Kanzi is one chatty bonobo—and not just with other apes. What's extraordinary about Kanzi, a 29-year-old ape, is that he is able understand and communicate with humans. His knowledge of language is so advanced, it has people asking: Will a bonobo bridge the gap between primates and humans?
After learning about Kanzi in a Time magazine article, Lisa Ling traveled to the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, where primatologist Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has been studying bonobos for nearly 40 years. Dr. Sue has been teaching Kanzi to communicate using lexigrams on a computer. A lexigram is a symbol that represents a word. To "speak," Kanzi touches a lexigram on the keyboard, which repeats the word out loud. Kanzi demonstrates to Lisa how he finds the symbols for "ball," "egg" and "Matata," Kanzi's mother's name.
"On his keyboard, there are about 450 [words] that he can understand," Dr. Sue says. "The number that he uses on a daily basis is maybe 30 or 40." But, Dr. Sue says, Kanzi may know several thousand words. "He can actually put together two-word sentences and multiple words," Lisa says.
For example, the lexigram for "flood" is not on Kanzi's keyboard. "So when Iowa was hit by the storm and was flooding, he would point out 'big water,'" Lisa says.
When Kanzi was given kale to eat, he used his lexigrams to find the right words. "He had a hard time chewing the kale, so he pointed at 'slow lettuce,'" Lisa says. For the word "pizza," which is not on Kanzi's keyboard, he pointed at "cheese," "tomato" and "bread."
Dr. Sue says she taught Kanzi to communicate the same way she taught her son to speak. "I just talk to Kanzi like you see me talking now," she says. "He just was around me and learned it like a child."
Lisa says it was fascinating to watch Sue communicate with Kanzi at the Great Ape Trust. "It was very apparent that Kanzi was understanding what she said," she says.
In addition to speaking through lexigrams, Kanzi has another remarkable ability—he can blow up a balloon. While this may not seem like a groundbreaking development, Sue says it's a huge step. "Humans are said to be the only species that have control of their own breath," she says. "But Kanzi obviously has control of his own breath."
Sue is also taking care of Teco, Kanzi's 3-month-old son. When Teco was born, Dr. Sue says his mother passed him off to another bonobo, who passed him to her. "For all practical purposes, I'm Teco's mother," Dr. Sue says. "Teco sleeps right with me. We're in that little room where we watch TV. We each have a futon."
Dr. Sue says she stays with Teco day and night. As a fourth-generation bonobo raised around humans, she believes this ape may develop even more sophisticated language skills than his father, Kanzi.
Does this mean she thinks Teco will actually be able to talk one day? "We don't know...he might," Dr. Sue says. "This is a real, honest attempt to cross the boundary and understand the species' differences in the role of language and the development of rational thought."
When Dr. Sue started working with Kanzi, he was already a few years old. Teco, however, has been learning new skills since birth, and Lisa says he is already doing things that no bonobo has ever done. "He sucks his thumb and uses a pacifier, which is pretty unprecedented," Lisa says.
Lisa says that studying these bonobos can teach us something about all animals.
"For anyone who believes that animals don't have feelings or can't comprehend things, this is a clear example of the fact that there is communication between [animals and humans]," she says.