If the latest announcements coming from Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary are any indication, they are attempting YET ANOTHER “turnaround.” An excellent article by Joe Gardyasz, of the Business Record, gives the details of a reorganization that many of us were wondering about.
Great Ape Trust has now been restructured into two boards: “an international board that oversees its bonobo research programs through an organization called Bonobo Hope, as well as a new local IPLS board of directors to oversee the Des Moines facility.” Gardyasz doesn’t list the members of the Bonobo Hope board, and of course the Bonobo Hope/IPLS website doesn’t list them either -- although its banner does advertise $10 tickets to “Kanzi’s Carnival”! (Really, they are promoting themselves as a circus. And they wonder why no one takes them seriously...)
The article does list five members of the IPLS board but, unfortunately, none of the directors charged with overseeing a great ape facility have a professional background in great ape care.
Nor have the board or the new director evidently availed themselves of any expert opinions on what it will take to actually make this a sanctuary. Or a research facility. Or a roadside zoo. Or an artists' colony. Or a new home for retired research chimps. Or whatever the hell they are thinking they want to be THIS TIME. See, that’s the problem. As they have for the past several years, they are tossing ideas out there, without any vision, to see what sticks, to see if anything attracts $$$.
Their new director, Steve Boers, tells Gardyasz that they are existing paycheck-to-paycheck “like most nonprofits.” Actually, no, Mr. Boers. Most non-profit primate sanctuaries are not that unstable. They have thousands of supporters, five-year plans, ten-year plans, legacy plans, consistent fundraising, and experienced people on their boards of directors. Sure, they all need more money, but they live up to the fiduciary responsibilities required of accredited sanctuaries. Unlike this organization.
So, how is GATI planning to pull itself out of their financial ruin? Granted, their ideas are many steps above their earlier ridiculous initiative to develop a robo-bonobo, but they are scary nonetheless.
Scariest of all is their “plan” to bring chimpanzees into their failed program. Reportedly, their new board president is a former Obama campaign worker, and he “is working with [U.S. Senator] Tom Harkin’s office on legislation that would enable the sanctuary to house about 20 of the more than 300 government research chimpanzees that are being retired,” according to the article. This is not a new idea. Last spring they attempted to get 500 signatures on a petition asking former sugar daddy Ted Townsend to “support the efforts of IPLS to become a Federal Sanctuary for chimpanzees who have served as subjects in biomedical research.” (As of today, the petition has 370 signatures.) Last spring, when I asked the National Institutes of Health about the frightening possibility of sending retired chimps to IPLS, NIH press officer Renate Myles assured me “any new sanctuary addition to the Federal Sanctuary System would have to meet very high standards, be approved by the Chimp Haven Board, and would be funded through a subcontract from Chimp Haven (all of this is outlined in the CHIMP Act).” Fat chance of that happening, since they aren’t even an accredited sanctuary; thus, their attempt with Senator Harkin to lower the federal standards so they can get chimpanzees and, not incidentally, the federal dollars that would come with the chimps.
Other ideas that the facility shared with the reporter:
- Partner with either Iowa State University or the University of Iowa to own the sanctuary.
- Meet with Iowa conservation officials to “offer the facilities to the state to own,” Gardyasz writes. I’m not sure if this means selling it to Iowa, or donating it.
- Look for corporate donors who “could understand and take the science to the next level like it needs to be,” Boers says. (At the same time, according to past board president Ken Schweller, who is now on Bonobo Hope's “international scientific board,” the board has put a moratorium on active research. Indeed, they no longer have the certification they need to receive federal funding for research, and one wonders what kind of science corporations would sponsor.)
- Partner with the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, to be a tourist destination.
- Coordinate with the Science Center of Iowa’s current National Geographic world explorers exhibit to evidently showcase their non-existent “science.”
- Host corporate events at the facility.
Perhaps the most important part of the article is a Q&A that the Business Record posed to Gay Emerson Reinartz, who leads the AZA Species Survival Plan for bonobos. Please read the article to get the full extent of Gay’s comments. Her response to the question about options for placing the bonobos in a zoo stands out:
“If the center has insufficient long-term financing, what are the alternatives? Should the facility have to close, the Species Survival Plan would attempt to work with IPLS, their staff and others to find a solution that would be in the best, long-term interest of the bonobos. However, this involves a much deeper analyses of space and group dynamics. Without knowing the personalities and social needs of the bonobos in Iowa, it will require time to assess the best placement of individuals/groups. To answer these questions requires open dialogue, analysis, and collaboration.
Unfortunately for the bonobos involved, GATI/Bonobo Hope/IPLS continues to show a disappointing preference for operating as a circus. One can only (and eternally) hope that someday they will decide that the preferred options are those they have so far scorned: the dialogue, analysis, and collaboration that Gay suggests.