The bonobos of Texas

Steve and I are mad at American Airlines. We’ve been frequent fliers with them for almost three decades, and our loyalty has enabled us to fly free to countless destinations, both domestic and abroad. But in recent years, it’s become harder and harder to use our miles to go where we want. The most recent example is my effort to use miles to get us to Europe for Paul-Louis’s wedding.

I started trying to find passage back in late December, but all I saw were flights that required us to fly through London’s Heathrow Airport. The problem with this routing is that Heathrow charges hundreds of dollars per passenger in taxes. In contrast, if we fly direct from a US airport to Paris, we pay only about $11 per person.

But the only choice the new (mean and stingy) American Airlines was offering me was to fly from San Diego to Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport one day, then continue on to Paris at 5:50 pm the next day. Repulsive as this choice was, I booked it.

I hoped that eventually better flights would become available (ones that wouldn’t require the Texas sleepover.) At one point, I was checking the AA website two or three times daily. But nothing opened up. Then one day it occurred to me that I had a good reason to spend a day in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area: Ft. Worth is one of the only zoos in the US that includes bonobos in its collection!

In recent years, I’ve become a fan of bonobos — our highly endangered primate cousins, so much more likable than chimpanzees. (We share more than 98 percent of our DNA with both.) Matriarchal in their social organization, bonobos are far more peaceful and sexy in their social interactions. This spring I wrote a cover story for the Reader about the colony at the San Diego Zoo — the first place bonobos were brought from Africa to the Western Hemisphere, and the place where the vast majority of groundbreaking research has occurred.

That reporting was a great experience, and it whetted my appetite to see the other bonobos in captivity in America. The Ft. Worth Zoo is one. So Friday after taking our flight to DFW, we rented an inexpensive car, slept at a cheap hotel, then set out Saturday morning for Ft. Worth (about 30 minutes west of the airport.)

It was instructive. Admission to the Ft. Worth institution only cost $24 for the two of us. (I think it’s close to $100 in San Diego.) Although the temperature was in the high 80s (and headed to the high 90s), the zoo was pleasant, shaded by mature trees.

It’s much smaller than the San Diego Zoo, and it seems much more fearless about promoting its ape collection. The great ape compound was highlighted at the entrance, where the Texans boasted that their primate center includes “all the great apes” — gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos (who are mentioned by name. In contrast, for reasons that never were clear to me, the San Diego Zoo seems intent on almost hiding its bonobo collection.)

Despite the weird reticence of the San Diegans, I can now tell you this: if you want to have a close encounter with one of our closest animal relatives on the planet, the San Diego Zoo is a better place to do it than Ft. Worth. In San Diego, the bonobos enjoy a huge enclosure, and there are three or four windows into it that enable a lot of up close and personal interaction with these charming animals. We saw six bonobos at the Ft. Worth facility. Two were in an indoor enclosure, the size of which made me cringe. Steve had to remind me that the alternative for bonobos (living wild and free in the Congo) carries the constant risk of being killed and smoked by poachers.

In the Ft. Worth Zoo’s outdoor viewing area, we were able to catch a glimpse of four more bonobos (two females adults, one male, and a baby). Then, to my delight, the mother and baby moved right next to the only viewing window, near where we were standing.

The baby looked very young — less than a year? The mother settled into the corner near the glass, and the baby began nursing. We were inches away, albeit viewing all this through scratched, milky windows that made it hard to take good pictures. The baby sucked at one of its mother’s breasts. It moved to the other side and gazed at its mother adoringly, but also periodically focused its attention on Steve and me. We stared back. I tried to communicate some sense of solidarity with the pair, to project my respect and admiration.

I don’t think they got it. But I’m still glad we went.

One thought on “The bonobos of Texas

  1. Bob August 1, 2017 / 5:45 am

    Wonder of wonders..I have never even heard of this species.Thanks for opening these old eyes.

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