Pat Shipman, Ph.D.

Pat Shipman Ph.D.

The Animal Connection

Just Who Is Endangered?

Lessons from recent tragic deaths

Posted Nov 19, 2012

Lessons from Tragic Deaths 

I have written in previous blogs about the questionable morality of keeping great apes in captivity and about Americans’ distressing tendency to underrate the wildness of the wild. The assumptions that wild animals in captivity are somehow like Disney animals – cheerful, cute, harmless – and that it does them no harm to be in captivity, held for our amusement – are dangerous. Recently, both have lead to tragedies that were perhaps needless.  They are certainly senseless.

On  November 7th, Panbanisha – a bonobo or pygmy chimp – died of pneumonia at the Great Ape Trust (also known as GAT, the Bonobo Hope Sanctuary, or the Iowa Primate Learning Center).  Panbanisha was a member of a rare and endangered species.  She was also one of the two apes in the world that did best at learning language, the other being her half-brother, Kanzi.  Those who knew Panbanisha spoke of her as an intelligent and gentle individual.

The tragedy is not only that she died but that little over a month prior to her death, a group of 12 former employees at the Great Ape Trust went public with accusations that the apes were in immediate danger.  The Bonobo 12, as they have come to be known, sent a strong statement and a great deal of documentation to the Board of Directors of the facility and to the news media.  In particular, they charged that Dr. Sue-Savage-Rumbaugh  – the person who has been with the seven bonobos for most of their lives  – was not in a fit state to be left alone with the bonobos.

 They wrote: “[Savage-Rumbaugh’s] behavior now includes hallucinations, paranoia, removing every competent ape caregiver from the laboratory, releasing the GAT pit-bulls to roam the grounds unsupervised, and unexplained injuries to the apes…” In interviews, Savage-Rumbaugh made extraordinary statements to the effect that the bonobos were beginning to speak aloud in English and so were the pit-bulls kept on the property as night security.

They report that Sue also knew of and did not report incestuous matings among the bonobos that resulted in a miscarriage and that she engaged in “dangerous behavior, such as forgetting where she left the apes, locking them outdoors without access to water for several hours, placing young puppies in enclosures with adult apes and leaving them unsupervised, and exposing apes to visitors who did not have the proper vaccinations. …Additionally, her negligence has directly resulted in the death of a green-cheeked conure, the broken leg of a sheltie pup, multiple escapes by the campus pit bulls and the near-escape of [adult bonobo] Nyota from the facility. “ 

The GAT mounted an investigation into these charges and placed Savage-Rumbaugh on leave, banning her from interacting with the bonobos without being accompanied by a veterinarian. It is not clear that this ban was in effect a the time the sevevral bonobos beccame ill with a respiratory ailment that eventually killed Panbanisha.. Reportedly, the Board of Directors is now deciding whether to remove the apes from the facility to one that is approved by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) – an accredition which the Great Ape Trust no longer has.The loss of AZA accreditation should have been a loud warning bell that all was not well at the GAT, even if the board discounted complaints from and concerns of employees for months.

Complicating the board's decision is the need to raise substantial amounts of money if the facility is to be kept open, a financial crisis that has been looming for at least 8 months. Since Savage-Rumbaugh’s language research with the bonobos is the only project at the GAT to receive much public attention, severing her connection with the bonobos or the facility carries a large potential cost. 

Is that cost – the loss of her fund-raising ability – really so large? Where on the scale of priorities does caring safely for an endangered species rank in comparison to the need for a positive public image? 

The fears expressed by the Bonobo 12 have come to pass: a bonobo has died. What now is the right thing to do? Should something have been done when the accusations first came to light or would that have been over-reacting? 

For more about the Great Ape Trust and the bonobos, go to this blog, where many documents are available: UPDATE: On Novmber 20th, the board of directors of the GAT announced that their investigation was closed, the charges against Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh werre dismissed and she was reinstated as Resident Scientist at the facility.

 Interactions between humans and wild, endangered species are often troubled.  On November 4th, there was a death at the Pittsburgh Zoo.  A 2-year-old toddler fell from the wooden railing of a raised viewing platform, where his mother had placed him to try give him a better view of the African hunting dogs, also known as painted dogs. 

Painted dogs are the most-threatened carnivore in Africa, with only about 3,000 individuals in the wild.  They are about as big as size of a medium-sized domestic dog (35 – 75 lbs), with large rounded ears and a characteristically blotchy, mottled coloring.  They have a closely-knit pack structure that helps them in hunting large game (larger than themselves sometimes) and in successfully rearing young. Because they are small relative to other predators like lions and hyenas, painted dogs evolved to run swiftly, kill efficiently, and share their prey with other pack members. A pack of these dogs is a formidable predator.

In Pittsburgh, the small child lost his balance on the wooden railing, bounced into a net designed to catch refuse or other objects, and then fell down about 14 feet into the animals’ large naturalistic enclosure. He was immediately attacked by the pack of 11 animals.  Keepers intervened and tried to keep the pack away from the boy, but they succeeded in luring and frightening only 7 individuals away.  One dog was shot, too late to save the child. An autopsy report attributes his death to the mauling and blood loss, not to the fall itself.

Is there any meaning to such a heart-wrenching end to what was probably a fun family outing?  Perhaps.  The boy’s mother ignored the signs not to climb on the railing. I’m sure she was not trying to endanger her child. My guess is she did not really believe there was any danger. The idea that her child might fall and that the dogs would certainly respond by attacking and trying to eat him cannot have crossed her mind. She and her child were watching an entertainment, rather like an animal show on TV come to life. 

Only it did come to life.   The wild dogs in that enclosure are killers and always will be killers.  It is their nature, their essence. Just because they are enclosed within a fence they do not stop being what they are. A wriggling, defenseless prey animal like a small child falling into their enclosure was probably the most interesting thing that had happened to that pack in years.  Of course they attacked the child and killed him: I cannot imagine otherwise, though I wish this horrific event had never occurred.

The exhibit was well-designed and there were no prior complaints about it. A September inspection by the AZA found that the zoo met or exceeded safety recommendations in its exhibits. But, as the zoo’s devastated president Barbara Baker said, “there is no such thing as a fail-proof exhibit.”

There is no such thing as a danger-proof life, either.

Wild animals are wild.  We must learn to treat them with respectful caution, to keep our distance, to remain as safe as we can be while appreciating the role of the wild in our lives. 

About the Author

Pat Shipman, Ph.D.

Pat Shipman, Ph.D., is a writer and paleoanthropologist who writes about science and evolution for non-scientists.

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