Bonobo Love, Not War


Lindsay Champion


When Vanessa Woods is invited by her fiancé, research scientist Brian Hare, to study bonobos at a sanctuary in Congo, she is perplexed. “Is that some kind of tree?” she asks. Although Woods has made a name for herself as an accomplished chimpanzee researcher, she has never heard of their relatives, the bonobos. In fact, Woods writes in her memoir, Bonobo Handshake, that the word “bonobo” is so off the radar, it doesn’t even show up on her computer’s spell check.

Woods is surprised by her unfamiliarity with bonobos because they are so closely related to chimpanzees. While chimps live in the wild in both Central and West Africa, bonobos are only found in Congo and are considered an endangered species. Bonobos and humans have 98.7 percent of their DNA in common, says Woods, but unlike chimpanzees, the link between humans and bonobos has only rarely been studied.

Although she is unsure about making the trip, Woods follows Brian to the violent and dangerous Congo, which, in 2005, was in shambles after the Second Congo War. Despite the high crime rate and outrageous death toll, Woods and Brian head to Lola Ya Bonobo, a privately funded sanctuary designed to rescue bonobos from poachers who try to kill the apes or sell them as pets.

Woods notices an immediate difference between Lola Ya Bonobo and the chimpanzee sanctuaries she has visited in the past. “As a chimp, you have more chance of being killed by another chimp than by anything else,” Woods writes. Rape is also common among chimpanzees. Bonobos, on the other hand, are completely peaceful. They share their food with neighbors, resolve conflicts without argument or violence, and they mate consensually with several same- and opposite-sex partners. In fact, Woods coins the phrase and title of the book, “bonobo handshake,” when she observes bonobos offering their genitals to one another as a greeting.

Woods and her fiancé run a series of humane tests and observations to determine what makes bonobos so peaceful. Woods is shocked to discover that the apes at Lola Ya Bonobo have created a female-dominated society, and Mimi, the wise and elderly bonobo matriarch, rules the roost. At a chimpanzee sanctuary, the apes may fight and push to get into the sleep area before bed. At Lola Ya Bonobo, however, the procedure is entirely different. “Mimi takes her sweet [expletive] time coming through the tunnel,” writes Woods. “She permits the entry of Semendwa, Isiro [two female bonobos], and the other ladies, who climb into the comfortable hammocks . . . Five minutes later the teenage males and the little boys creep down the tunnel.” Most adult males do not dare to enter the building until Mimi is fast asleep.

Through Woods’ powerful writing, the reader is introduced to dozens of individual bonobos at the sanctuary, each with his or her own distinct personality. With adoration, Woods shares stories of baby Kata, an orphan who refuses to drink liquids or smile for days after her arrival; the stunning Malou, who shares such a special connection with Brian that Vanessa becomes jealous; and the vain Max, who won’t let the other bonobos touch his hair, and is constantly posing like Derek Zoolander.

In Bonobo Handshake, Woods expertly weaves her experiences at the sanctuary, her sometimes-rocky relationship with Brian, historical information about bonobos and Congo, and scientific data into the story. Although it feels necessary for Woods to place her research and experience in context with the current political goings on in Africa, I found myself wishing there were more tales about the bonobos and fewer gruesome stories about the war and Congo’s corrupt leaders. Some chapters read more like a history book than a memoir and lack the personal touch that makes Woods’ direct relationship to the bonobos so riveting.

Although Bonobo Handshake may seem at first like a heartwarming tale of a utopia for apes in a dangerous country, the bonobos in the sanctuary are not immune to hardship. Some orphans who are sent to the sanctuary have watched their parents be killed by poachers and refuse to eat when they arrive. In some cases, the orphans die within a few days of reaching the sanctuary. In ideal scenarios, the bonobos are reintroduced into the wild when they are strong enough to be set free. But if a flu epidemic or virus infects the sanctuary, even the strongest bonobos may die.

Through her research, Woods determines that bonobos may be so peaceful because they are more tolerant than chimps and humans, and do not see strangers as a threat. “In a zoo, where space is confined and feeding times restricted, sex enables tolerance,” Woods writes. “Bonobos don’t seem to care whether someone is part of ‘us’ or one of ‘them.’ ” Most importantly, Woods discovers the necessity of having a peaceful sanctuary like Lola Ya Bonobo to nurse sick orphans back to health. Bonobos are quickly becoming extinct, and if they die, we may never discover the key to their harmonious existence.

It is apparent that Woods’ researching job has transformed into a full-fledged passion for bonobos and their peaceful lifestyle. As a supplement to Bonobo Handshake, Woods runs an interactive website, Friends of Bonobos, to manage donations for Lola Ya Bonobo and help raise awareness about our peaceful friends. Viewers can browse through updated pictures, videos and stories of the bonobos featured in the memoir. Through her experiences with bonobos, Woods is on a mission to teach humans that peace is possible. “If we lose bonobos, we will never learn their secret,” Woods writes in Bonobo Handshake. “And even more tragically, because they share so much of what makes us human, we will never understand ourselves.”

Books Featured in This Column:
Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods (Gotham Books, 2010)


Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including, and She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.



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