Saving Endangered Bonobos Teaches A Lesson In Empathy

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April 3, 20217:05 AM ET


A trio of young bonobos play under the watchful eyes of their caregivers..Ley Uwera for NPR

At an animal sanctuary in the Congo, several dozen Congolese schoolchildren are getting a crash course in bonobos.

These gentle, endangered apes, who resemble chimpanzees, are “our closest cousins,” educator Blaise Mbwaki tells the students in French. “They have a human character, and they are Congolese.”

“So if you eat a bonobo,” Mbwaki says, “you are eating your cousin. It is cannibalism.”

It’s a blunt message. But Mbwaki and other staff here at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary think it may offer the best hope of saving this species from extinction.

Only about 20,000 wild bonobos are left, and they are found only in the central rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So the staff at Lola are working to engage Congolese students in efforts to protect the bonobos that remain.

Bonobos share nearly 99% of their DNA with humans. And studies of the animals at Lola are helping scientists understand how humans evolved traits like empathy.

But humans haven’t shown much empathy for bonobos. As a species, we’ve hunted them for food, sold their babies as pets, and spoiled much of their natural habitat.

A male bonobo at Lola yo Bonobo sanctuary. Only about 20,000 wild bonobos are left, and they are found only in the central rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.Ley Uwera for NPR

Most of the 60 or so bonobos at Lola arrived as orphans. “Their mothers were killed in the forest for meat and hunters kept the babies to sell,” says Dr. Jonas Mukamba, the resident veterinarian at Lola.Article continues after sponsor message

The sanctuary’s goal is to prepare the bonobos for life in the wild. In the meantime, they live in Lola’s spacious, forested enclosures and serve as ambassadors to daily delegations of school children.

The children learn that “this animal is unique in the DRC,” says ClaudineAndré, who founded Lola ya Bonobo in 1994. “It is a treasure of nature in Congo.”

André is the daughter of a Belgian veterinarian who practiced in Kinshasa. She has spent much of her life trying to make sure bonobos have a future in the Congo.

It was the Congo river that probably gave rise to bonobo. More than a million years ago, scientists believe, some bonobo ancestors ended up on the South side of the river. That separated them from their chimpanzee relatives to the North.

Neither animal likes to swim. So over time, bonobos became a separate species, one that is smaller, gentler, and less aggressive than chimps.


Some Generous Apes May Help Explain The Evolution Of Human Kindness

The 10,000 plus students who have visited Lola ya Bonobo learn all this and why it matters, André says.

“Everything is connected on the planet,” she says. “So the kids have to understand that it’s not only the bonobo [at risk]. All the biodiversity is in danger.”

The children also learn to take action if they see a bonobo being kept as a pet, which is a crime in the DRC.

“Very often it’s one of these kids from the school who call us and say, “I saw a bonobo,” André says.

Today’s students have moved from the classroom to the edge of a bonobo enclosure.

Group of school children in science class visiting Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary.Ley Uwera for NPR

Bonjour les bonobos,” Mbwaki calls out to the group of animals eyeing their human visitors. “Bonjour Elikya,” he says to one of the females.

Elikya was born here to a mother who had arrived as an orphan. Now Elikya is raising a baby of her own.

But the ultimate goal is to release bonobos like Elikya into the wild. So Lola has established a second sanctuary called Ekolo ya Bonobo hundreds of miles away.

“It’s a place where bonobos used to be,” says Dr. Raphaël Belais, a veterinarian at Lola. “But unfortunately during the wartime the hunting was going quite strong so they have no more bonobos in this piece of forest.”

It would be nice if all the bonobos at Lola could eventually go to their new home, Belais says. “Unfortunately, some of the orphans are too traumatized or too mutilated.”

Still, more than a dozen animals from Lola have been moved to Ekolo and most of them are doing well. Their future, though, will be determined by Congolese people like the students who came to Lola today.

So I ask a 10-year-old named Gaska Basili, what he learned about bonobos during the visit.

“They are like our brothers,” he replies in French.

“And what would you do if you saw a bonobo being kept illegally?” I ask.

“I would call my teacher, Papa Blaise,” he says.

Orcas now taking turns floating dead calf in apparent mourning ritual

Whale Museum in Washington releases audio of the mourning mother communicating with her pod

Mother orca J-35 has been balancing body of its dead calf on its nose for more than a week. (Soundwatch NMFS Permit #21114/Whale Museum )



Members of a pod of endangered killer whales now appear to be taking turns floating the body of a newborn calf that died more than week ago.

As It Happens reported on Friday about J-35, a mother orca from B.C.’s endangered killer whale population that has been balancing her dead calf on her nose near San Juan Island, Wash.

It’s now been more than a week and the mother whale is still carrying the calf’s remains — sparking concerns among researchers that she’ll tire herself out.

“We do know her family is sharing the responsibility of caring for this calf, that she’s not always the one carrying it, that they seem to take turns,” Jenny Atkinson, director of the Whale Museum on San Juan Island, told As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

“While we don’t have photos of the other whales carrying it, because we’ve seen her so many times without the calf, we know that somebody else has it.”

New audio released

The Whale Museum released an audio recording on Monday of the mother communicating with her pod.

“You’re hearing them communicate with one another. They’re using a series of calls and whistles to communicate. And then you’ll hear a clicking noise. That’s echo-location,” Atkinson said.

“They use it to pick up their food source as well as map their underwater environment.”

As It Happens
Orca pod in conversation

00:00 00:20

The Whale Museum recorded the sound of the killer whale pod communicating to each other off San Juan Island, using geo-location to alert each other to potential obstacles and food sources. 0:20

She said it’s possible the sounds are related to their mourning of the calf — but researchers can’t know for sure.

“We picked up some calls earlier in the week and we hear things that sounded more like a very urgent call,” she said. “If you think of going to a wake for a family, things can go on for multiple days and the grief is still deep, but the emotions kind of soften.”

A whale funeral

That’s exactly what Atkinson believes the whales are doing with the calf — holding their own version of a wake or a funeral.

“Ceremonies can go on for days to honour and mourn the loss of a loved one,” she said. “I think that what you’re seeing is the depth of importance of this calf and the grief of the mother and the family.”

This July 25 photo shows the orca mother, J-35, balancing her dead baby on her nose trying to keep it afloat. (Ken Balcomb/Centre for Whale Research)

Anthropologist Barbara King, who studies animal emotion, agrees the whale’s behaviour is likely a display of grief.

There is a body of evidence that shows whales and dolphins mark the passing of their dead, King told CBC’s On The Coast.

Sometimes they will surround dead companions, showing curiosity or exploration, King said. Other times, it goes further: they keep vigils around the bodies of dead podmates or keep them afloat.

“It’s not anthropomorphic to use this label for them,” King said. “Grief and love are not human qualities. They’re things we share with some other animals.”

Population in crisis

The southern resident killer whale population consists of three orca pods that live around the coast of Oregon, Washington and Vancouver Island.

Their numbers are dwindling and they haven’t have a successful birth since 2015.

After the death of a 23-year-old orca June, the total number of southern resident killer whales is down to 75, the lowest it’s been since the early ’80s. The population has dropped by eight since 2016.

CBC News


This orca mother has been holding her dead calf afloat for more than a week in a “heartbreaking” ritual.

Read more at 

Their decline is attributed largely to a lack of available chinook salmon, their primary food source.

Researchers are already worried that another young whale in the pod — J-50 — could be the next to die. The four-year-old is becoming increasingly emaciated.

“I don’t see how she can survive,” Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research, told the Seattle Times.

In May, Canada’s federal government announced plans to cut the allowable catch of chinook by 25 to 35 per cent.

In June, it announced further measures to help the endangered population, including reducing underwater vessel noise and better monitoring of pollution.

Human empathy

Atkinson said it’s not hard to see why people have had such visceral reactions to images of J-35 and her calf.

“Watching what she’s going through, most people have been through some level of grief and have had some situation that this touches, because they can understand losing a child, losing a calf, and how heart-wrenching that is,” she said.

“And then not to be able to do anything when humans like to take action. We like to be able to do stuff. Sometimes the hardest thing is just to sit back and give respect and be a witness to a situation.”

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Jenny Atkinson produced by Samantha Lui.

Agonizing death of raccoon caught in trap sparks calls for empathy

Animal chewed off own paw after it was caught in a legal trap set in Burnaby neighbourhood

Jason Proctor · CBC News · Posted: Apr 18, 2018 1:16 PM PT | Last Updated: April 18


This raccoon was brought into a shelter with its paw caught in a trap. The trap was removed, but the animal chewed its paw off. It was later euthanized. (Critter Care Wildlife Society)

Animal activists say the gory demise of a raccoon that chewed its own paw off after getting caught in a trap last week should be a lesson to would-be backyard vigilantes.

“Anybody using these type of traps, they’re wanting to inflict pain. I don’t know what type of people we have out there,” said Gail Martin, founder of the Langley-based Critter Care Wildlife Society.

“And when I say I am sick of what goes on out there, I am sick of it! People have got to learn to have empathy for other living beings.”

No release for 3-pawed raccoon

The raccoon was brought into Martin’s shelter last Thursday after getting its paw caught in a cuff-style legal trap put out in a mixed residential and industrial use area in Burnaby.

Martin said staff were able to remove the trap, but the animal’s foot was crushed. She said it still would have felt sensation in the paw, despite pain medication and chewed it off overnight.

The raccoon was then euthanized.

“He can’t be released with three paws,” she said. “He has to be able to survive out there.”


The raccoon at rest in the moments after the removal of the trap that crushed its paw. The animal was later euthanized. (Critter Care Wildlife Society)

Martin called for stronger laws and prosecution of people who maim wildlife through the indiscriminate setting of traps.

“People can get hurt. Cats, dogs, children,” she said. “Nobody should be allowed to use these type of traps.”

Raccoons are a frequent irritant on the Lower Mainland, where they regularly roam streets and backyards with their families in search of food.

Solving underlying issues

According to the province, they’re not considered aggressive but can be dangerous if threatened. Dogs are not considered an effective way of getting rid of them.

The province advises homeowners to keep garbage in plastic bags in buildings or sheds, to secure garbage can lids with rubbers straps or hooks and to clean garbage cans with ammonia or bleach.

It’s illegal to poison raccoons, which can be trapped (in season) by registered trappers who have a valid licence. A mother and her babies can’t be removed from a nesting site until the pups are able to leave

Adrian Nelson, with the Association for the Protection of Fur Bearing Animals, says the trap in question is legal. But he questions the morality of anything that would leave an animal in such pain.

“Our biggest recommendation is to bring in a wildlife control company that knows what they’re doing, that uses non-lethal measures,” he said.

“When it comes to trapping animals … we’re not really solving the underlying issue of why that animal is there. So, until we address the attractants or the habitat or whatever is drawing that animal in, we’re just going to continue to have problems.”

A Trap Isn’t a “Tool,” It’s a Torture Device

The following is a letter to the editor of the Missoulian, answering to this patronizing opinion piece by a trapping publicist. Portions of this letter are excerpted from my book, Exposing the Big Game


A Trap Isn’t a “Tool,” It’s a Torture Device

Dear Editor,

Your June 6, 2012 guest column, “Managing wildlife should include tool of trapping” decried the use of “emotion” (bringing up the word at least 6 times) and seemed bent on denigrating anyone who has the capability for it. Why are trappers and their publicists so put off by emotion? Could it be that they’re afraid to admit they’re lacking in that capacity?

Psychologists have a word for people who act without emotion—without guilt, remorse or empathy—psychopaths. We shouldn’t be letting the psychopaths make the rules regarding wildlife.

A trap is not a “tool,” it’s a torture device. Unless they’re unable to feel empathy (see above) anyone who has witnessed the harrowing ordeal suffered by an animal caught in a trap should be appalled and outraged that trapping is legal. I have had more than my share of heart-wrenching experiences with the gruesome evils of trapping. I’ve heard the cry of shock and agony when a dog first feels the steel jaws of a trap lock onto his leg. I’ve looked into the weary eyes of a helpless captive who has been stuck in a trap for days and nights on end. I have come across the leg of a lynx, chewed-off to escape a deadly fate, and I’ve seen animals struggling throughout their lives on three legs.

Laws against cruelty to humans are crafted by people that rely on their sympathies for the victims and concern for the innocents. Those who have the capacity for empathy should be the ones making decisions relating to the welfare of our fellow animal species, not the cold-blooded animal exploiters.

Leg-hold traps have been banned in 88 countries and a few enlightened US states. Compassionate people everywhere must add their voice to the rising call to end this gratuitous torture for good.