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Bonobo Panbanisha, Great Ape Language Superstar, Has Died in Iowa

One of two rare bonobos, world famous for their understanding of spoken English, died at the beleaguered sanctuary.

Panbanisha, one of two rare bonobos whose understanding of spoken English brought a Des Moines, Iowa, scientist to international acclaim, has died, according to internal emails obtained by Patch.

One of seven bonobos living at the Des Moines sanctuary, “Panbanisha failed to overcome the cold that all the bonobos have been fighting,” Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, the director of the beleaguered ape facility wrote in the email to board members, colleagues and other interested parties at 2:37 a.m.

Savage-Rumbaugh had been placed on administrative leave in September after a group of former employees turned whistleblowers known as the “Bonobo 12” made jarring accusations about her mental competence to run the facility.

As one of the terms of the action, Savage-Rumbaugh was forbidden from being with the apes unless accompanied by the facility’s veterinarian, Dr. Julie Gilmore, a dog and cat veterinarian at the nearby Avondale Veterinary Clinic. It is not clear if Savage-Rumbaugh had been given clearance to return to the laboratory.

Savage-Rumbaugh said in one of the email threads that Gilmore “will provide official notice and describe all she has done and will be doing all to help the other bonobos through this stress.”

Kenneth Schweller, the board’s president, said in an email that a full medical report would be detailed. It was not immediately clear if a full necropsy would be ordered to determine the cause of death or what will happen with Panbanisha’s body.

The full text of the Savage-Rumbaugh’s email informing board members of Panbanisha’s death follows:

“Panbanisha failed to overcome the cold that all the Bonobos have been fighting. She was the most sensitive, the most creative, the most intelligent of all - she always sought the path of peace. Her Presence always filled the building. She understood all that was said and saw all that was done. Yet she could not speak as humans do - and therefore was misunderstood.

“I hope to rally the souls of the remaining bonobos so that they believe there really is a future worth living for. I hope to find a way to build a better world - a world in which those who have no voice and are unjustly persecuted - can begin to feel safe and honored, a world where the good no longer die young, a world where the Ann Franks of our time can come out of the cages and meet faces of friendliness and love.

“Panbanisha was never meant to live in a cage as she was always good and she understood responsibility and morality and had immense self control. Now she is free, free at last.”

Important Chapter in Ape Language Closed

With Panbanisha’s death, an important chapter in ape language research has closed. Though not as famous as her half-brother Kanzi, Panbanisha – whose name means “cleave together for the purposes of contrast” – was a superstar in her own right. She’s had jam sessions with musicians Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney.

Most recently, the author Sara Gruen, whose Water for Elephants was a runaway bestseller, dedicated a later book, Ape House, “for great apes everywhere but especially Panbanisha.”

Gruen initially visited Great Ape Trust in 2007 as part of her research for the book and quickly formed a bond with the bonobo. When Ape House was nearing its 2010 release, Gruen had a tea party with Panbanisha and read parts of the manuscript to the ape.

The status of the former Great Ape Trust, which has gone through a series of name changes since transitioning from a scientific research institute to a sanctuary, also is not clear. Savage-Rumbaugh changed the name to Bonobo Hope and, later, reverted back to Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary, the name the facility went by when local businessman Ted Townsend supported the effort.

Townsend ended his financial support of the organization in 2011, and and the facility has since reportedly been on the brink of financiall failure.

Karl T November 07, 2012 at 06:27 PM
Sad news....
Dana Vastine-Watson November 07, 2012 at 06:27 PM
First off, Beth, I am so very sorry for the loss of your sweet friend. The two of you had a precious bond that could be seen by anyone watching. You held a special place in her heart. Does this comment by Dr. Sue mean that all the bonobos have the same "cold" that may have killed Panbanisha?
Duane M. Rumbaugh November 08, 2012 at 02:02 PM
Panbanisha was not by standard norms just beast or bonobo. Rather, she was a someONE whose emergent capabilities came to enjoy and to contribute richly to her interactions with friends, be they human or bonobo. She literally understood the meanings of spoken words and her lexigram symbols that served as printed words. She did not master all of the dimensions of our language, such as speech, but with no real doubt she functioned in the domain of language. Let us not discard facts nor ignore them nor forget the vast storehouse of knowledge contributed to the world by this magnificient someONE. Other apes of "our house," notably Lana and Austin, have made their rich contributions as well. Duane M. Rumbaugh
Beth Dalbey (Editor) November 08, 2012 at 03:50 PM
Thanks for the brilliant insight, Duane, and please accept my condolences. She was rare among the rare. The world has lost a scientific treasure and you and so many of us of have lost a dear, treasured friend who filled us with awe and wonder.
Duane M Rumbaugh November 08, 2012 at 04:53 PM
Thank you, Beth. Perhaps a book? Duane
Heidi Love November 08, 2012 at 07:20 PM
I am very saddened to hear of this. My sincere condolences to Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh and everyONE else at Great Ape Trust/Bonobo Hope.
Heidi Love November 08, 2012 at 07:21 PM
And thank you Beth for the information and a great article.
Rebecca Diaz-cobarrubias December 31, 2012 at 12:23 AM
awwwwww I didnt know about Panbanisha so so sorry I kept up with her and Kanzi and even though I didn't know them personally I was so in love with what they stood for, I just love our Great Apes and my heart is so broken for Kanzi and the rest of the bonobos including the staff as for the Doctors please do not give up on the study of these magnificent creatures they need you God Bless u all at this trying time!!!

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