On an unusually hot spring day, Panbanisha and I sat on a blanket on the grass near a wooded
area. In front of us were plates of cookies she'd selected and pots of tea she'd brewed (although
she prefers caramel machiatos, she'd made clear this was a tea party). We hadn't seen each
other in a while, so both of us had gone to some effort--we were both wearing lipstick and had
paid special attention to our hair. She asked me if I'd like milk in my tea, and I said yes, please.
She passed me the bottle. After I used some, I passed it back. She tipped the bottle to her lips and drained it, wiped her mouth with a napkin, and set it delicately beside her. She then suggested I try some cookies, telling me which ones tasted better dipped in tea. She watched me eat a few, and then asked if I was finished. I said that yes, I thought I was, and passed the plate over. She raised it to her lips and dumped the remaining cookies into her mouth. Perhaps feeling bad about my cookie-less state, she disappeared into the forest and came back with a branch of leaves she'd selected specially for me. I ate a few out of politeness, although they would have been much improved by some olive oil. We discussed my upcoming book, and I showed her the manuscript, but it was windy and the pages kept blowing away, so we gave up. Panbanisha asked if I'd eaten eggs that morning, and I replied that I had not, but I had eaten some the day before. She told me that a bunny had recently hidden eggs in the forest. She looked pensive for a moment and added that she wished the bunny would come back.
In the background, a man said something into a walkie-talkie. Within five minutes, the Easter Bunny appeared with a basket of eggs, showed them to us, and then hid them in the forest.
Panbanisha kindly allowed me to find the first egg, and then gratefully--and gracefully--peeled and ate it when I pled fullness and gave it to her. This was a Tuesday, and Panbanisha was keeping a strict diet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but one must make exceptions for special occasions.
Panbanisha is no dummy. She is also not human. She and her brother Kanzi are highly language-competent bonobo apes living with the rest of their family at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, which studies cognition and language ability in great apes. Because their vocal tracts are not shaped in a way that allows them to speak human language, the bonobos communicate using a system of lexigrams (symbols that represent words--an interactive copy of their lexigram board is online here). The bonobos at the Trust are not taught language; they acquire it in the same way human infants do, through early exposure and a desire to communicate. They talk to you only if they like you and are in the mood, but it is in the nature of bonobos to like you.
Bonobos are the most recently discovered of the great apes, and used to be considered a subspecies of chimpanzee. However, unlike chimpanzees, whose society is prone to many of the same ills as human society (violence, organized warfare and infanticide come to mind), bonobo culture is matriarchal and egalitarian, one of peace, sharing, and sex. Lots and lots of sex.
Although I've known about language-competent apes for thirty years (I've been following Koko the gorilla's progress since 1980), I had never before heard of bonobos or their unique culture. Once I saw a video of Panbanisha cooking ramen noodles on a gas range, I was hooked and it was a very short jump from there to deciding that bonobos must star in my next novel.
Although I read many books and even flew to Toronto for a crash course on linguistics at York
University before my first visit to the Trust, nothing can really prepare you for the experience of conversing with an ape who segues from asking what you ate for breakfast to requesting the return of the Easter Bunny. Meeting and knowing these wonderful beings has been one of the highlights of my life. In "Ape House" I have tried to recreate these relationships as faithfully as possible so that everyone can share in that experience--while enjoying a rollicking story involving Russian prostitutes, struggling novelists, reality TV, tabloid journalism, and a serious exploration of what it means to be human.
Sara Gruen is the author of the award-winning #1 best-selling novel "Water For Elephants," as well as the best-seller "Riding Lessons" and "Flying Changes." Her new book, "Ape House," can be ordered here.
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