The Little Rock Zoo

.The Little Rock Zoo needs to step up and care for the animals better! Please read the several artciles here with deaths, sickness and a bald chimp!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bonobos, Make Love, Not War Species

Bonobos hanging out at the San Diego Zoo
(photo by Ashley Ahearn)

Every year three million people visit Amy Parish's office. They come wearing Hawaiian shirts and sun hats, carrying fanny packs with cameras bumping at their hips. They come to see the orangutans and giraffes, the lions and tigers and bears.

But nestled into a quiet enclave down one of the winding paved pathways of the San Diego Zoo, is the bonobo enclosure. That's where you'll find Amy Parish most days.

Dr. Amy Parish in front of the bonobo enclosure at the San Diego Zoo.
(photo by Ashley Ahearn)
To hear an interview with Amy Parish:
Parish is a biological anthropologist and gender studies professor at the University of Southern California. Here at the San Diego Zoo she studies bonobos, the most recently discovered and perhaps least-known member of the great ape family.

Bonobos look like slightly wiser, perhaps more humanoid versions of chimpanzees. They're more slender in the chest and neck and they're longer-legged and smaller-browed than their chimpanzee cousins. Watching the bonobos here in their artificial glassed-in landscape of waterfalls and faux rock caves, one is made very aware of the fact that we are not the only ones doing the observing.

As Parish walks up to the glass windows curious brown eyes turn towards her. Lana, the matriarch of the group recognizes Parish and lazily raises a leg in greeting. She and Parish have known one another for 20 years. Lana is 30, a ripe old age for a bonobo, and as the matriarch of the group she's had her choice of mates and has had many children. Amy Parish has had one, but he didn't escape Lana's attention.

"After I'd had my son I came out to the wild animal park and Lana was there and she was looking at the baby on my hip and vocalizing a lot and clearly very excited and looking at both of our faces. And then she went away and came back with her new baby and she stood up bipedally and suspended the baby by its arms in front of me and it really felt like she recognized that I'd had a baby. She wanted me to know that she had a baby too, sort of this maternal bond."

Known as the "make love not war" species, the endangered bonobo lives in matriarchal groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where they diffuse inter-ape tension and issues of dominance through sex rather than violence. Bonobos are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, besides chimpanzees, sharing 96.5 percent of our genetic makeup, but Parish says their matriarchal societal order has made scientists (particularly male scientists) hesitant to recognize our close genetic ties.

In fact, it was a battle to even prove to the male-dominated scientific community that bonobos were indeed matriarchal. Parish had studied bonobos in zoos all over the world and began noticing behavioral patterns typical of a matriarchal society, but she says many sought to deny her observations.

"Every zoo thought it was something about their particular male... they would say "oh, he was nursery reared and maybe that affected his behavior" or "He was sick when he was young and that's why he's weak." Parish claims that the idea that bonobos were a female dominated species was a tough sell because everybody thought it didn't seem natural for males to be dominated by females. After compiling years of data, Parish showed that every zoo that had multiple females in the group ended up having males that were getting injured. She argued that it was not in fact "weak males" that were permitting this female dominance, but that it was natural for bonobo females to maintain their dominance over males by using violence.

Parish's research has contributed hugely to our understanding of this species but it also provides another perspective on our own society. She believes that we human beings are selling ourselves short by just comparing ourselves to chimpanzees. "We have based all our hominid models on chimp-like behavior, thinking that patriarchy is natural and violence is natural and meat-eating is natural. We now have another closest living relative that we can think about."

In the glass enclosure in front of us, Lana grooms her newest daughter, Kessie, in the company of two other adult females and a young male who are either aimlessly masturbating or sleeping soundly in the mid-day heat. Although she and her mother sit with their backs to the glass, every once in a while Kessie turns her head to look up at her aunt out here on the other side.

Source and interview with Amy Parish

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