Thursday, December 13, 2012
BIR 2012: Endangered by Eliot Schrefer
I got to talk to Eliot about the book, the need for conservation, and his interactions with bonobos.
If we should all take one lesson from our cousins the bonobos, what would you say that it is?
Bonobos are awesome in so many ways. For starters, they are highly social, pacifist, vegetarian apes with an infinite interest in connecting to one another and very little interest in dominating their environment or warring among themselves.
My favorite thing about bonobos is that they "make war" far less often than their chimp cousins. Chimps tend to solve conflicts with teeth and harm while bonobos... well, let's just say that is not their way. What is your favorite thing about bonobos?
Bonobos and chimps share the billing as our nearest living relatives. But they treat one another very differently. Throw food into a chimpanzee social group, and the dominant males will split it up among their favorites. Throw food into a bonobo social group, and the females will collectively prevent the stronger males from nabbing it. Then everyone will get very tense about what’s going to happen next. They’ll present to one another, rubbing their bodies until they’ve been reminded of their intimacy and bonding. Sated and blissed-out, only then will they approach the food source. And they’ll share it widely, with infants even eating out of the mouths of strong males.
Next, Eliot and I will dicuss this clip. http://www.eliotschrefer.com/PlayingGames.wmv
The clip makes me wonder what I must look like in the evenings when I end up trying to read in my chair and my three youngest kids decide to try to join me. Young bonobos seem to play very like young humans. What in this interaction between you and the bonobos is similar to an interaction with humans and what is different?
It was very similar, I’d say. The young bonobos spend their days with the same surrogate mothers, and were so excited to have someone new to play with. So I was the main attraction for 20 minutes, until they got bored and moved away. One big difference is that bonobo bodies are sturdier than ours, so the play often got rough. One or two thought it was fun to bite, in a way that wouldn’t have been a problem for another bonobo, but broke my skin! So I have a little bonobo scar.
I love how curious the one bonobo seems to be as he gets in your face. What is he trying to convey with the open mouth there?
They love being blown on. Giving a big raspberry in the belly is especially popular. I think he just was trying to figure out the parameters of our improvised game.
How heavy was your lap full of apes? They look so muscular and heavy.
They are incredibly dense, and have much less body fat than humans. That’s part of why they’re so strong, and also explains why they can’t swim—they sink right away!
The one lesson in Endangered that I hope EVERYONE will take to heart is that buying animals to take them out of a bad situation is never the answer. You see it in America all the time, people who "save" animals from dirty pet stores or bad quality breeders by buying them. When you buy these animals, you feed the system. You "save" one animal, while opening man more to the same fate. In Endangered, buying a bonobo from a poacher makes him money so he takes two more from their mothers in an attempt to make more money. Sophie gives Otto a chance at life at the cost of other bonobos' lives. What SHOULD people do to make a real difference in the animal trade?
That summer I was in Congo, I cradled an orphan whose primary needs were connection to others, a source of fruit, and the opportunity to live in the forest without being hunted. Humans had taken all of that from him, but he still held tightly to my chest, hoping despite everything for love and sustenance. My affection for that infant was only intensified by my guilt that our modern human existence comes with so many invisible, far-reaching costs. I think the most important thing is to avoid supporting systems—like puppy mills or testing—that do wrong. And also to think about long-term consequences of short-term good deeds.
I'm lucky enough to have actually seen a bonobo in person. The nearby Columbus Zoo here in Ohio has a colony of bonobos. When I took Vertebrate Biology in college, we went to sit and takes notes on their behavior. At the time, the 17 year leader of the group was being challenged by another female. The process was fascinating. The zoo also had the only set of bonobo twins (born in captivity) born there. What brought the bonobos and their plight into your life?
A pair of pants! I bought some Bonobo slacks, and thought it was a nonsense word. Then I looked them up online and was instantly hooked. I’m so glad the Columbus Zoo has a big bonobo population. With Congo’s uncertain future, it’s so important that zoos maintain healthy breeding groups.
The recurring question in Endangered seems to be WHY. WHY should we help these apes when people are in need? Why do you think it is important for us to help these apes, even in the face of human suffering?
Bonobos also have an exquisitely broad range of emotions. Unlike chimpanzees, they will willingly enter water. One of my favorite bonobos from the sanctuary loved a particular flat rock in the middle of the pond. He’d stand at the water’s edge and pluck up his courage before gingerly entering. Holding his arms over his head to make sure they stayed dry, he got a grossed-out look on his face as he tiptoed through sludge and pond goo. But then he’d get to spend the afternoon on his sun-warmed rock. Sometimes he’d find a water bottle that had blown into the enclosure, fill it, and take occasional sips as he enjoyed the sunshine. The feelings he expressed—from squeamishness about the dank water to bliss at having nothing to do but enjoy the sunshine—were so wonderfully akin to a human’s.
I think the answer is in there—that many of the distinctions humankind has long made between people and animals are artificial and morally unclear. And the systems that produce human and animal suffering (case in point, the current conflict in Congo) are much the same.
Now the question is how can we help the bonobos?
One place to start is to visit Friends of Bonobos (http://www.friendsofbonobos.org). You can adopt a bonobo there! Any funds you could contribute or give as a gift will go to keeping a young orphan bonobo alive at the sanctuary in Congo.
This has been fun! Thanks for the great questions.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about Endangered and Bonobos, Eliot!
Now for our giveaway! I have one copy of Endangered to give away to one reader in the US/CAN. Rafflecopter is not cooperating today so let's just use comments. Just leave a comment on this post with your email address. We'll keep it easy.