seven bonobos, including Kanzi, the first ape to learn language like a child, has launched an internal investigation over allegations that its director, Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, was not caring for the animals properly. The trust's board of directors has placed Savage-Rumbaugh on administrative leave, allowing only supervised visits with the bonobos. The decision comes 10 months after staff members first raised concerns about how Savage-Rumbaugh was behaving and treating the animals. At that time, those concerns were set aside as money troubles prompted the appointment of Savage-Rumbaugh as director of the trust. But in early September, former caretakers and staff members complained again to the board and then the media. A blogger has chronicled these developments.

Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend founded the Great Ape Trust in 2002, providing $4 million to create a research center focused on primate cognition and communication. That support has gradually decreased, and at the end of 2011 it disappeared all together, Ken Schweller, chair of the trust's board of directors, tells ScienceInsider. Strapped for funds, the trust thought it would have to drop research and become just a sanctuary for the animals. But thanks to a $50,000 private donation, it has been able to maintain its research institute status, says Schweller, a retired artificial intelligence researcher at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. Not much research has been going on in the last few months, however, he admits.

In a video interview with The Des Moines Register, Savage-Rumbaugh asserted that the former staff members that complained about her "don't know the situation." To resolve the conflict, she said she would be willing to "wear a camera on my chest 24 hours and people can watch me day and night. … I'm willing to be an open book."

Ethicist Nancy Howell of the Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, is heading up the investigation. No deadline has been set for its completion, Schweller says.

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