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Bonobos became Brickner's cause

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2009 - St. Louis photographer Marian Brickner's fascination with bonobos began in 1998 when her son told her about a new book by noted primatologist Frans de Waal.

Brickner, who was teaching herself photography at the time, had never heard of bonobos. But she was immediately struck by the social and family nature of the great apes and the book's compelling pictures by Frans Lanting, a renowned nature and wildlife photographer known for his work for National Geographic.

"I wanted to get pictures like that," Brickner says, adding that she immediately began an "internal competition" with Lanting.

Brickner's goal was to become an "extraordinary" photographer -- to get one-of-a-kind images that would somehow make a difference to the world. And now she had a subject: the endangered bonobos that most Americans don't know exist.

It is estimated that fewer than 5,000 bonobos survive in the wild, due to hunting and the shrinkage of their natural habitat: the forests of the Congo basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bonobos were once known as pygmy chimpanzees, but scientists now recognize them as a distinct species.

Brickner began by researching the U.S. "family tree" of bonobos at zoos in Memphis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and San Diego.

"I decided that there needed to be a children's picture book about bonobos," she explains. "If children became interested, perhaps more of them would become involved in helping not only bonobos but the environment."

Brickner thought that children would respond well to a book about young bonobos so she eventually focused on Lucy, who was born in 2003 at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Florida.

Twenty-eight of Brickner's photographs of Lucy provide the foundation for the children's book "I'm Lucy: A Day in the Life of a Young Bonobo" (Blue Bark Press; $19.95). For that project, Brickner teamed with Ursula Goodenough, professor of biology at Washington University, and Goodenough's daughter Mathea Levine, who wrote the text.

Four of Brickner's pictures are also included in "Darwin's Universe, Evolution from A to Z" by Richard Milner published recently by the University of California Press.

After more than 10 years of chronicling bonobos, Brickner is pleased that her work is finding an audience.

"I simply wanted people to know that bonobos exist," she explains.

Brickner, by the way, didn't decide to become a photographer until age 55 -- when she began to accumulate equipment and started practicing her craft.

"I am 72 at the moment," she says. "I think older women can really do stuff."

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