Great Ape Trust of Iowa

Time Frame: 2006

Great Ape Trust of Iowa, a research facility located in Des Moines, Iowa, and dedicated to studying the behavior and intelligence of great apes, is featured. This program aired in 2006.
Living in Iowa
IPTV, 2007

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Hello, I'm Amy Johnson Boyle, your guest host on this week's Living in Iowa. Thanks for joining us.

Tonight we're going to meet some of the most famous apes in the world at Great Ape Trust of Iowa, located in Des Moines. Construction on this world-class research facility began in 2003, and the first apes arrived the following year. Half a world away from their native habitat, orangutans and bonobos are teaching scientists just how close the relationship with our newest relatives really is.

Narrator: Azy, a 28-year-old male orangutan, made Great Ape Trust of Iowa his home in the fall of 2004. One of the first apes to arrive at the Trust, Azy is internationally known for his language research work with Dr. Rob Shumaker.

Shumaker: I am very interested in how the orangutans learn to understand and use a vocabulary of written symbols that are part of the language project that I conduct. See these? Why don't you try it. Excellent, Azy. Good job. All of the symbols are abstract, so they have to learn the meaning and apply meaning to the symbols. Just like when I learn a word in English or any other language, I have to apply the meaning and know the meaning and remember the meaning if I want to use that symbol productively. I think it's important to understand an individual over their lifetime. It's hard to remember a time I wasn't with Azy regularly. You have this and this, all right? That's right. Excellent.

Narrator: Shumaker was a teen-age volunteer caretaker at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., when he first met Azy.

Shumaker: We've kind of grown up together. And I've known him for almost 25 years at this point. And it's an extraordinary relationship that I certainly value.

Narrator: Today Shumaker is one of the world's preeminent researchers on orangutan behavior and cognition.

Shumaker: When I started studying orangutans and working with orangutans, I think the thing that surprised me the most is how much there is to learn—how much we still don't know, how much we're still trying to understand and uncover.

Narrator: Great Ape Trust of Iowa is dedicated to studying the behavior and intelligence of orangutans, bonobos, gorillas and chimpanzees. The 230-acre campus is located five miles southeast of downtown Des Moines and is currently home to three orangutans and a colony of eight bonobos. Eventual gorillas and chimpanzees will also have a home on the campus, making Great Ape Trust of Iowa one the first research facilities worldwide to study all four species of great apes.

Savage-Rumbaugh: Kanzi, give me the picture of the bananas.

Narrator: An innovator in the world of great ape communication, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is director of bonobo research at the Trust. The world famous Kanzi is regarded as one of the first apes to demonstrate real comprehension of spoken speech. Kanzi has an understanding of more than 500 words and also excels at tool use and tool manufacturing.

Savage-Rumbaugh: That's a great big rock chip. That's very nice.

Narrator: Closer genetically to human beings than any other life form on the planet, great apes are at risk of becoming extinct. The two species at greatest risk are bonobos, native to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and orangutans, native to Borneo and Sumatra. Trends indicate Sumatran orangutans may be extinct in fewer than ten years.

Townsend: After a history more ancient than ours, apes are about to blank out of existence because human beings have either on purpose or inadvertently decided to annihilate them. The apes collectively carry a knowledge and an understanding that must not be lost. And that's one of the major reasons Great Ape Trust exists—is to capture that knowledge before it's gone forever.

Narrator: The trust is dedicated to providing an honorable life for great apes. Participation in research is voluntary on the part of the apes. Their contributions are viewed as collaborative. And they are afforded great care and heartfelt respect.

Shumaker: Are you looking at your reflection right there? I can see you right there.

Narrator: Knobi, an adult female orangutan, moved to Great Ape Trust of Iowa in February of 2005. While adjusting to a new setting and social group, Knobi has enjoyed playing and making friends. Now fully acclimated, she has recently begun to participate in the scientists' research activities.

Shumaker: I just think she's wonderful. I love spending time with her. She's a very good tool user. She solves problems very well. She's very socially skilled. She's got Azy's number; that's four sure. We have the opportunity to develop some of our cognitive studies with her. And I think that she's just going to be an extraordinarily interesting individual to learn more about. And she's been an extraordinary companion for Allie.

Narrator: Allie, an adolescent female orangutan, experienced an unexpected neurological event that resulted in the temporary paralysis of her arms and legs. The event occurred before she moved to Great Ape Trust of Iowa. Over time and with excellent care, her arms and hands improved tremendously. She can now voluntarily flex both legs, and continued increases in function are expected. Allie's favorite toys are the markers she uses for drawing.

Shumaker: She is just determined that nothing slows her down. She doesn't think she's handicapped. And we sure don't. We're very anxious to give Allie the opportunity to get involved in some of the cognitive tasks here. Where she might have some minor limitations in her hands, we can allow her maybe to use some technological things, like a joystick to make selections on a computer screen. All these things will help her express ideas and understanding.

Swartz: Oh, here. This is one of the faves. There you go.

Narrator: Dr. Karyl Swartz, a resident scientist at the Trust, is working with both orangutans and bonobos.

Swartz: They generate a lot of the interactions on their own. It's not just that they respond to us. We, of course, respond to them. And they then can take the ball and run with it as well. There is no dominant personality in an interaction with an ape. It's just an interaction. And they really are complex.

Narrator: Swartz is working on comparative studies of memory and cognitive capacities related to what is called "theory of mind."

Swartz: Part of theory of mind is mere self-recognition. By understanding what's in the mirror, that the mirror image is in fact a reflection of that animal's body, the animal is showing us that he or she has a perception of self, some sort of idea of “this is me.” What we learn from great apes can be applied to human conditions. For example, in my work with memory, the orangutans that I'm studying don't have language. I think by finding out how a nonverbal organism uses nonverbal memory, we can apply that to cases in humans where verbal capacities are diminished or in some way have been interfered with.

Narrator: Taking time off from tracking wild orangutans in borneo and sumatra, Serge Wich and his wife, Tina Geurts, are currently working with orangutans at the Trust. A visiting researcher, Wich is studying variations in culture and behavior of orangutans in the wild and in captivity.

Wich: I think there's a lot of behavior that we see in the wild and that we would like to know if it's something particular for one orangutan. Like, for instance, if there's one orangutan there that finds out that it can open a fruit with a little stick to get the seeds out, is that something that's unique for this orangutan? Or is it something that all orangutans would do where they are exposed to that fruit and the stick?

Narrator: Great Ape Trust of Iowa is helping to secure the future of great apes by sponsoring a number of conservation programs around the world. Programs range from opening a new study site for wild orangutans in Sumatra, to supporting a sanctuary for bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dr. Benjamin Beck is director of conservation at the Trust.

Beck: Great apes undeniably are the living animals most closely like us. They're close enough to be able to give us real clues as to who we are, where we came from, how our thinking abilities evolved. And for me, at least, they are a mirror for our relationship with earth. Because if we cannot save the great apes, the animals most closely like us, then I'm not convinced that we can even save our own species.

Swartz: As I get to know individual great apes and understand their deep emotional lives and the breadth of their emotional capacities, I more and more think that we have to do something to help save them.

Narrator: Another way the Trust is helping to save great apes is through education.

Shumaker: My contribution I think is to help educate people about great apes, hopefully increase their admiration and respect for great apes, maybe change their attitudes a bit, maybe provide them a reason to care about conserving great apes in the wild. And hopefully those people will take some action.

Townsend: The idea is to seek the truth, whatever it may be. What Great Ape Trust of Iowa will be 25 and 50 years from today is up to those scientists and the apes who live here to produce and to create. And I would not hazard a guess where that will take us. But I can guarantee you, it will be profound knowledge shared with the most people possible.


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