Living with Nyota the Bonobo

Ethnographer Bill Fields and his bonobo friend Nyota i i

hide captionEthnographer Bill Fields and his bonobo friend Nyota talk to each other using a panel with symbols for the different words Nyota knows.

Great Ape Trust
Ethnographer Bill Fields and his bonobo friend Nyota

Ethnographer Bill Fields and his bonobo friend Nyota talk to each other using a panel with symbols for the different words Nyota knows.

Great Ape Trust

When Bill Fields began working with bonobo chimpanzees eight years ago, it wasn't just a new job. To start with, he became a single parent — to a baby bonobo. Fields also gained an extended family — the baby's mother, Panbanisha, and his Uncle Kanzi.

"I'm part of their world," Fields explains. "I have a baby, his name is Nyota. Of course he's not a baby anymore, and Kanzi and Panbanisha remind me of that every day." Fields' quiet, earnest voice resonates with parental pride. He is in his mid-50s, with short grey hair and a solid, reassuring presence — keenly focused but gentle — the kind that invites the confidence of animals and children.

When Nyota was little, he lived with Fields in a trailer at Georgia State University's Language Research Center in Atlanta, at the edge of a forest and very near the bonobo house.

A Life Outside the Research Center

Unlike baby humans, young bonobos are never left alone by their families, not even for a minute. So for three years, Fields and Nyota were together all the time, day and night. When Fields slept, Nyota curled up beside him. When he took a shower, Nyota came along. And when he had to go run errands, he tucked Nyota under his coat, and told him to be very very quiet.

Fields was worried about taking his baby away from the protection of home. But he insisted that Nyota be allowed to leave the research center with him, an opportunity that other bonobos had not had, because Fields wanted him to know about the human world.

Sometimes they went to the drive-through. Occasionally, Nyota would try a French fry, but mostly he liked the little toys that came with them. They also went to the Dairy Queen, where he got peanut butter parfait and met up with a human friend Nyota particularly liked.

Introducing people to a baby bonobo can be tricky.

"I would go [into a restaurant] and say 'Look, I have a special friend and this is his phototgraph, and his name is Nyota,'" Fields says. "And everybody would ooh and ahh, and they'd say look at the monkey. And I'd say, well he's not a monkey, he's an ape." Then Fields would ask if Nyota could come to the window and hand the cashier money.

This is all part of Field's job. He is an ethnographer, and when he began working with bonobos, he set out to do something that has never been done before: describe the culture of a non-human society.

So Fields did what ethnographers do, he went to live with the subject population he's describing.

Fields always wanted to work with apes. As a child he loved Tarzan movies and told his parents he wanted to go live with chimpanzees. His work in ethnography eventually led to a paper about language and the use of tools, and the bonobo Kanzi, who had both.

A New Home

In the spring of 2005 the bonobos moved from Georgia to the new Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, and Fields went with them. He doesn't live with Nyota anymore, but he visits the bonobo house every afternoon and stays for dinner and to put Nyota to bed. Sometimes Fields doesn't go home for weeks at a time.

Every Friday, the bonobos make the plans for the day. It's sort of a casual Friday to ease into the weekends when the administrators are gone and the bonobos and their close friends have their homes to themselves.

If Fields isn't there, the bonobos can have someone call and give him the bonobos requests. Panbanisha sometimes likes to order from Starbucks (a bonobo favorite is espresso with cream). Nyota, like many teenage boys, likes to ride around in the truck.

Nyota is even more integrated into human culture than his mother, Panbanisha, or his uncle Kanzi. As part of the second generation of bonobos to grow up in a world that is both human and bonobo, Nyota's grasp of human language may become more sophisticated than has ever been seen in a bonobo. Like any parent, Fields is looking forward to seeing what happens as Nyota grows up.

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