Vanessa Woods' "Bonobo Handshake"

Author and scientist Woods' writes about living amongst endangered apes

ByABC News via via logo
June 04, 2010, 1:13 PM

June 30, 2010— -- Author and scientist Vanessa Woods provides an intriguing and humorous memoir of her experiences working with the Bonobo, an extremely-endangered ape found in the Congo. Although humans are most often associated with chimpanzees, little is known about the human relationship to bonobos, with whom we share 98.7% of our DNA. Woods brings the reader along on her journey of life, love and all the flung poo along the way.

Read an excerpt of the book below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.


I didn't always want to push my fiancé off a balcony. Twelve months ago I would have jumped off a balcony for him. But a lot can change in a year.

We met in Uganda at the house of Debby Cox, the founder of a chimpanzee sanctuary called Ngamba Island. Debby and I had been friends for years. I first met her when I was twenty-two and fresh out of college. I was volunteering for Taronga Zoo in Sydney when I heard about the chimp island she had started for orphan chimpanzees whose parents were killed by the bushmeat trade.

Part of Debby's conservation program was counting the chimpanzees in Budongo Forest. The world's biggest population of chimpanzees was in Congo, but they were rapidly being butchered and eaten. The Ugandans had traditional taboos against eating apes, and they had the second-biggest population. But no one knew how many chimpanzees were left or where they were. My job was to lead a team of Ugandans on a census, for which I had zero qualifications. Debby hired me only because the real primatologist got malaria and pulled out at the last minute.

Those were interesting times. It was 1999 and eight gorilla tourists had been hacked to death with machetes in Bwindi National Park. Their bodies were found covered in deep slashes, their skulls smashed to pieces. The 150 rebels who surrounded their camp were part of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and used the mountains as a base.

Debby wrote three days before I was supposed to arrive and told me it was too dangerous and I should cancel my trip, but being young and stupid I told her I didn't care about rebels and I was coming anyway. In return, Debby threw me into the jungle like a football and hoped I would come out alive.

I envisioned myself slicing through the foliage with my hair swept into a glossy ponytail and stylish smudges of dirt underneath my cheekbones. I would walk among forest elephants in the glittering sunlight. I would adorn myself with pythons and gain a reputation among the rebel warlords as some kind of goddess. Perhaps I would even find my own personal Tarzan whom I could take home and show the wonders of civilization.

All I found in the jungle were bugs and a lack of personal space. The vegetation pressed in thick and close, and hacking your way through it wasn't as easy as Indiana Jones makes it look. We barely even saw chimpanzees, and when we did, they screamed their heads off and clearly wanted to rip our guts out.

After four months, I was ready to get out but I didn't want to go home. So I started helping Debby with the education programs around the office.

Then one afternoon, a pet pack was dropped on the doorstep and changed my life. Shivering in the back of the pet pack was Baluku, a two-year-old chimpanzee. Hunters had shot his mother and locked him in a coal shed for two months. When the Ugandan police confiscated him, he was as white as paper beneath his hair from lack of sunlight, and two slashes in his groin oozed pus where he had struggled against the rope that tethered him.

Debby took Baluku out of the pet pack and plastered him to my chest. And that is where he stayed for a month. Debby wasn't trying to give me the experience of a lifetime. Baluku needed someone to cling to and Debby needed a giant petri dish to inform her of the diseases he was carrying. If I got worms, it meant Baluku had worms. If I got giardia, Baluku had giardia.

But from the moment his tiny fingers latched onto my T-shirt, I was never the same. Before Baluku, I loved selfishly. I took my family for granted, my boyfriends were an extension of my vanity, and my friends were a fun way to pass the time. That wasn't enough for Ba-luku. He needed all of me. He didn't let go. I cooked, showered, slept, and went to the toilet with his frail arms wrapped around my neck. If I tried to give him to someone else even for a minute, he dug his fingers into my arms and didn't let go. If I did manage to pull him off, he would fall to the floor, hit his head on the ground, then finally wrap his arms around his knees and rock with a terrible blank look in his eyes.

It was the first time I had to give myself so completely. But I didn't feel trapped or resentful because I never had a moment's rest or a solid night's sleep. Baluku's love was its own reward.

Every day we sat under an old mango tree, playing tug-of-war and hide-and-seek. I chased him around the gnarled trunk and when I caught him, I blew raspberries into his belly and listened to his hoarse laughter. I watched him grow from a shattered husk to a youngster full of mischief. Despite the pee I occasionally slept in, the poop I combed through looking for parasites, and the bottles of milk I had to warm every two hours throughout the night, I woke each morning happier than I had ever been. I was making a difference. I was making Baluku's world a better place.

That was when I decided I was going to be just like Debby, who was part chimpanzee herself. Tough as a brick, proud, and stubborn, she had fits of temper that would send everyone diving under the furniture. But her life was full of meaning and purpose. There were more than forty chimps on Ngamba Island living on a hundred acres of forest, and every one of them had arrived in the same state as Baluku: shivering, terrified, and motherless.

I was going to dedicate my life to saving chimps. I would snatch them from the arms of death and bring them to a sanctuary I would call Chimp Paradise. I would be on good terms with the president of wherever we were and he would listen attentively to my plans for chimpanzee conservation. I would stop deforestation. End global warming.

Unfortunately, I had run out of cash. Debby found me a job with a zebra project in Kenya. I didn't get paid, but we were fed and we slept in tents in the savanna. I counted zebra all the way from Nairobi to Ethiopia and back again, until I was really and truly broke.

I went home to Australia, intending to save up enough money to go back to Uganda, but life kept getting in the way. I took odd jobs. I was a secretary, a receptionist, and a pizza waitress. I managed to move on to more interesting employment, but I had no follow-through.

I went to Antarctica to measure the temperature of the ocean currents but I never published. I wrote a children's book and some magazine articles but I never got serious about writing. I worked in television but I never did any training so my camera work was only ever mediocre. I was a goldfish, swimming until I bumped the glass and then changing direction until I hit glass again.

After a bad breakup with a boyfriend, I decided what I needed was to go back to where it all started—the jungle. I wanted to work with chimpanzees in Africa, but the closest I could get was chasing monkeys in Costa Rica. I took it. And when I got there I remembered everything I hated about the jungle. Bugs. Vines. Four a.m. starts.

It didn't surprise anyone when I bailed out early. I was twenty-eight years old and I hadn't accomplished anything. I was bewildered and slightly traumatized by the whole monkey-chasing experience, so I bumped the glass and flipped again.

I had just finished a filming contract with Disney to film five-minute video postcards of animals in Central America. I talked them into another contract, this time filming animals in Africa. I asked Debby if I could come back to Uganda to film Baluku and the other chimps on Ngamba Island. She said yes, and I booked a plane and was on my way.

My plan was this:

I would make my pilgrimage to the island and call Baluku in from the forest. I would find him with one hand on his belly, serenely contemplating the distance. He would remember me, of course, and when he saw me, he would take both my hands in his, lean close, and whisper my destiny.

That was the plan, anyway.

Debby's house was in Entebbe, a forty-five-minute boat ride from the island. She wasn't home, and I was dirty and exhausted. My plane had been delayed for fifteen hours in the Nairobi airport. My bag, with my filming equipment, was lost somewhere between Uganda and Zanzibar. I dragged myself up the stairs and stumbled into the living room. Sitting on the sofa was a young man reading a book.

I did a double take. Men were uncommon in the chimp house. It was usually filled with giggling girls with hairy legs, like I used to be.

He lowered the book and looked at me. His blue eyes glittered through a mess of curls. I was acutely aware that I resembled something that had crawled out of a gutter. He raised an eyebrow that was as sharp as a crow's wing.

"Hi," he said. "I'm Brian."

He had an American accent with a faint Southern twang.

"What are you doing here?" I blurted out.

"I'll be working here soon, I hope."




"Just finished."

He pushed his curls back from his forehead. The way he looked at me could have set off a fire alarm.You are not to fall in love with him, I told myself sternly. And you are definitely not going to sleep with him.

Of course I did both

. . .It took two days to have sex with him and three to fall in love. Fast, even by my standards.

Debby took us to Jinja, the source of the Nile, where a friend of hers ran a guesthouse. From the balcony we could see the Nile flowing past on its way to Egypt. The chocolate-cake riverbank crumbled over the edges. The strength of the water pouring over the falls was enough to power the city. The whole place was a giant metaphor for sex.

Resist, I hissed at my erogenous zones, which were poking their heads out of a six-month coma. Everything about him, from his careless charm to his easy smile, made it clear I'd get more commitment from a stray cat.

"Ngamba is so different from what I'm used to," he said massaging my foot, oblivious to how wrong we were for each other. "You know I used to work in a biomedical lab?"

All inner dialogue screeched to a halt. I scrambled backward, appalled. I knew a little of what went on in biomedical labs and I couldn't believe he had slipped under Debby's radar. She would never let a biomedical researcher near her chimps. Brian held up his hands, as if to show me he wasn't hiding any tortured monkeys in his pockets.

"It's okay, Debby knows. I only started working in a lab because I was so nuts about chimps."

When Brian was nineteen, he went to college at Emory because he knew he could work with the chimps at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. On his first day, he went on a tour with one of the lab assistants. She rolled her eyes while Brian babbled about how excited he was to see the chimps, how they were the most amazing animals ever and he couldn't wait to hug one.

The lab assistant led him into a corridor. On either side, there were rows and rows of concrete runs. Each run had a room inside and a room outside that were connected by a door. Reinforced metal bars protected people standing in the corridor. Almost.

"Okay," said the lab assistant. "Stand here."

She went into the next room and watched Brian through a window. Suddenly, unearthly screams flew into the corridor, so loud they nearly knocked him over. Brian saw black flashes as a dozen two-hundred-pound chimpanzees ran in from outside. They were almost as tall as he was and their thighs were as thick as tree trunks. Their hair stood on end as they howled for his blood. They bashed on the metal grille and bared their teeth, drooling in rage.

The first pile of shit hit Brian square in the face. This started a volley of shit balls that transformed Brian into a putrid mud pie. Shit splattered in his ears and in his mouth. Then Brian watched in horror as a chimpanzee jerked himself off, slurped up the cum, and spat it out. The missile dribbled down Brian's chest as the chimp screeched maniacally.

The lab assistant brought Brian out, watching smugly as he cleaned himself off as best he could.

"Those," she said, "are chimpanzees."

Brian's supervisor at Yerkes was studying reproduction. During one experiment, a probe was inserted into the chimpanzee's anus, then electricity was shot through the probe to make the chimpanzee ejaculate. The tissue around the anus is extremely sensitive, and the chimps could bleed for days. Brian's job was to clean the anal probes.

Occasionally, Brian passed the HIV unit, where the chimps were in crush cages. Each cage was just big enough for the chimp to stand up and turn around. The cages had a crank that moved one wall of the cage forward, jamming the chimps against the wall so a researcher could give them injections. The chimps spent their entire lives in these crush cages. They could see each other, but they weren't allowed to touch. The only contact they had was with humans who were covered head to toe in white fabric, goggles, a face mask, Kevlar gloves, and gum boots.

Brian didn't last much longer than a month at the medical station. He transferred to the field station and started working with a famous psychologist called Mike Tomasello. Mike was interested in intelligence, and Brian's new job was to figure out how chimpanzees think.

The chimps at the field station were better off than the ones at the medical station. They lived in social groups in enclosures that were no worse than those at most zoos. Brian convinced himself that this was as good as things were going to get. He loved the chimps, and he knew they looked forward to his experiments to break the monotony of the day.

Then he started working with a group of chimps called FS3. The other chimps at the field station were allowed to spend part of each day outside, but FS3 didn't have an outdoor area. Their "enclosure" was a concrete cage with some Plexiglas benches. There was one toy, a metal pole, and a swing made for a three-year-old chimp called Abby.

As Brian got to know FS3, he became bothered by their lack of freedom—not in terms of space but in terms of choice. Brian knew of a progressive research institute in Japan run by Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa. Matsuzawa's chimps didn't have much space either, but the chimps had a lot of choices. Their enclosure was high and full of climbing structures, so the chimps could choose to go up or down. There were hiding places so the chimps could choose whom they wanted to hang out with. They could choose from a wide variety of food. Mothers could choose to be tested with their infants. Infants could participate in the research.

In the novel 1984 by George Orwell, the worst part of the dystopia wasn't Big Brother always watching or the drab postwar world or the dreary work. It was the absence of choice. The people had all their decisions made for them. They were told when to eat, how to behave, whom to love. And it was this dehumanizing lack of choice that made life so unbearable.

At Yerkes, the chimps had only one choice—inside or outside—and FS3 didn't have even that. They couldn't avoid their cage mates or hide from researchers. In the wild, chimps eat hundreds of different foods. By U.S. law, the only food you are required to feed a captive chimpanzee is "monkey chow," which has all the required nutritional components but tastes like cardboard. In a show of benevolence, Yerkes added half an orange to the diet.

Then there was the commercial side. Every part of the chimps could be bought and sold, their minds, their organs, their blood. It was $30 a day per chimp for the kind of behavior work that Brian did, and much more for any kind of medical testing.

After five years, Brian had had enough. His undergraduate degree was finished, and his supervisor, Mike Tomasello, was moving to Leipzig to become the director of psychology at the Max Planck Institute. The Germans were building Mike a $14 million facility at the Leipzig Zoo, inspired by Matsuzawa's institute in Japan. There would be spacious indoor and outdoor enclosures with grass and trees and climbing structures. When the Max Planck Institute told Mike he could get twenty-five chimps from anywhere he wanted, Brian started hatching a plot to bust out FS3.

Yerkes was already in trouble because it had too many chimps. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health banned the breeding of chimpanzees and demanded that Yerkes reduce its population. So when Mike asked for twenty-five chimps, including FS3, the director of Yerkes was thrilled. He hastily agreed and even promised to see the chimps off at the airport. All the plans were in place. Then Dr. Death stepped in.

The most powerful person at a biomedical center is not the director—it is the head vet. The head vet makes the rules about research, animal health, and animal management. Dr. Death was so obsessed with the physical health of her animals that she made their environment as sterile as possible. One of the keepers wanted to put honey between the pages of a phone book to give to the chimps as enrichment. No, said Dr. Death, honey can carry botulism. Rope in the cages for them to play with? No, they might strangle themselves.

Dr. Death was hated by anyone who cared about the chimps. Keepers used to fantasize about keeping her in a crush cage and feeding her monkey chow for a month.

With a purse of her thin lips, she blocked Brian's FS3 transfer. There was a biomedical lab in Louisiana that wanted Yerkes's excess chimps. FS3 would go there.

Brian was devastated. He wrote to the board at Emory, pleading for the decision to be overturned. But Dr. Death was too powerful. FS3 went to Louisiana.

The final straw for Brian was Abby. Several years after he left Yerkes, he met a malaria researcher at a conference who said she had tested some of the chimps in FS3. It turned out she had ordered Abby's spleen to be removed.

"Did you ever meet Abby?" asked Brian, desperate for news. "She's amazing. Really sweet. And super smart."

"No," said the researcher. "I never met any of the chimps."

Brian paused in his story as the sunlight winked on the Nile like a thousand golden eyes.

"I know how many people malaria kills. I think research should be done to stop it and that if necessary, research should be done on chimps to find a cure. But there is no reason for the chimps to live in concrete cages their whole lives. No reason they can't have ropes and toys and honey in phone books. And in 1997, only three hundred chimps out of the fifteen hundred in biomedical centers were being used in any kind of research. The rest were just sitting there, digging out their eyeballs in boredom and throwing shit.

"I put five years into Yerkes, telling myself it was okay. But it wasn't. And people like me, who study behavior, we tell ourselves that there's nowhere else we can do the research. We can't study them in the wild—we need to interact with them to figure out how they think. We need controlled conditions like a lab so we can be sure of the results. Apart from Leipzig, zoos aren't usually set up for research. And even if they are, most of them don't have a large enough sample to run the most powerful statistics.

"But paying biomedical labs to use their chimps means we are supporting how they operate and the conditions those chimps live in."

He pushed his hair back from his forehead and his eyes were all the colors of a shattered glacier.

"And there is somewhere else we can go. My Harvard adviser, Richard Wrangham, has a wild chimpanzee field site up-country, in Kibale. He told me about Ngamba. We can work at sanctuaries. There are over a thousand chimps in sanctuaries all over Africa. They have night buildings we can run our experiments in. There are heaps of subjects, of all different ages. After we work with them for a couple of hours, they go out to a huge forest. They live like chimps, not rats in a cage."

He broke off and leaned in conspiratorially.

"I just applied for a million bucks from the Germans. If I get it, I'm going to make three sanctuaries, world-class research facilities. I'm going to build buildings better than any biomedical lab, where people can do the best studies ever. This is where we belong, in Africa, giving back more than we take away."

He was so passionate, so hungry, that I forgot everything. I stopped calculating how I could lose less than he would. How I could come out of this less broken, more intact. He had an intense frown creasing his forehead, and those glacier eyes were full of purpose. His dream lay between us, spilled and uncorrupted.

And right there and then, I wanted to fold myself up like a letter and deliver myself to his hands.

Despite my best efforts, the next morning I was naked and in bed with him. I squeezed my eyes shut to delay facing the opponent I'd given in to with such pitiful resistance.

I opened my eyes a little, so I could just see him through my eyelashes. He was watching me, a crooked smile tugging at his lips. I pulled up the sheet to cover myself, but frankly, it was a little late for such modesty.

"You asshole," I whispered. "You took advantage of me."

"You took advantage of me."

We grinned at each other stupidly.

"You've ruined my career," he said. "Debby's never going to let me work here once she finds out about this."

"What about me? I'm never going to live it down."

"I don't care. It was worth it."

"No, it wasn't. Get out of my room. Quick, before anyone knows you're here."

He left on the third day. We said good-bye at the airport security gate. I had to pretend I didn't care. Falling in love with someone straight after you have sex is so not cool.

He waved and smiled. I did my best to smile and wave back.

Well, I thought as I walked out the door, guess I won't be seeing him again.

Excerpted from BONOBO HANDSHAKE by Vanessa Woods. Copyright © 2010 by Vanessa Woods. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

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