Archive for the ‘ZooKeepers’ Category

Big Life, Big Victories! Celebrating Elephants Gala 2015

by | May 13th, 2015
Check out our lovely silent auction on May 16th. Help us protect the elephants that live in Amboseli National Park.

Check out our lovely silent auction on May 16th. Help us protect the elephants that live in Amboseli National Park.

There has been so much going on with elephants this year we can hardly keep up! Did you know that last fall Oakland Zoo aided in the banning of the bullhook in our own city? Yep, that’s right by 2016 the traveling shows with elephants will no longer be able to visit Oakland. Los Angeles has already been successful with a bullhook ban as well. Did you know that last month Ringling Brothers announced that by 2018 they will discontinue the use of elephants in their show? Due to the continuing pressure on the circus not being welcomed in cities across the country because of the treatment of their animals, they gave up the fight against advocates trying to create legislation to stop them. Did you know that this week the city of San Francisco banned the use of performing exotic animals for entertainment in the city? There’s a movement happening, a culture shift, and Oakland Zoo is proud to be a part of the change they have been advocating for, for the last thirty years. Still in the works are Senate Bill 716, a California state bill that will prohibit the use of the bullhook (including the use of a similar tool like a pitchfork), on or even around elephants. Also we are actively working on Assembly Bill 96, a California state bill that will end the legal sales of ivory in California. Yes, ivory is still legal to sell in the state. Just walk down the streets in San Francisco Chinatown and you’ll see it in shop windows. See my previous blog for more info on the issue.

Oakland Zoo is part of both coalitions who are working toward SB 716 and AB 96, collaborating with

Fund-a-need: A fantastic contribution you can make at our silent auction is to give funds toward equipment and supplies for the team that protects the elephants in Amboseli.

Fund-a-need: A fantastic contribution you can make at our silent auction is to give funds toward equipment and supplies for the team that protects the elephants in Amboseli.

some fantastic organizations who all seek the same outcome: the safety and survival of elephants. While we have been advocating for the past thirty years for the management and training style called Protected Contact Positive Reinforcement (PCP+), we also take responsibility that our mission is conservation and education. This year we have dedicated our 19th annual Celebrating Elephants events to fight for the passage of AB 96. We very much welcome Big Life Foundation as a new partner and a 2014 Quarters for Conservation vote. Did you know that when you enter the zoo, twenty five cents of your admission goes directly toward conservation, and you get a token to vote on one of three projects it will go toward? That’s pretty cool!

Amy Baird, Associate Director of Big Life Foundation will be our guest speaker for our 19th annual Celebrating Elephants Gala, on May 16th.

Amy Baird, Associate Director of Big Life Foundation will be our guest speaker for our 19th annual Celebrating Elephants Gala, on May 16th.

Big Life, founded by wildlife photographer Nick Brandt, and conservationist Richard Bonham, focuses on anti-poaching efforts and protects two million acres of land in the Tsavo-Amboseli ecosystem. Big Life is the only organization in East Africa that has coordinated anti-poaching rangers operating on both sides of the Kenya-Tanzania border. To date they have arrested 1790 poachers, and seized 3,012 poaching tools and weapons, while employing 315 rangers with 31 outposts and 15 vehicles.  They recognize that sustainable conservation can only be reached through a community based collaborative approach. Their vision is to establish a successful holistic conservation model in Amboseli-Tsavo that can be replicated across the African continent. They not only protect the elephants that live on this land, but all wildlife. We are lucky enough to have Amy Baird, Associate Director of Big Life to be our guest speaker at the Celebrating Elephants Gala on May 16th.

Please join us for a special Big Life presentation, followed by a reception with spirits and appetizers, and

peruse the lovely silent auction. Doors open at 6:00 pm. Tickets are available at the door or in advance

A forty plus years research study and conservation organization, on the behavior and ecology of African Elephants.

A forty plus years research study and conservation organization, on the behavior and ecology of African Elephants.

at: You may also make donations through this site if you can’t make it to the auction. And don’t forget to grab the entire family and join us for the day event on May 23rd, where you will experience the once-a-year opportunity to tour the elephant barn and talk to the staff about how the elephants are taken care of. For more detailed information check it out here:  All proceeds of the two events go to the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya, check out their website here:

So we asked the giraffe, “How do you really feel?”

by | April 21st, 2015

I have worked with UC Davis for almost 10 years on a variety of projects – raising California salamanders, watching turtle interactions, training dolphins, living amongst monkeys in India, and watching chimpanzees – and though all these projects have been fascinating, the current project we are launching excites me to the core. Our Animal Well-Being Research program at Oakland Zoo is still in its infancy, but it’s strong, vibrant, and ready to pave the way in enhancing our animal’s lives and what we know about them.  We’re developing new ways for keepers to let animals tell (or show) us about their emotional lives.  Some of these new ‘tools’ are borrowed from the large human literature on human emotion (termed “affective science”).  Others, we’ll be building ourselves.

The first reason I am excited about the research, which is be described below, is that we will be working directly with Dr. Eliza Bliss-Moreau at the University of California, Davis, with whom I have worked since 2009 on a variety of other forward-looking projects in animal welfare. Dr. Bliss-Moreau studies emotion and the biological ingredients that make up emotions. Her multi-method and multi-species approach to understanding the social and affective lives of both humans and nonhuman animals is, in our opinion, revolutionary. Her work points to evidence from biological research to challenge commonly-held beliefs about what emotions are and about how we interpret their presence in others.  Armed with new questions, she’s looking for ways for animals to tell us about their experiences using biological tools that are new to animal welfare. We are lucky to have such a great mind at the helm, and she has remarked that our animal care team and program supports a ‘living laboratory’ that enhances both science and animal well-being.

The second reason I am excited about this research is it has the potential to be ground-breaking – not only in what we know about animals, but also in what we can do to enhance their lives. The goal of our collaborative research project is to investigate whether the cardiac system in nonhuman mammals functions similarly to that of humans during emotional experiences.  When people interact, we use what we know about emotions to gather information about whether others are feeling down, gleeful, tired, apprehensive, excited, etc. We are all familiar with what it feels like to walk into a final exam or job interview, see a car accident, or fall in love.  They are all experiences that can be felt physically, with our hearts pumping faster, our stomachs tightening, etc. When in doubt, we can ask each other how we feel.

In the same way, as animals keepers, we perceive the behaviors of animals using our own human understanding of them (which may or may not be 100% accurate relative to what the animal is experiencing), but we can’t take the next step in asking them how they are feeling. There is no doubt that animals live dynamic, enriched lives as well, but until recently it has not been possible to look at how animals experience their environment from the inside out—by noninvasively evaluating a biological system (in this case, the cardiac system) that responds quickly and efficiently to the environment.DSC_0013

The current focus of our new efforts is in training the giraffe to participate in a testing process that will record the function of the heart—electrocardiograms (ECG or EKG) and impedance cardiograms. The cardiac system is regulated by two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the parasympathetic branch and the sympathetic branch.  While people sometimes think of the parasympathetic branch is the “rest and digest” system (where activity in the system calms someone down so that they can prepare for the future by eating, sleeping, and reproducing) and the sympathetic branch as the “fight or flight” system (where activity in the system allows someone to attack or run away) the two branches work together to keep us balanced, which allows us to respond appropriately to different situations. Dr. Bliss-Moreau explains it this way: “While the control centers for the autonomic nervous system are in the brain, the system is based in the body and regulating physiology south of the brainstem.  It is largely responsible for generating one of the necessary and critical ingredients of emotion– affect. I typically talk about autonomic nervous activity as giving “color” to experience.  Its activity is why hearing footsteps in a dark alleyway feels negative; the ramped-up feeling when you’re anticipating something major to happen; the pleasantness of a really good massage, and so on.”

Dr. Bliss-Moreau and many other affective scientists (see are involved in research looking at how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) responds to brief emotional stimuli (a honk of a loud horn, a tear-jerking Super Bowl commercial) and also how there are sDSC_0112table differences between individuals in how their autonomic nervous systems function.  With regards to the latter, the idea is that if you track ANS activity in different animals across time, you’ll see patterns.  And then changes to those patterns might indicate changes in mood states. We’ll be doing this work first with the Oakland Zoo’s giraffes and ring-tailed lemurs. “If we can show that variation between individuals or within a particular individual across time is meaningful, then it opens the possibility of asking an animal, ‘how are you today?’, putting on some sensors, recording some data, and getting an answer. Cool, right?  I think it’s SUPER cool!” said Dr. Bliss-Moreau. But before we can do this, we have to develop new ways to collect such recordings in a way that is non-invasive for the animals, as well as train the animals to participate willingly in the data collection.

For each animal involved with this research, we start by training the animals that the research equipment (sensors, leads, stethoscope, etc.) are not painful or even just simply icky. We do this by using positive reinforcement, habituation, and desensitization – training methods that reinforce an animal’s comfort and control in the situation. This basically means that you pair something new (like physiology equipment) with something really good (like pieces of banana) until the animal is comfortable with having the novel stimulus around and touching them.

IMG_0444You can see zookeepers and Dr. Bliss-Moreau habituating and desensitizing one of our giraffes, ‘Benghazi,’ to being touched with sticky sensors. When Benghazi is calm, and allows the training team to touch him with the sensors, he is rewarded with one of his favorite foods (which in Benghazi’s case is bananas, whole wheat bread, and carrots). You can also see that Benghazi is not restrained, and can walk away from the training session at any time he chooses. Over time and with repetition, Benghazi learns that nothing bad happens to him when the keeper touches him with the sensors. Interestingly, we needed to place the sensors on poles and hold them against Benghazi’s skin since giraffes naturally exude an oily ‘insect repellant’ that prevents the sensors from sticking to his skin. In this most recent training session, Dr. Bliss-Moreau and our Oakland Zoo giraffe training team were able to record “beautiful” (according to Dr. Bliss-Moreau) cardiac data – our first major victory!

As we wrapped up the training session Dr. Bliss-Moreau observed, “It DSC_0118was really exciting for us to see the giraffes at the Oakland Zoo participating in this research, especially since we’ve been using the same techniques to get our monkeys ready for physiology data collection in the lab… We developed a reward-based training technique that uses cooperative training allowing rhesus macaques to work with us to participate in similar hands-on testing in just a few weeks. Using these cooperative training techniques and data collection methods means that animals are really our partners in the research—participants, rather than subjects!”

There is still a long road ahead of us, but one that is well-worth traveling. There are likely differences in how animals and humans not only perceive their world, but in how they feel about it as well. Studies like this are important for our understanding of both the similarities and differences. This aids in our understanding of non-human life on our planet as much as it aids in our ensuring the animals we care for have enriching physical, social, and emotional lives.

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Conclusion

by | March 3rd, 2015

March 1 and 2


Parting thoughts…


The journey home from QENP and Uganda takes three days, which gives me ample time to reflect on all I have seen and learned in the past 16 days. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to travel to Uganda, work in the field alongside conservation experts, discover exotic cultures, and begin a project that may ultimately aid in saving a critically endangered ecosystem. Dr. Siefert and James will continue the fight for tomorrows, while we help from home until we return. I hope that my words from Uganda have been educational, entertaining, and maybe even a little inspirational for those of you who have followed our journey. If that’s the case, or even if it’s just because lion cubs are one of the cutest things on the planet, please be sure to visit UCP’s webpage often – maybe you, too, can give them a chance for tomorrow. Until the next visit…Cub with kob

Papa resting

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 6

by | March 3rd, 2015

Thursday / Friday Feb 26 / 27


Lights out, Africa time…


There is a bit of a time delay for this blog. As of Wednesday evening, electricity became variable: in fact, mostly non-existent, especially after dusk. No problem, I thought – my computer is fully charged and illuminated, so I can still write in the evening. Enter those pesky little insects called lake flies. The tiny, buzzing critters don’t bite or sting, but they fly around in packs of thousands, are attracted to the slightest bit of light, and are apparently generally meant to cause extreme annoyance to any human caught nearby. I dove under the mosquito net surrounding my bed in hopes of fending them off…alas, they were persistent and soon my computer screen was covered. Thwarted by microscopic insects, I gave up and attempted to fall asleep to the symphony of whirring wings around my head!


letterEven during the day, the lack of electricity renders sample processing impossible, and prevents Dr. Siefert from printing the letter of support for the community Chairman to sign. Africa time again. Nobody knows when the electricity will return, so Dr. Gottfried and I spend Thursday at the lodge, taking advantage of its’ electricity (the lodge is the only building nearby with a generator). After several hours of surfing the web and reading, we begin chatting with Ugandan waiters Morris and Daniel. They are interested especially in the American system of government and American marriage customs. We learn that there are many language dialects spoken in Uganda, each so unique that tribes living only a few miles apart cannot understand each other. Marriage is a bit different as well. Apparently if a woman in a marriage is infertile, the man immediately takes a new wife!


At 5pm, James calls. “Where might you be?” he asks, as he is suddenly ready to go lion tracking. This evening, we track in the burned crater area and, not surprisingly, find no lions. With nothing to eat, the lion prey have vacated this large part of the park. James again discusses Ugandan politics as he drives toward a village. Apparently we are meant to look at crafts in the village this evening. We are ushered into a small, dark brick building containing several women, a sewing machine, and yards of beautifully patterned cloth. The women here are also partially supported by UCP, so we purchase 12 yards of fabric, at the bargain price of 35,000 shillings ($13). At least we have made a monetary contribution to the community today, despite the electrical setback!lots of crafts


We think we know “Africa time,” by now but Friday redefines this phrase. Dr. Siefert and James arrive at 9:30 with grand plans for the day. We are to pick up crafts from the women’s group, take the letter to the Chairman to sign, take another letter to the UWA Conservation Manager to sign, run a few errands in Kasese town, and try to get some more lion and kob samples. Simple, right?

James calls a representative of the women’s group, “the old lady,” who tells him that the crafts are in the village. Meanwhile, Dr. Siefert speaks with a different representative of the village, Jane, who says they are at her home. Several more phone calls ensue, agitation becoming evident, and it is finally decided that we are to meet in the village. Crafts are finally picked up and bought…2 hours later. And thus the day will go. By 4pm, the outside temperature has risen to the mid-90’s and we have been in the vehicle for 6 hours, still awaiting the two letters of support for UCP grant funding. There will be no lion tracking today.


At the end of the day, exhausted, dusty, and sweaty from 8 hours in a truck, we have accomplished most of the objectives and feel thoroughly indoctrinated into Ugandan cultural habits. Our hostel waitress, Kyria, serves us our final Ugandan meal of grilled whole fish, matoke (plantain), posho, boiled potatoes, rice, and tomato sauce, a perfect end to an imperfect day…then, surprise… the electricity is off and the whirring wings begin again…

Oakland Zoo ZooKeepers to Madagascar!

by | February 18th, 2015



When you see that word, what do you think? I will guess most of you will say “that DreamWorks cartoon!” King Julian!” or “I like to move it, move it!”

As a keeper at Oakland Zoo, I care for two species of lemur; Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and Sclater’s lemurs (Eulemur flavifrons) and I think of the word “Madagascar” a little different than most. I immediately think of lemurs as well as orchids, chameleons, rainforests, fossa and many, many other unique and endangered species.1

There’s no place in the world like Madagascar. Formed over 88 million years ago, it is the world’s 4th largest island and 90% of its animals are found nowhere else on the planet! Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be able to visit such an amazing destination, but, indeed I did!

In November of 2014 my supervisor Margaret Rousser and I were invited by the director and founder of Centre ValBio, Dr. Patricia Wright, to visit her research center in Ranomafana National Park and assist in the capture and data collection of the park’s Milne-Edward sifaka’s (Propithecus edwardsi).

After a 27 hour flight from San Francisco and a 10 hour drive from Antananarivo, the country’s capitol, we finally reached the rainforest and Centre ValBio. Beautiful. Breathtaking. Mysterious. Downright awesome. These are the words that went through my mind as we arrived.

After resting up overnight after our long flight and equally exhaustive drive we were ready to see the park.

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Along the length of the eastern Madagascan coast runs a narrow and steep escarpment containing much of the island’s remaining tropical lowland forest. Ranomafana National Park is located on this escarpment. The terrain is extremely hilly and trekking through the forest is challenging as the majority of the time you are ascending or descending these hills. My favorite areas were the ridge trails. Once you reach the ridges, you get a break from the extreme climbing and get to enjoy the views on either side of the hills.

On our first visit into Ranomafana Park with Dr. Wright, Margaret and I were able to see 5 different species of lemurs! To say we were lucky is not enough. Dr. Wright has been studying lemurs in this location for 30 years and was pleased and surprised at seeing so many lemur species on a single visit. We capped our perfect lemur day with an interesting evening, observing students collect data on the world’s smallest primate, a mouse lemur.3

After a few days waiting for the government to finally approve the permits required to capture the Milne-Edwards sifaka’s, we were on our way back into the forest! After a grueling 5 hour hike to one of the park’s most remote sites we arrived to find the lemurs, ready for their exams and new collars. The trackers, who spend much of their time in the forest observing the whereabouts of the different lemur groups and know the individuals intimately, had anesthetized a group of three adults, one male, two females and two infants!

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Margaret and I jumped into our roles immediately! Margaret led a group of graduate students, instructing them on obtaining body measurements along with hair, ectoparasite and fecal collection. I helped the vet with physical exams, blood collection and removal and replacement of new ID collars. This was a most amazing experience. The adult lemurs are given anesthesia to avoid undo stress as they are wild animals unused to being handled by humans. This ensures their safety as well as the humans’ handling them. The infant lemurs are not anesthetized and stay on their moms until the physical exam is performed. The babies are then held by a human until their mother is done with her exam and they are quickly returned to her. It may seem this is too stressful for the animal but the babies seem to feel secure as long as they have an adult primate to cling too. They contentedly sat in our arms, looking at all the things happening around them with no struggling our stressful vocalizations.

We stayed that night camping in the rainforest, which was an adventure in itself, with the lovely pit toilet and cute little leeches!  The next morning we awoke to the sounds of black and white ruffed lemur groups vocalizing around us. The Milne-Edwards sifakas were checked by the vet to ensure they all had recovered fully from the previous day and then the trackers returned them to the same location they had been captured so the lemurs could resume their normal daily life.

The rest of us returned to Centre ValBio’s laboratory where we began processing samples taken from the animals.

The second group we helped with a few days later was just as exciting but luckily only a 30 minute hike to the site instead of 5 hours! We had one adult male, two adult females and one infant. Again, all went well, and once recovered, the animals were returned to their original location.

Once done with our Ranomafana animal captures Margaret and I had a few days to see a little more of Madagascar when we traveled 4 hours by car to visit a village which ran their own lemur sanctuary. This was very exciting for us because at this location they only had one species- ring tailed lemurs!

Anja Community Reserve covers about 75 acres and nearly 300 RT lemurs call it home. It is completely operated by the villagers, who protect the forest, serve as guides and perform administrative tasks.

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

We arrived at dusk and could hear the lemurs calling to each other in the forest below our hotel, I got goose bumps as I immediately recognized the calls as they are the same vocalization I hear from my lemurs at Oakland Zoo! Early the next morning Margaret and I along with a guide and a tracker, headed into the reserve. I was soon choked up with joy as we encountered our first wild lemur group! These lemurs have all been desensitized to the proximity of humans and Margaret and I were able to get quite close. It was amazing to sit in the forest as 100s of lemurs meandered, scampered, jumped, vocalized and foraged all around us. Our guides had a vast knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna as this was their own backyard. They could spot a tiny chameleon who looked like a little twig to me, or another one that was the same green as the leaf he was sitting on!

November was the perfect time to visit Madagascar as there were many babies to be seen. So many cute little guys were riding their moms, daring to be brave and jumping to the ground only to be surprised by a blowing leaf and running back to the safety of momma’s back! It was interesting to see the large troupes of lemurs of all different ages combing the forest together. The older animals were much more interested in foraging for tasty fruit while the youngsters played tag through the trees!

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Overall, the trip to Madagascar was an unforgettable journey. Seeing the country, its animals and people was a life changing event. I can’t wait to return to the beautiful Island and continue to see more of the amazing and unique things it has to offer!

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper: Coming Back Home

by | February 11th, 2015

Just when I’ve started to feel I’ve found my place here at Lola ya Bonobo, it is already time to depart. I truly miss my pets and the animals I care for at Oakland Zoo, but I really wish I had a little more time here. Particularly since I don’t really speak any French, it was hard to get to know people initially. However, after a week or two, we all became comfortable enough to fill in language barriers with hand gestures. Plus, I’ve picked up a little more French during my stay. It’s more than enough to build friendships. I’ve also become more comfortable to jump in and offer help when I can.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

On grounds, there is a never-ending supply of bamboo, I can’t believe how big it can get! The diameter of the bigger stalks is too large for me to reach both of my hands around and have them touch. In the past at Oakland Zoo, I’ve cut bamboo and drilled holes into it to hide peanut butter and jam for the sun bears and siamangs. The cost of these food items is very expensive in DRC, it is not realistic for me to suggest that. However, the bonobos do receive a daily supply of peanuts. I suggested making peanut puzzle feeders with sections of bamboo. Raphael (veterinarian) and Emile (keeper) help me to do this.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

While the sanctuary does have a drill on hand, there is no saw. Emile takes a machete to cut the bamboo sections. I want to offer to do it, so Emile can get back to his work and not have to baby-sit me. Raphael asks him in French if I can do the chopping. Emile’s translated reply is, “Sure, if you want to cut yourself, no problem.” He’s teasing…a little bit. I think. It’s also definitely a cultural issue, women don’t use tools like machetes here. I want to protest, but I am pretty accident-prone anyways. I’m just going to let this one go.

When we have seven bamboo sections of different sizes, Emile leaves and says it is okay for me to drill the holes. There are several other keepers in the area and I am uncomfortably aware they are all watching me drill, which isn’t easy. The dull bit isn’t big enough to make a good size hole for the peanuts, so I have to drill several times for one hole on the curved surface of the bamboo. Sometimes the power button on this ancient device gets stuck and the drill keeps going at full blast, all on its own. When I finish and Raphael and I are inspecting the holes, Nsimba, one of the women who prepares the bonobo diets here, says, “Strong!” and points to me, flexing her arms. I thank her and try to be cool about it, but I’m secretly giddy, hoping I’ve inspired female empowerment. If only a little bit.

Untitled3Raphael and I take the bamboo to the juvenile nursery, after filling them with a lot of peanuts. The reaction varies quite a bit. Some of the juveniles immediately use the bamboo to display or as a ladder to climb. A few immediately find something better to do, but four are all about them. It’s pretty amusing to watch when they accidentally get several peanuts to fall out, as you can see them realize what it’s all about. Singi spends a good 25 minutes with his (an eternity for a juvenile bonobo mind). This young male is referred to by the Mamas as being “cray cray,” some American slang they’ve picked up. Before the adult female, Kisantu (mentioned in an earlier blog), was put into the juvenile enclosure to recover from illness, it was safe to go in with the juveniles. Well, sort of. These bonobos are around 4-6 years old and are not only getting really strong, but also *realizing* how strong they are. They’re relentless and Singi is the roughest. I only went into the juvenile enclosure once before Kisantu was moved there- Singi gave me quite the run for my money. Anyone who thinks it is a good idea to have an ape as a pet should have to spend one hour with Singi. They’d opt for a goldfish pretty quickly.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Now, to see Singi thoughtfully turning over the bamboo, poking at the hole where he knows the peanuts could come out, he is a different animal. After the first minute or so, in proper bonobo fashion, he has sex with it. After that, his entire focus is on turning it over and over, at different angles, to get the peanuts.

My last full day at the sanctuary is a Sunday, which I’m happy about because it is bread and butter day. During a time when the sanctuary was getting charged astronomical prices for produce (see previous blog post that talks about the seed distribution program), they needed a way to make sure the bonobos were getting enough calories. The bonobos were supplemented with bread rolls and butter. By butter, I mean a very soft margarine that comes in bulk tubs and is produced in Kinshasa. The bonobos *love* it. Now that the sanctuary is getting a better deal on produce, they still offer the bread and butter one time a week as a special treat. Similar techniques are used in zoos as well. For example, at Oakland Zoo the sun bears get a treat mix sprinkled throughout their exhibit that contains peanuts, dried fruit, plain popcorn and cereal. This encourages foraging behavior and makes it worthwhile for the bears to put forth the effort to seek it. Also, who doesn’t like getting “fun food” every once in a while?

Bread and butter day!

Bread and butter day!


A Group 1 bonobo hits the jackpot on the bread treat.

Here at the sanctuary, the bonobos definitely go a little nuts on bread and butter day. When the media talks about bonobos (which is pretty rare), they love to refer to them as the “Make love, not war ape.” This is very much an oversimplification based on bonobos using sex to diffuse social tensions, but no one would use that phrase on bread and butter day. While there still are a few bonobos having sex and no serious violent aggression breaks out, it is mostly every bonobo for his or herself. The most dominant bonobos can be seen carrying handfuls of the torn-up rolls. The keepers try their best to make sure there is enough for everyone and spread it out as far as they are able, but there is still a lot of displaying and loud vocalizations. The human equivalent would be someone sprinkling a large amount of money over a busy city street.

I can’t put into words how grateful I am for my short time here. The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t for everyone. There are a lot of political issues, cultural tensions and frequent violent outbursts in the country to protest the government. The U.S. government travel warnings’ website continues to advise Americans not to come here. You also have to worry about illness, like the multiple strains of malaria found here. One form, cerebral malaria, attacks the brain and kills you in days if not caught and treated properly. Even smaller things, like sitting on the porch at evening to eat dinner means you have to be okay with bugs the length of your hand possibly flying blindly right at you and bouncing off your head. However, I feel I’ve only become a better person for being exposed to a style of living very different from the country I grew-up in. Also, at least for me, the benefits of being here far outweigh the costs or risks.

Untitled11The conservation status of the bonobo is bleak. Their remaining range is only one section of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is estimated there are 5,000 left, but no one can say for sure as it is too dangerous to complete a wildlife census in parts of their range. While hunting or keeping a bonobo comes with a severe punishment (10 years in prison and/or an $8,500 fine), it’s a big country with a lot of other issues going on to deal with. Bonobos continue to be actively hunted and slaughtered for meat, witchcraft practices and to capture young infants to sell on the black market. Being the only sanctuary available for orphaned bonobos to go to, Lola ya Bonobo is truly a place worthy of recognition and support. If you would like to learn more about the sanctuary or find out how you can help, please visit: