Famed ape researcher Susan Savage-Rumbaugh has been suspended from the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary in Iowa over accusations that she has put the animals in jeopardy because of her "erratic behavior."
A dozen former staff at the Sanctuary resigned last December because they say the center's board of directors were not taking their concerns about Savage-Rumbaugh seriously. They say she is a danger to workers as well as the seven apes that live there, including Kanzi, described as a bonobo genius that has developed his own "words" and is able to make stone tools.
The former staff, including 10 former animal caretakers, a former PhD researcher and the former head of public safety, say Savage-Rumbaugh was with two bonobos, Maisha and Nyota, when they suffered undisclosed injuries that required surgery in the summer of 2011, and when Teco, an infant bonobo, burned himself with hot water. They claim that a female miscarried a baby that was conceived with a related bonobo, even though the endangered apes are supposed to be on birth control so their reproduction can be controlled by an international organization. The workers also allege she also took one of the apes to a Buddhist display at a tourist center in Iowa and exposed the animal to people who hadn't received a required TB shot.
The former workers write, “She removed herself from the lab from March through June 2012 for personal reasons. Upon her return, staff noted and reported Sue engaging in dangerous behavior, such as forgetting where she left the apes, locking them outdoors without access to water for several hours, placing young puppies in enclosures with adult apes and leaving them unsupervised."
Savage-Rumbaugh denies the allegations, saying she is mentally fit, the apes are safe, and the former employees are “disgruntled” because they couldn’t rise up the career ladder as fast as they wanted to. She also says her former colleagues may be frustrated because the bonobos didn’t trust them.
One former worker, Itai Roffman, a graduate student at Haifa University in Israel believes the caretakers expected the sanctuary to be run like a zoo instead of a research facility. "They had a view that Sue's work was not conventional primate research." He says some techniques, like sleeping alongside the apes to gain their trust, may seem unusual. But Roffman adds that Savage-Rumbaugh and her family have lived alongside the apes for 40-years and raised them with both ape and human "parents" which has paid off in scientific breakthroughs. And he says the apes would suffer if they were separated from one another or from Savage-Rumbaugh's family because of this investigation.
Still the facility’s board suspended Savage-Rumbaugh last week, pending the results of an investigation into whether she is mentally fit for the job or a danger to both the apes and the workers.
The next day, the sanctuary and research center passed a surprise inspection by the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal centers under the Animal Welfare Act. Board chairman Kenneth Schweller says the apes and the facilities are in good condition, and the USDA did not recommend any changes. And Ape trust veterinarian Julie Gilmore also says the seven bonobos, which she regularly examines, are fine.