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Books 147-148: Ape House and Bonobo: the Forgotten Ape

Book 147: Ape House.
Author: Sara Gruen, 2010.
Genre: Contemporary. Animals. Suspense.
Other Details: Paperback. 367 pages.

Isabel Duncan is a scientist working at the Great Ape Language Lab. Her special charges are a group of bonobos that have been taught to use American Sign Language. John Thigpen is a reporter assigned to write a human interest piece on Isabel's work with the bonobos. The lab is being constantly picketed by animal rights protesters, who misinterpret the work being done there. Following a horrific attack on the lab the apes are 'liberated' and Isabel loses control of the project, now considered too controversial to continue. The apes are quickly sold to an unknown buyer, causing Isabel distress. When a reality show featuring the apes débuts it quickly becomes a media phenomena. Isabel and John team up with a few others to try to attempt to save the apes from this exploitation.

Sara Gruen has had a life-long fascination with human-ape discourse with particular interest in Bonobo apes. She is one of the few allowed to visit the Great Ape Trust in Iowa and has established a relationship with the apes there. As a result she brought her knowledge and experiences to this novel and her love for the apes shines throughout it.

I found this a well written novel that was almost impossible to put down. I was impressed by the degree of research Sara Gruen had put into the novel and applauded her highlighting the very serious conservation issues facing this remarkable ape. I had special interest in reading this novel as I am currently an education volunteer at the only zoo in the UK with bonobos and a good part of my work is talking to visitors about the great apes.

I also proposed it to one of my reading groups, where it generally well received and generated plenty of discussion. While the key idea of a reality show featuring the apes might seem improbable, when we discussed some of the outrageous reality shows that air here in the UK and the USA, it seemed a much less sensational premise that the bonobos overt sexuality might be exploited as entertainment.

'Ape House' on Sara Gruen's website - includes video, reading guide and excerpt.

Book 148: Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.
Author: Frans de Waal and Frans Lanting, 1997.
Genre: Animal Behaviour. Conservation. Nature.
Other Details: Hardback. 210 pages.

The bonobo is the least known of the great apes and we share a common ancestor with them and chimpanzees about 6 million years ago. Given that they are a female-centred, egalitarian species they have often been dubbed the "make-love-not-war" primate.

This was the first book to examine and compare data from bonobos in captivity and the field. Frans de Waal, a world-renowned primatologist, and Frans Lanting, an internationally acclaimed wildlife photographer, present the most up-to-date perspective available on the bonobo at the time of printing. Frans de Waal compares the bonobo with its better-known relative, the chimpanzee. The bonobo's relatively non-violent behaviour and the tendency for females to dominate males confront the evolutionary models that had been derived from observing the chimpanzee's male power politics, cooperative hunting, and intergroup warfare.

Fascinating stuff and this proved a useful guide to bonobos, with plenty of photographs, many taken in the wild. While its format is very much coffee-table, there is also a bibliography and extensive notes for those wishing to take seek further information. I checked it out of the library along with Planet Ape in order to increase my knowledge of bonobos to assist with my volunteer conservation role at a local zoo housing bonobos.
Tags: animals, contemporary, nature, non-fiction, suspense
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