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Learning about bonobos by meeting Lucy

Baby Lucy, a bonobo) is cradled by her mother, as sister Lexi looks on.
Photo by Marian Brickner | St. Louis Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 17, 2008 - Do you know what a bonobo is?

St. Louis photographer Marian Brickner says the 10 years she has invested in chronicling the endangered ape species will be worth it if more people are able to answer yes to that question.

"I simply wanted people to know they exist," said Brickner, a determined woman who has spent countless hours observing bonobos through her camera lens at the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida.

Twenty-eight of Brickner's photographs of Lucy, a bonobo born in 2003, provide the foundation for a new children's book "I'm Lucy: A Day in the Life of a Young Bonobo" (Blue Bark Press; $19.95).

Brickner said she wants people to know about bonobos because the species is extremely social and family-oriented - and closely related to humans. That "just like us" message is reinforced by Brickner's images of bonobo toddlers eating their veggies, playing with toys and even flossing their teeth.

Bonobos (pronounced bo-NO-bos) were once known as pygmy chimpanzees, but scientists now recognize them as a distinct species. In the wild, bonobos are found only in the forests of the Congo basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is estimated that fewer than 5,000 bonobos survive due to shrinking habitat and hunting. Conservation efforts have also been hampered by years of war and political unrest in the region.

Researchers are studying the highly intelligent bonobos to determine if they can understand human language. The most famous bonobo, named Kanzi, lives at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, and can recognize about 200 words, which he indicates by pointing to a keyboard lexigram.

Brickner's goal of helping endangered bonobos got a boost when Ursula Goodenough, professor of biology at Washington University, saw in her pictures the makings of a book to teach conservation to children.

Goodenough has long been fascinated by the intelligence and social behavior of bonobos, a species that shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees 2 million years ago.

"It would be a tragedy should bonobos become extinct because we have so much to learn from them," Goodenough said.

Goodenough asked her daughter Mathea Levine to write the text for the book, and when publishers weren't interested in the project, the biologist went into the book publishing business. Goodenough created Blue Bark Press and developed the www.bonobokids.org Website to sell the book and spread the message about saving bonobos.

Goodenough also enlisted well-known primatologist Jane Goodall to write the afterword for the book. Profits will go to two nonprofit conservation groups, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative and the Roots and Shoots program.

People who have heard of bonobos probably know about them because of their sexual habits, Goodenough acknowledges.

Bonobos are, in fact, sex-happy little apes -- which can be a surprise to visitors at the zoos that exhibit them. Such, ahem, friendly behavior is not addressed in either the photos or the text of the "I'm Lucy" book. This is, after all, a children's book.

Goodenough said that some publishers shied away from the project anyway, fearing that children researching bonobos might come across discussions of that behavior on Internet websites or YouTube videos.

Which begs the question: Have book publishers watched any TV lately?

For more information

No bonobos live at the St. Louis Zoo, but if you want to learn more about them, here are some resources:

www.bonobokids.org -- a kid-friendly Web site for the "I'm Lucy" book.

http://delfisgrainsofgoldensand-bonobos.blogspot.com - This Website by Delfi Messinger, director of animal programs at the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida, features Marian Brickner's bonobo photos.

www.bonobo.org - Web site of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative.

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