A Holiday Miracle: The Story Of A Bonobo And His Mixed-Species Family

If Christmas is about anything, it’s about the beauty of kids, from the poignancy of Bethlehem to the wonder of the tree.

In this blog, my last in a series of four (here, here, and here), I’ll offer some thoughts on a beautiful kid called Teco.

Teco is a 6-month-old bonobo chimpanzee, already crawling and walking way more adeptly than a human 6-month-old, exploring a culture created by both humans and bonobos at the Great Ape Trust.

Teco was born lacking a cling reflex, preventing him from being transported on the fur of his mother Elikya. She tried carrying him in her arms but it was burdensome, and after two months of effort, she made it clear to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, whom she’s known from birth, that Sue needed to take over.

Hanging out with Sue and Teco at the Great Ape Trust. i

Hanging out with Sue and Teco at the Great Ape Trust. Ursula Goodenough/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ursula Goodenough/NPR
Hanging out with Sue and Teco at the Great Ape Trust.

Hanging out with Sue and Teco at the Great Ape Trust.

Ursula Goodenough/NPR

I’ll tell two brief Teco stories this morning, one about how Sue is raising him, and the other about how his father, Kanzi, is interfacing with him.

Sitting on the floor with Teco and Sue last week was just like the hundreds of times I’ve sat on the floor with a mom and her kid, except that this kid had splendid fur. His room is festooned with the kind of colorful “enrichment” stuff you’d buy at Toys 'R' Us. The futon they sleep on is in one corner. A pacifier and fresh diapers lie in readiness.

Teco has an iPad loaded with lots of kid apps — alphabets, nursery songs, names of animals — and he spends hours swatting at it and getting new things to happen. New objects first go straight into his mouth, then get pulled and twisted around in his deft fingers, his eyes intently focused on yet another novelty. And then lots of the time he’s just curled up in Sue’s lap, being hugged, kissed and tickled.

A new keyboard version of a lexigram has been installed on the wall in Teco’s room that allows for the immediate addition of new words and has a drag-and- select interface like the iPad. He’s still too little to use it, but Sue is already using it in his presence – touching symbols and saying words — to familiarize him with the modus operandi. The Trust scientists have come to understand that bonobo language-learning happens like human language-learning: Adults use language-based words in speaking to youngsters, and youngsters come to understand their meaning.

The difference between this modus and training your dog to roll over when you say “roll over” is that the bonobo youngsters are also familiarized with symbols that denote particular words, and they come to understand that they can touch particular symbols on a lexigram when they want to use those words. That is, they are able to translate their own mental experience into symbols/words that denote their mental experience. Once that key insight is grasped, then it’s a short step to combine words and to understand combined words, a.k.a sentences.

And the language game is on.

Teco’s cognitive progression will obviously be of keen interest to his Trust caregivers, just as a child’s cognition is of keen interest to family members. But his caregivers are also keenly interested that he be fully immersed in his bonobo context, which brings me to my second story.

When Teco was an infant, he was happy to be passed around and inspected and groomed by all the adult bonobos in the group, much like a human infant being handed around at a family gathering. An example of this is shown in an extraordinary video of Teco with his uncle Nyota.


But of late, something has “kicked in” that Sue calls Teco’s sense of free will. He’s now circumspect with unfamiliar humans and bonobos alike, taking time to warm up to them. He’s “his own little person,” a transformation that typically occurs in human babies at about 9-10 months and occurs in baby bonobos in the context of both their genetic endowment and the Pan/Homo cultural ambience at the Trust.

Kanzi’s understanding of this transformation has been recorded by Sue in a video — soon to be posted on the Trust website — that I’ll try to describe.

Teco comes into a room where Kanzi and Sue are sitting. Sue first asks Kanzi to take off Teco’s diaper and he does so deftly, pulling on one plastic strip and then the other. Then, instead of picking Teco up as he would have done pre-free-will, Kanzi moves into a corner, sits down, and watches while the baby scampers about. Whenever Teco comes near, Kanzi reaches out and gently strokes him. He then tries to engage the baby in little-kid-style games: he strums his fingers on the floor, looking up hopefully to see if that draws attention; when it doesn’t, he scoots along the floor pushing a large sheet of paper and Teco runs after it; he then does the same thing with a box. Throughout the clip, Kanzi evinces the heart-warming interest of a new Dad — eager to be accepted, eager for relationship, yet respectful of his son’s space and personhood.

Does Kanzi know that Teco is his son? Does Teco think that Sue is his mother? We may never know the answers to these interesting questions that we know how to ask. But meanwhile, what’s important right now is that out on the great plains of Iowa this Christmas, a very small bonobo is being enfolded in a most extraordinary convergence of love and curiosity from members of his own species and of his adopted species. A bit of a miracle I would say.



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