|Food and Sex|
Individuation in Bonobo Grooming Habits, 2006-
The project "Individuation in Bonobo Grooming Habits" playfully embraces an anthropomorphizing of bonobo grooming habits but at the same time questions assumptions on what is a legitimate measure of intelligent behavior. Traditionally tool making has been the sign of higher intelligence in species, but why not individuation and self-adornment? My project suggests that social tools, especially those that can be seen as learned behavior versus instinctive actions are in fact the beginnings of socialization and culture. Bonobo's in captivity, it appears, are expressing themselves through distinct and individual "hair styles". The drawings in this series document this behavior in three different bonobo communities, Wild Animal Park, San Diego Zoo and Milwaukee County Zoo.
Over the summer of 2004 I had an opportunity to spend time in Atlanta at the Yerkes Primate Research Station where I first met primatologist Frans de Waal and Amy Pollick, a graduate student whose research focuses on gestural communication in primates. This was followed up with a residency in 2005 at Wild Animal Park in Escondido, California. My intended purpose at Wild Animal Park was to observe the posturing, gesturing, timing and inter-activity within chimpanzee social groups. Being able to identify individuals was important to understanding the groups dynamics. One of the ways I initially learned to identify individual bonobos was by their facial hair grooming. The animal keepers would help me learn their names by pointing out the wide center part Akili was sporting or Loretta's penchant for a severally plucked forehead. It was only when I got back to Chicago that I began to think that there might be more to this strange grooming practice.
I have since begun to follow up and track information on this. I
have spoken with current and retired zookeepers at The San Diego Zoo who lament
that at one time the bonobos all had beautiful black glossy coats. As it has
been told to me, this all changed with the arrival of Vernon, a bonobo brought
over from Germany in the 1970's, he apparently is the culprit. He arrived at
San Diego zoo with severally plucked legs and a bad temper. Bonobos don't like
a lot of tension and work hard at easing it, sex is a social tool they use with
great frequency, as is group-grooming sessions. With Vernon around they did a
lot of both. The personalized grooming styles apparently came out of this
period in the zoo's history. When the animals were moved to others zoo's they
brought the trend with them, hair grooming like this is now practiced in every
American Zoo that has bonobos. The "styles" you see are not random, but carefully groomed for consistency,
day in and day out. They do not change unless the individual moves to another
community. Of course this opens up the question of who is imprinting the
individual and why?
What does it mean?