Bonobo’s Death Raises Doubts About Famous Scientist

Why did an Iowa ape facility, the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary (IPLS), reinstate a scientist with a controversial record as its director? It’s a case that brings into question the pioneering work in ape communication of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2011.

Savage-Rumbaugh is known for her work with bonobos (human’s closet living relatives, along with chimpanzees), who can understand hundreds of pictograms, but back in September, Savage-Rumbaugh was placed on administrative leave from her posts as executive director and senior scientist of the IPLS. Twelve former employees (the “Bonobo 12″) said in a letter to media outlets that she was “mentally unfit” to manage the Des Moines center and a “danger” to the seven bonobos there.

Before these reports, the IPLS had been struggled financially, says Scientific American; the center had even said that it might have to close if “emergency fundraising efforts” were not successful.

The Allegations of the “Bonobo 12″ and a Bonobo’s Death

According to Scientific American (via Nature), the whistleblowers alleged that Savage-Rumbaugh had

…allowed incestuous copulations between apes that had led to an unauthorized pregnancy (and subsequent miscarriage), forgot where she left the apes, locked the apes outside without access to water for hours at a time, and exposed the animals — including the infant bonobo Teco — to people who did not have proper vaccinations, among other instances of dangerous behavior.

The center’s board of directors said that it would launch an internal investigation.

Then, on November 6, Panbanisha — an adult female known for her ability to communicate with symbols — died from a respiratory illness. “Immediately,” Scientific American says, the IPLS “launched a fundraising campaign in memoriam, to raise money for a visitor center and visitor programs.”

Outside Experts Raise Concerns About the Primate Center

At this point, another primatologist, Barbara King of William and Mary — who had previously worked with some of the IPLS’s bonobos — wrote a letter to the center’s board:

The bonobos need either immediate supervision by qualified scientists and veterinarians who are in no way linked to or under the supervision of Sue, or they need relocation to another facility able to adequately care for them.I don’t say these things lightly. I have spent my professional life studying the depth of social bonds and emotions among apes and I know that one of these steps should only be taken in a crisis. I believe that crisis is at hand.ť

But these concerns of the “Bonobo 12″ and of King were not heeded as Savage-Rumbaugh was reinstated as resident scientist in November. According to a statement issued by the IPLS board, an internal investigation was unable to “substantiate the allegations against Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh, in part because they encountered significant counterevidence against the claims.” The veterinarian who had treated Panshiba, Julie Gilmore, was appointed to the post of executive director “to enfold the research in a constant mantle of veterinary guidance and oversight.” As Scientific American and the Des Moines Register both point out, Gilmore works at a local veterinary practice and specializes in cats and dogs.

Another chimpanzee expert, Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University, noted that Savage-Rumbaugh had taken an infant bonobo, Teco, off the center’s grounds and exposed him to people prior to giving him proper vaccinations.

Primatologist King has called for an additional external investigation. In particular, she has noted that the importance of Savage-Rumbaugh in fundraising efforts had been highlighted by the chair of the center’s board in an email to IPLS staff back in December of 2012 — precisely when “tensions between Savage-Rumbaugh and the staff were already running high.” King has even asked “to what extent does Savage-Rumbaugh’s ability to pull in funds remain a primary factor in the board’s eyes, vis-a-vis its new decision to exonerate her?”

Is the Center’s Survival Being Prioritized Over the Bonobos’ Care?

The need for an outside inquiry into the IPLS and its management seems warranted, if for no other reason than for individuals not directly involved with the center to assess its facilities.

For all of Savage-Rumbaugh’s work in ape communication, the bonobos are still unable to explain exactly what sort of treatment they are receiving. Or perhaps the death of Panshiba and the concerns of a number of staff members about Savage-Rumbaugh’s own “behavior” are all that needs to be said?

Related Care2 Coverage

Bonobos Can Make Stone Tools — and That’s Freaking Cool

New App Would Help Apes Talk To Humans

Sick and Dying Chimps Still Used in Research


Photo from Thinkstock


Thomas Bridges
Thomas Bridges5 years ago

There is a national code for the proper way to conduct animal experiments, and almost every college or university that has experimentation on animals subscribes to this code. Unfortunately, enforcement is left to the institution involved. So the code is pretty much honored in the breach, even in the best-known research universities on the continent.

Carrie Anne Brown

sad news but thanks for sharing

Katherine Wright
Katherine Wright5 years ago

Reinstated because people are idiots and selfish and heartless....

ali a.
ali a5 years ago

it is sad,,,

Cassie P.
Cassie Jo P5 years ago

How tragic. The death of Panbanisha. It's so sad. Humans don't take animals seriously enough. And we have to. It's important. If we want to protect them, it's everywhere! Not just in the wild.

Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago

Very sad . . . .

Sue M.
Sue M5 years ago


Frans Badenhorst
Frans Badenhorst5 years ago

oh this is so sad.....(I'm NOT talking about the human)

John S.
Past Member 5 years ago

Maybe they should look at how they perform investigations.

Vasudha Parmar
Vasudha Parmar5 years ago

i dont understand why proper investigations are not conducted where animals are concerned?