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Amalia Pica on Kanzi, a Male Bonobo

‘Kanzi is proficient in Yerkish, a keyboard-based language that scientists invented to communicate with great apes’

Kanzi, 2011. Courtesy and photograph: Gregg Segal

Kanzi, 2011. Courtesy and photograph: Gregg Segal

I first learnt about Kanzi in 2017. I was in Boulder, Colorado, having a conversation with Marc Bekoff. Besides being professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, he is the co-founder, with primatologist Jane Goodall, of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; he also writes the animal psychology column for Psychology Today and is just great company. I was undertaking a residency in order to research language experiments with great apes; they mostly take place in the US and, of course, in captivity. I was nervous as I was confronted with quite a different set of questions to the ones I had encountered with scientists at the Gashaka Primate Project in Nigeria. They observe apes in the wild and I had had the pleasure of working with them since 2014.

Bekoff told me about Kanzi, a male bonobo who is proficient in Yerkish, a keyboard-based language that scientists invented to communicate with great apes, who do not have the physiognomy to produce human-like sounds. The language is composed of lexigrams, visual signs that are non-representational, proving the occurrence of abstract thought in non-human primates. Kanzi was born in October 1980 at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, which was named, like Yerkish, after the pioneer primatologist Robert Yerkes. Kanzi now lives at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa. Watching clips of him responding to often-illogical requests from the scientists he works with is touching, as he gets it right time after time. Bekoff gave me a VHS tape of Bonobo People (1993), which I had to digitally transfer in order to watch the film. (It’s now available on YouTube.) Seeing this marvellous creature in action is not only a reminder of how intelligent non-human apes are, but is also a sad portrayal of how hard we make animals work to demonstrate their cognitive levels, which we insist on measuring relative to our own systems – systems we impose on them in captivity, depriving them of what should be a basic right: freedom. I wish we could simply admire their unique ways of communicating with one another. Sadly, the existence of great apes – who are our closest living relatives – in the wild might soon be a thing of the past. In the meantime, let’s honour their resilience.

Amalia Pica lives and works in Mexico City, Mexico, and London, UK. In 2017, she had solo exhibitions at The Power Plant, Toronto, Canada, and the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia. Her solo exhibition at CC Foundation, Shanghai, China, opens in June.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019
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