Students partner with Trust for research

by Tara MaurerStaff Writer

Through the Great Ape Trust Scholarship, Simpson College students are given the chance to learn about and work with bonobos at the Great Ape Trust, a facility in Des Moines that works with many different primates.

With the help of Professor of Psychology Carl Halgren, the Great Ape Trust Scholarship was created three years ago. Halgren said this provides a unique opportunity for students because Des Moines is the “only place in the world you can do this.”

“There has been a long history of attempts to prove that great apes can communicate,” Halgren said. “This is all due to the work of D. Duane Rumbaugh. He invented a symbolic system called lexigrams that would be equivalent to English words that Lana (an ape at the trust) could use to communicate.”

Halgren hopes in the future that the students in the scholarship program will work closer with the bonobos, especially as new research at the Trust gets underway.

“We have a program that’s in its third year,” Halgren said. “Last year, we had one student accept our scholarship. That was the first year we could offer it. We are hoping it really grows.”

One student, freshman Jen Draiss, expressed her enthusiasm for the relationship she has with the Trust.

“This program is definitely a worthwhile experience,” Draiss said. “I’ve been interested in apes since I was pretty young, and now I’m finally getting to do what I love!”

Along with extensive reading and video watching, students working with the Trust meet weekly with Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a scientist with special standing at the center. Rumbaugh raised one of the bonobos, Kanzi, from birth and taught him to communicate using the lexigram system.

The system uses a large touch-screen with numerous symbols to represent words or phrases that primates can choose from.

Driass will be the first to present information about Great Ape Trust. During a meeting with Savage-Rumbaugh, students brainstormed different ways to inform high school students of the Trust while keeping the presentation fun. One thing they’ve considered is to present a unique fact about each of the bonobos.

“Nyota is like Harry Potter,” Savage-Rumbaugh said. “He will try to be invisible. He hides. And sometimes he actually is invisible, you can’t find him.”

Savage-Rumbaugh said each of the animals has a unique personality. Matata acts at the matriarch of the group, and Kazi is “very aware of his role as a movie star,” she said.

Elikya is the blabber mouth, and Maisha is the baby of the group, so he’s the only one allowed to complain or whine. Panbanisha is the poet.

Driass appreciates the opportunity to work with and learn about the Trust’s research.

“They’ve made many discoveries that have changed the views of apes in so many ways, both through the public eye and in the scientific world,” Driass said. “I don’t think you could get the experience that Simpson is providing us with anywhere else!”