Not long ago, I spent the morning having coffee with Kanzi. Kanzi is a fellow of few words — 384 of them by formal count, though he probably knows dozens more. He has a very clear, very expressive and very loud voice, but it’s not especially good for forming words, which is the way of things when you’re a bonobo.
But Kanzi is talkative all the same. He keeps a sort of glossary close at hand — three laminated sheets filled with hundreds of colorful symbols that represent all the words he’s been taught or picked up on his own. He can build thoughts and sentences, even conjugate, all by pointing.
Kanzi knows the value of breaking the ice. So he points to the coffee icon on his glossary and then points to me. He then sweeps his arm wider, taking in primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, an investigator at the Great Ape Trust —the research center in Des Moines, Iowa, that Kanzi calls home — and lab supervisor Tyler Romine. Romine fetches four coffees, takes one to Kanzi in his enclosure on the other side of a Plexiglas window, and then rejoins us. Kanzi sips and, since our voices are picked up by microphones, he listens as we talk.
“He’s been stubborn this morning,” Savage-Rumbaugh tells me, “and we couldn’t get him to come out to the yard. So we had to negotiate a piece of honeydew melon in exchange.” Honeydew is not yet on Kanzi’s word list; instead, he points to the glyphs for green, yellow and watermelon.
Kanzi is by no means the first ape to have been taught language. But the Trust takes a novel approach, raising apes from birth with spoken and symbolic language as a constant feature of their days. Just as human mothers take babies on walks and chatter to them about what they see even though the child does yet not understand, so too do the scientists at the Trust narrate the lives of their bonobos. With such total immersion, the apes are learning to communicate better, faster and with greater complexity.
Humans have a fraught relationship with beasts. They are our companions and our laborers. We love them and cage them, admire them and abuse them. And, of course, we cook and eat them. Our dodge has always been that animals are ours to do with as we please simply because they don’t suffer the way we do. They don’t think, not in any meaningful way.
But one by one, the berms we’ve built between ourselves and the beasts are being washed away. Humans are the only animals that use tools, we used to say. But what about the birds and apes that we now know do as well? And as for humans as the only beasts with language? Kanzi himself could tell you that’s not true.
All of that is forcing us to look at animals in a new way. It’s not enough to study an animal’s brain; we need to know its mind.
Here are examples of some super smart animals. Click on each photo to learn more!
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