At the same time that conservationists in Africa are working to preserve the world’s only remaining natural habitat for bonobos, the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary in Des Moines is fighting for its own survival. Nearly two years after losing founder Ted Townsend as its primary funding source, the nonprofit continues to reach out for public and private benefactors at the federal, state and local levels.  

“We have a small group of people here who have their cards all-in,” said Steve Boers, who took over as the sanctuary’s executive director in January and reports to a new board of directors. “We want this to survive and we’re not looking back – we’re looking forward.”  

Working with a minimal staff on a budget of about $1,000 a day, the organization is reaching out in new ways to the Greater Des Moines community as well as to Iowa universities and area school districts. It’s seeking to establish relationships with Greater Des Moines businesses in an effort to fill the funding void left after Townsend ended his support two years ago. 

Late last year, the nonprofit was rocked by an investigation of its treatment of the bonobos, following complaints by 12 former employees about its former lead scientist, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Just as the investigation was completed and Savage-Rumbaugh was reinstated, the institution was dealt another blow. One of the bonobos, Panbanisha, died from pneumonia. 
The santuary’s general counsel, Des Moines attorney Lyle Simpson, has since restructured the nonprofit’s governance between 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. 

The five-person IPLS board is chaired by George Caudill Jr., a Drake University Law School alumnus who served as President Bill Clinton’s director of visual communications and later led Barack Obama’s advance team in his initial election bid. In addition to seeking new corporate sponsors, the board is working to find new federal funding. Caudill is working with Sen. 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. 

Each chimp housed at the facility would mean tens of thousands of dollars in annual funding, enough to sustain the entire facility, Simpson told the Business Record. 

In the long run, the organization hopes to partner with either Iowa State University or the University of Iowa to own the sanctuary, he said. Both universities have declined to take on funding responsibility for the sanctuary given otherwise limited financial support, however. Meanwhile, Simpson said the IPLS board is prepared to meet with Iowa conservation officials to offer the facilities to the state to own. Under that proposal, the Bonobo Hope and IPLS boards would manage the bonobos and the scientific research, while the state could develop the sanctuary’s 230 acres for public use. 

“There is so much that could be achieved that would make the (sanctuary) an international destination that would surpass the World Food Prize facility as an attraction that brings an international reputation for our community,” Simpson said. 

History of finance problems

The Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary, initially launched by Townsend in 2002 as the Great Ape Trust, has struggled for the past two years to secure new permanent funding, following the end of Townsend’s contributions at the end of 2011. After nearly having to shut its doors in May 2012, the sanctuary was able to raise enough private funds to continue operating.

“I think it’s like most nonprofits; we’re on the paycheck-to-paycheck scenario right now,” Boers said. “We just started our fall fundraising campaign. It takes $1,000 a day to keep the doors open, and that’s with a very minimal staff. But if you would have compared that to two years ago, you would have been astounded how much they were paying to keep the place open at that time.” 

Boers, who worked for 30 years in design-build project management before joining IPLS a year ago, said securing large donors will be critical to sustaining the organization. “We’re looking for corporate donors, somebody that could understand and take the science to the next level like it needs to be,” he said. “It seems like some days we’re just doing damage control from the last administration. They didn’t have to go out and seek funding like we do, because they had Ted Townsend. We don’t have Ted.” 

Prior to the bonobos’ relocation in 2005 from Savage-Rumbaugh’s research facility at Georgia State University to Des Moines, the bonobo language research had received significant annual funding though a comprehensive federal National Institutes of Health grant. However, that funding, which had been received since the early 1980s, was not renewed by the agency after the bonobos moved to Des Moines. 

Another factor that jeopardized the facility’s future was the flood of 2008. The flood caused approximately $1.5 million in damage and led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prohibit further expansion or new construction of facilities on the property. For several years, the Great Ape Trust housed a colony of orangutans that had been rescued from the entertainment industry, among them Clint Eastwood’s former ape co-star, but those animals were sent away to zoos in 2009. 

According to Sen. Harkin’s office, the National Institutes of Health budget lost approximately $1.7 billion due to sequestration last year. “This resulted in approximately 700 fewer research grants awarded, making it more difficult for scientific facilities like the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary to be awarded research funding,” his staff said in an email. 

Harkin, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds the NIH, said he is working to reverse the sequester. Among his efforts is an appropriations bill that includes a request for an additional $2 billion in funding for the agency. That legislation, which was passed by the full committee earlier this year, would create an additional 1,300 research grants in the coming year. A separate bill that would enable NIH to designate additional locations for relocation of research chimps is now in the markup process. 

Availability of additional federal funding could be for naught, however. According to William Fields, who served as the sanctuary’s research director until December 2011, the organization lost its Animal Assurance Number certification status with the National Institutes of Health shortly after he left. Without that certification, Fields said, the organization will be unable to receive federal research funding. Qualifying for funding for the retiring chimps would be a different matter, but then the organization would need to meet federal requirements as a wildlife sanctuary, which it currently does not have, Fields said.

Ken Schweller, a member of the sanctuary’s international scientific board, said the board opted to put a moratorium on active research for the past year while it restructures the organization. 

Because the nonprofit is pursuing legal status as a sanctuary to house the retired chimps, “we deemed it wise to put a moratorium on active research which might put us in conflict with sanctuary requirements - we need to spend the time to understand the issues involved,” he said.

Schweller said he’s confident the nonprofit can regain the required protocols and assurances needed if it chooses to resume research.  

“We are concentrating primarily in the last year on fundraising, without which we can not continue to survive,” he said. “Everything else including research has been put temporarily on the back burner while we concentrated fully on that initiative.” 

Boers acknowledged that if significant new funding isn’t secured, the “very worst-case scenario” would be that  the sanctuary may be forced to relocate the bonobos to zoos. But the cost in terms of the stress on the animals in being split up would be devastating, possibly even fatal, the staff believes.  

“They really deserve to remain together for the rest of their lives in familiar surroundings,” said Julie Gilmore, the sanctuary’s veterinarian, who said the bonobos are currently thriving as a family unit. 

Local business connections

Earlier this year, the nonprofit obtained an exhibitor license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is required if the staff is to offer public tours. Since February, the IPLS has offered twice-weekly tours during which visitors can observe some of the bonobos as they interact with research assistant Liz Rubert-Pugh behind thick panes of glass. 

International film crews are also regular visitors to the ape language research institute. Last month, for instance, a film crew from the BBC visited the primate sanctuary to capture footage of the bonobos for a documentary called “Planet Primate” scheduled to air in January on Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. Another film crew from the Netherlands spent a week in Des Moines filming 33-year-old Kanzi interacting with his 3-year-old son, Teco.

The sanctuary has come a long way in just the past few months, Boers said. 

“Getting our USDA license to be open to the public was huge,” he said. “At the time, we heard it could take several months up to a year to get that done. We accomplished that in just a couple of months. And since we’ve been open to the public, we’re trying to be a better community citizen.”

Among the steps the organization has taken has been to partner with the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, which opens the door for motor-coach tours and other events in conjunction with the CVB. The organization has also joined the Greater Des Moines Partnership by becoming a member of the Carlisle chamber of commerce. Boers said he hopes to coordinate some science education activities in conjunction with the Science Center of Iowa’s current National Geographic world explorers exhibit. 

“We’re always open to partnering with our cultural counterparts,” said Leisha Barcus, the Science Center’s vice president of community engagement. Beyond a couple of meetings and staff tours of the facilities, no agreements have yet been reached. “It was good to get up to date on the facility,” Barcus said. “We’ll see what happens.” 

Meg Fitz, the partnership’s senior vice president for regional business development, joined the sanctuary’s board after experiencing the bonobos firsthand as a volunteer. Fitz said the board does face a certain amount of pressure because the organization hasn’t yet reached a sustainable funding level. “There is the need to continue reaching out,” she said. “But I am cautiously optimistic that the organization will continue and thrive.” 

For the business community, Boers envisions hosting corporate events at the sanctuary. In May, IPLS hosted about 50 Wells Fargo & Co. executives from across the country for an event that included a lecture, interaction with the apes and a sit-down dinner. 

Some of Greater Des Moines’ largest companies have supplied the majority of the food for the bonobos since Townsend’s funding ended. Hy-Vee Inc. has provided a continuing supply of donated food and Anderson Erickson Dairy Co. supplies a variety of its products. Most recently, IPLS has begun discussions with Kemin Industries Inc. for the Des Moines feed and nutrition company to potentially develop specialized foods to better maintain the bonobos’ health. 

“We’re just trying to get better known in the actual structure of the community, but also the business sector of the community,” Boers said. “It feels like we’re trying to go back and reopen doors that might have been pushed shut. We’re working very hard to get back in that part of the community, which is why we’re trying to partner with the right people.”

Q&A with a bonobo conservation expert

The Business Record posed several questions by email to Gay Edwards Reinartz, conservation coordinator for the Zoological Society of Milwaukee. Reinartz serves as coordinator for the Bonobo Species Survival Plan, a breeding and management program sponsored the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. She also directs a conservation and research program on bonobos in the wild in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she is currently conducting field research. 

Q: What do you think about the value of the language research that has been conducted at the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary?

A: My expertise is not in great ape cognition and language acquisition but rather ecology.  Therefore, I am not current or highly qualified to comment on the quality of research produced at the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary in Des Moines.  However, over the span of her active research years, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has been a leading scientist in this field and has greatly influenced it as well as countless students who have studied in her lab.  Her work in bonobo and great ape language acquisition is known worldwide.  

Q: What’s your opinion of the value of the research to the overall conservation efforts for the species? 

A:  Not all research has an immediate or direct conservation benefit for a species.  I will say that Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s work has helped to bring the bonobo to the attention of science and the public – it has shed light on the remarkable intelligence and cognitive capacity of bonobos.  In this regard, her research has had a conservation benefit in building public awareness.  However, concomitantly media releases and internet postings by (the Great Ape Trust/Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary) concern conservationists.  In many they portray the bonobo in a way that could be harmful.  One of the greatest threats to bonobos in their native land, the Democratic Republic of Congo, is poaching for the pet trade -- to kill adults and seize live infants for sale.  Showing bonobos as pets or pet-like or as tame animals creates a double standard and can only reinforce the pet image and the market for bonobos.  All institutions holding bonobos and other great apes must be diligent in discouraging this image and seek to promote conservation and the natural behavior of the species in so far as is possible.  

There are fewer than 200 bonobos in zoos outside of Africa.  This is in striking contrast to (approximately) 2,000 chimpanzees in the U.S. alone.  It has been necessary, therefore, to create a program like the Species Survival Plan that strives to preserve their genetic diversity and create standards for care.  It could benefit the individuals at IPLS and the species more if the IPLS bonobos could be part of the SSP breeding program, if they could be integrated into other social groups and families, but their use as scientific subjects under IPLS’s methodology of partially rearing bonobos by humans caused IPLS to reject full participation in the SSP.  

Q:  To your knowledge, is valid scientific research still taking place at the sanctuary?

A:  I am not familiar enough with the research nor qualified to comment on its validity.  The more interesting yet challenging question, considering their conservation value, is whether valid research of this nature warrants the decision to hold a group of bonobos in a relatively closed research environment, restrict breeding, and limit their experience as bonobos.  Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary has maintained that research bonobos have to be reared by humans (bi-culturally) and share their world in order to fully study their language acquisition capacity.  It is the methodology then that comes into question.

Q:  Additionally, given what you know about the current situations with the Des Moines facility, do you believe the best outcome for the bonobos is to remain there or do you think they should be sent to zoos?  

A:  I don’t know the real facts about the situation, so, I can’t make informed opinions.  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.  

Q: In previous years the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary (then the Great Ape Trust) had provided tens of thousands of dollars in support to conservation efforts. Is there hope that a renewed organization in Des Moines could again provide monetary support and visibility to the conservation efforts happening in Africa? 

A: Conservation should be an important mission of any bonobo facility.  The work I currently direct in DR-Congo benefited from a grant from the Great Ape Trust, so I am aware of the significant contributions they made at one time.  A renewed organization, if there is justification and adequate long-term support for it in Des Moines, should definitely plan to support conservation again. There are numerous programs the SSP can recommend, and the need is great.