Solana Beach woman speaks up for endangered bonobos

By Karen Billing

Few people can say that they’ve had a hug from a bonobo. Even fewer can tell you exactly what a bonobo is.

Solana Beach resident Debbie Sandler, who has had her share of bonobo hugs, is determined to introduce people to the endangered animal, a member of the great ape family that is one of humans’ closest living relatives. Sandler had the opportunity to spend time with the bonobos in their native Democratic Republic of Congo last year and wants to raise awareness about the species, as well as alert people to the population living right here in San Diego.

The San Diego Zoo is only one of seven in the United States to have bonobos in captivity. There are currently 13 bonobos in the group at the zoo, having moved down from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in June 2012.

The number of bonobos left in the wild is unknown but it could be as little as 10,000. The Congo’s Lola Ya Bonobo, where Sandler visited in October 2012, is the world’s only bonobo sanctuary, taking in bonobos orphaned by the bush meat trade.

“They need us, they need our voices,” said Sandler.

Of the four great apes (which also includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans), the bonobos are the least known and the most rare. For many years bonobos were thought to be just pygmy chimps and were only discovered as a species 30 years ago, Sandler said.

As the bonobos live exclusively in the Congo there is a degree of difficulty for researchers getting access to the animals as the country has been emerged in a deadly conflict since 1998.

Bonobos and chimps are humans’ closest relatives, sharing 98.7 percent of human DNA.

While chimps live in a male-dominated society with infanticide and war, the bonobos are female dominated; they are more peaceful and sexual behavior is used as a way to resolve conflicts.

“Because they’re so genetically alike with humans, it’s really valuable for us to understand them better,” Sandler said.

They look very similar to chimps, but bonobos are smaller with pink lips, black faces and hair parted down the middle. Unlike chimps, bonobos have a very high-pitched voice.

Debbie SandlerSandler, who has her degree in anthropology and primatology, is a self-proclaimed “former orangutan girl.” She got hooked on bonobos after a reading the book “Bonobo Handshake” by Vanessa Woods, a Duke University researcher who traveled to Lola Ya Bonobo with her husband Brian Hare, who leads the Hominoid Psychology Research Group at Duke.

Almost immediately after finishing the book, Sandler plunged herself into learning as much as she could about the bonobos. She tracked down Hare, flew across country to attend a Friends of Bonobos fundraiser, and made plans to go to Africa as soon as she could.

“I wanted to have that hands-on experience with the orphans but equally as important, I wanted the opportunity to experience Lola and that part of the world so that I could, in some way, bring that magic back here and share this incredible group of little known great apes with my community and others,” Sandler said.

Sandler also found an opportunity at the San Diego Zoo to work with a graduate student’s project on conflict resolution. At the zoo, she is observing how two populations have merged. Lana (the zoo’s oldest bonobo who will be 34 in April) was the dominant female in one group and Loretta was the dominant in the other.

“We wanted to see how the two dominant females handled each other,” Sandler said. “Lana ended up stepping aside and letting Loretta take care of the issues.”

Getting to Lola and the Congo was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Sandler.

“People were terrified about me going there. My younger son was really nervous and my husband was guardedly nervous but I took all the precautions I had to take and I went there with a lot of people who knew what to do,” Sandler said.

Lola is located just outside of Kinshasa, the capita of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was founded by Claudine Andre in 1995 at former retreat for Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Soko.

Lola is home to 52 bonobos, orphans whose parents were killed by bush meat traders.

It is illegal to sell bonobos (they can fetch $60,000 on the black market) and when they are confiscated by police, Lola becomes a safe place for them to go.

Baby bonobos are extremely attached to their mothers for the first five years of their lives, Sandler said, so much so that they can actually die alone of broken hearts.

Because they need such special attention, human volunteers at the sanctuary called “Mamas” raise the babies until they reach five or six years of age when they can join the other bonobos at Lola.

Eventually Lola is working on a release program but for now they live at the “gorgeous” sanctuary forest, which Sandler said is a very natural environment for the animals.

Sandler knew she wanted to meet the baby bonobos but wasn’t sure how much time she would get with them—she thought she’d maybe get 20 minutes. Her third day there she got her first interaction with a 2-year-old baby and got to play with the baby every day.

She has footage of her rolling around in the grass with the baby on her head, happily swinging the baby from her arms and letting the baby playfully mussing her hair.

While Sandler was there, one bonobo came that had been caught in a snare and had a badly injured arm. As Lola has educated the public on the importance of conservation, the bonobo was brought to the sanctuary and was able to receive surgery and treatment.

“It’s a great story because the community looks to Lola as bonobo guardian angels,” Sandler said.

Sandler said she “fell in love” with an 8-year-old female that she would visit daily at her enclosure. One day when Sandler had a cut on her hand, the female put her hand out to take Sandler’s hand.

“She pulled my hand toward her and took her thumb and tried to squeeze the poisons out,” Sandler said. “She was so gentle, so sweet. I got teary-eyed as I neared the end of my week there and I was sitting by her enclosure crying. She put her hand out and rubbed my leg. They are just so gentle, sensitive, kind, compassionate and sharing….We all need to become more bonobo-like.”

As it is now, Sandler is at the zoo once a week to help with the research project but her goal is to get involved with a deeper research program and also to get back to the Congo and Lola every year.

“My goal is to be a voice for these amazing animals because there needs to be an awareness,” Sandler said. “We have a long way to go to making bonobos a household name.”

Learn more about Lola Ya Bonobo at