The Ethics Blog

A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Have you cited a captive ape?

If you are writing on animal welfare, you may one day cite Savage-Rumbaugh, Wamba, Wamba and Wamba (2007). If you do, you will have cited one human and three captive bonobos.

I cited them last month, presenting a paper at the symposium, “Zoo-ethnographies,” arranged by the Centre for Gender Research in Uppsala. Citing them felt quite natural to me, since I’ve met the authors several times. Although only the human can write, all four understand spoken English and eloquently express their opinions about what you say and do. How do they communicate? Well, to focus on the nonhumans: the first day I visited the bonobos I happened to breach the rule, “just sit and observe,” by chatting with a caretaker just outside Panbanisha’s enclosure. Panbanisha heard when the rule was explained to me, and she looked offended and pointed QUIET on her portable keyboard with several hundred word symbols. I shivered with a combination of shame and metaphysical vertigo. A little later, I could not resist the temptation to touch her son’s hand. He ran to mother who was even more upset than before. She approached me with the keyboard and pointed to another symbol. A researcher asked, “Do you want to communicate with Pär?” She answered with the characteristic short high-pitched vocalization that she, Kanzi and Nyota use to answer questions in the affirmative. Her finger remained firmly on the symbol until I identified it and exclaimed: “She’s calling me a MONSTER!”

Being the first author, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh did the following. She asked the bonobos if they wanted to participate in a conversation about what they see as important for their welfare. They answered in the affirmative. During the tape-recorded conversation she presented a list of welfare items that she guessed might be important to them. It was presented as a series of yes-no questions. If there was uncertainty about a reply, the question was rephrased. Not all suggestions met with the bonobos’ approval. The final list of 12 items was presented in tabular form in the article.

Are Kanzi, Panbanisha and Nyota rightly listed as co-authors? I’ve witnessed the subtlety with which they respond to caretakers’ daily questions about their existence in captive environments. They undoubtedly had more direct verbal input to the article and clearer awareness and approval of their participation than many humans who’ve been listed as co-authors. They certainly were informants who answered questions in conversation with a researcher. But sometimes researchers, especially in ethnography, publish with their informants. I think that choice was particularly apt in this case.

The article concerned the welfare of this group of captive apes. Ever since Kanzi was young, Savage-Rumbaugh treated captivity not as an accidental feature of Kanzi and his family. The fact of captivity cannot be concealed with enrichment items and environments that appear natural for the species (a theme in the article). It is the core of the animal’s existence. If you take captive animals seriously and want to know what their lives can become like, you cannot hide captivity beneath a veneer of “naturalness.” You need to open-mindedly negotiate captivity on a daily basis. Kanzi, Panbanisha and Nyota are experts on their captive existence. Their language developed in negotiation of it. If you cite the article on their welfare as captive language competent apes, you certainly cite them.

Pär Segerdahl

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4 Comments

  1. Josepine Fernow

    I wonder whether human informants in a similar situation would have been named at all?

    • Pär Segerdahl

      @ Josepine Fernow: You are right, in many interview studies the informants’ real names are not used; not only to protect them, but also because their identity is irrelevant. In this case, I believe that you need to know that the study concerns this unique group of human-reared apes. Their names belong to the scientific discussion not only on animal welfare, but also on animal psychology and language. Books and articles, both academic and popular, have been written about Kanzi and his bonobo family.

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