BY Donna Parham
Photography by Ken Bohn
Like characters in an ever-changing soap opera, the nine bonobos at the San Diego Zoo have an active and often entertaining social life that plays out in new ways every day. Over the past year, visitors to the bonobo exhibit have become accustomed to some new faces: Lisa and her offspring Vic, Maddie, and Belle arrived from the Cincinnati Zoo in May 2015 to join our female bonobos, Loretta, Kali, and Mali, and males Erin and Makasi. The unique structure of bonobo society sheds some light on why they interact the way they do.
Mix and Mingle
In the forests of Central Africa, bonobos live, play, eat, and travel in groups that are all part of a larger community. And within the community, these groups change—sometimes daily. Animal experts call this kind of social organization a fission-fusion society, because of the way groups come together and split apart. “It’s very fluid,” said Jill Andrews, animal care manager. “And it’s challenging to manage in zoos.” In fact, incorporating this natural fission-fusion structure into a zoo population is a central recommendation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) for bonobos.
“It’s natural for the bonobos to change the way they group together, so for the most part we allow them to choose their own configurations,” said Jill. She added that keepers sometimes manage the bonobos’ choices, when it’s necessary to place certain animals together or to separate others. Even then, she said, “We give them options.”
It’s a Match
For these bonobos, fission-fusion social structure happens on a grander scale, too. Zoos across North America and Europe cooperatively manage bonobos as a combined population. To strengthen genetic diversity, they carefully coordinate breeding pairs through the SSP program and the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP). Such international coordination takes into account the lineage of each bonobo, as well as the social dynamics of each group.
The program matched our Loretta with “eligible bachelor” Vic, but at the time, the two were separated by thousands of miles. “In the old days, we’d move just the breeding male, but that didn’t support the bonobo’s social structure,” said Mike Bates, senior keeper. So, Vic arrived with an entourage: his mother Lisa, and two sisters, Maddie and Belle.
New Kids on the Block
Keepers refer to Lisa as “The Queen,” and it’s easy to see why. “All the bonobos respect Lisa,” said Kim Livingstone, animal care supervisor. Lisa might appear reserved, but she does have a playful side—which is obvious as she splashes in the stream that runs through the exhibit. Lisa’s somewhat mischievous two-year-old daughter, Belle, “is the first offspring that Lisa has let have a bit more freedom at this early age,” said Kim. “I think Lisa gets tired of wrangling her in, so she just lets her go!”
Seven-year-old Maddie is a typical big sister, carrying, chasing, and tickling Belle. Since the group’s arrival, “Maddie has started to become more independent from Lisa,” said Kim. And how about the motivation for the relocation? “Vic was shy at first. But he loves interacting with us. He’s also a good brother who loves playing with sisters Maddie and Belle.”
So why did Vic need to come to San Diego accompanied by his mother and sisters? “Females are the core of bonobo society,” said Mike. “A male bonobo has status only because the other females allow it.” It’s especially important to keep a male bonobo with his mother, because it’s the strongest relationship he’ll have—for life. “A mother bonobo protects and supports her son,” he said, “so Lisa’s son Vic has a secure place in the group.” Vic’s sisters came with the mother-son duo because of their young age.
Loretta’s adult son Erin follows the same dynamic. “He asserts himself, but he’s successful only because of who his mother is.” Mike chuckled, sharing an example. “Once, when one of the other bonobos challenged him, he ran straight to mom for protection and climbed right up on her back!” Never mind that 24-year-old Erin outweighs his mother by 20 pounds or so.
A Cast of Characters
“All the bonobos have really distinct personalities,” said Mike. “Loretta’s very sociable. She dotes on Erin and Kali, and is very protective. If I have to say ‘No’ to either of them, she rushes to their side, hollering at me!” Erin, her handsome adult son, is full of swagger, and daughter Kali is a bundle of energy and always on the move. “Kali’s got a big personality, and she’s very vocal,” said Mike. Then there are sweet, playful Mali and Makasi. Both needed special attention at birth, but because they were born four years apart, the way they were raised varied immensely.
Kim explained the difference: “Back when Makasi was born 12 years ago, if a mother couldn’t care for her baby, it was typical for keepers to hand raise it in the nursery, where it was surrounded by people, not other bonobos.” Makasi never had a bonobo mother, making it a challenge to integrate him into the bonobos’ social circle. “His position isn’t quite as secure as if he had been raised with the group,” said Kim. In the wild, a male without a mother or other female supporter might be relegated to the periphery of bonobo society. Here at the Zoo, Makasi can depend on his keepers to take on the role of protector and supporter.
Four years later, when Mali’s mom wasn’t able to care for her, the protocol for hand raising primates had changed. “We had learned the importance of keeping an infant with its social group,” said Kim. So keepers kept the little bonobo in the bonobo bedrooms, where “Mali could see, hear, and smell the other bonobos, right from the start.” Gradually and carefully, keepers physically introduced Mali to the other bonobos, and by the time she was old enough to join the group, she was assured a place in the heart of their social circle.
We Get to Know Bonobos
The Zoo has a long history with bonobos, displaying the first pair in the US in the 1960s. In 1966, Kakowet and Linda became parents to the first bonobo born in North America. “Some of the best-known behavioral research on bonobos was carried out here or at the former bonobo habitat at the Safari Park,” said Mike. While there’s a lot we’ve learned, bonobos are less studied than any of the other great apes.
Bonobos are highly endangered. They face serious threats, including commercial poaching—for food or for the pet trade—and loss of habitat. With your support, we’re working on their behalf. In addition to the research we’ve supported and the dozens of bonobos that have been born here, San Diego Zoo Global is a platinum supporter of the AZA Ape Taxon Advisory Group’s Conservation Initiative, which provides long-term support for ape conservation projects and supports law enforcement and educational initiatives.
Effective animal husbandry requires a thorough understanding of a species—not just its physical biology, but also its social requirements. “Managing bonobos in a way that’s best for their social structure has been a learning curve for the zoological community,” said Kim. “It was great that we were able to bring Vic’s entire family unit here.” Visitors to the Zoo’s bonobo exhibit will surely agree.