Student-Journalists Pay a Visit to Primate Learning Sanctuary

Thirteen years ago DMPS started a program in conjunction with the University of Iowa known as the Summer Journalism Academy for kids transitioning from elementary to middle school.

Twelve years ago the City of Des Moines deeded over 200 acres of land in a corner of southeast Des Moines to the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary (IPLS) for the study of primates and early human development and educational, public recreational and associated uses and a family of bonobos moved to Iowa in 2005. They came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the only country in the world where they’re known to live in the wild, via a facility at Georgia State University in Atlanta. When the traveling bonobos finally arrived in Des Moines, it was aboard a modified school bus.

Today the two projects merged when another school bus arrived at the facility, this one loaded with student-journalists, many of whom were born the same year the land for IPLS was donated.

Ben Graeber teaches English and Journalism at North High School, and he leads the camp. This summer 42 kids recommended by their elementary teachers based on interest and aptitude in writing signed up. Graeber’s enthusiasm about a different batch of students than he’s accustomed to equals the students’ enthusiasm about the bonobos.

“There’s a lot of tremendous potential in the group,” he said. “We’ll have several outings during camp in addition to class time and then next week we’ll write up everything we’ve seen and learned.” The theme of the camp this year is animals and besides today’s visit to IPLS the group will also field trip to the Blank Park Zoo and the Macbride Raptor Project in Iowa City.

The bonobos are housed in a state-of the art facility that provides approximately 5,000 square feet indoors, plus two outdoor areas that equal three acres and include two heated caves and a series of platforms and walkways designed to mimic a treed habitat.

During their visit the campers toured the facilities, interviewed Dr. Julie Gilmore, the bonobos’ vet and an IPLS director, and observed a demonstration of the apes’ remarkable mastery of English as expressed through their use of more than 450 lexigrams, or word symbols. Kanzi, the “rock star” of the family whose Youtube videos have drawn a global audience, and his son, Teco, are as fluent in their computer vocabulary as their student-visitors are in their texting shorthand. At times it was difficult to tell just who was studying who harder.

Les Kile just finished school at Madison and will move on to Harding in the fall. He said he signed up for the summer academy at the behest of his teacher, Jean Dannelly.

“She said there would be great field trips and this place is great,” he gushed. “Plus, I love animals!” He wasn’t alone in his impressions. In fact, one of the questions asked of Dr. Gilmore was how to sign up to volunteer at IPLS.

But first things first. Before she could answer that or other inquiries about bonobo aggression, ape life expectancies, susceptibility to illness, most memorable experience at IPLS, etc. Dr. Gilmore was asked to please spell her name for the benefit of all the poised pencils and voice recorders. Nobody was looking for a scoop. Everybody was looking to get it right.

Photos from the Journalism Academy Students at the Great Ape Trust

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