A bright, informative memoir of a young woman’s first encounters with love, marriage and the world’s most endangered ape.
Journalist and research assistant Woods took a romantic plunge in her late 20s, joining her fiancé Brian on his quest to discover what makes us human by studying bonobos, a species of chimpanzee found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The couple worked and lived at the resort-like Lola ya Bonobo, a former presidential retreat that is now the world’s only sanctuary for orphaned bonobos, located in Kinshasa, the Congo capital. There, she grew close to sanctuary founder Claudine Andre and the four women called the “Mamas” who care for the chimps, and gradually fell in love with the more than 60 trusting bonobos. The animals, which look just like chimpanzees and share 98.7 percent of human DNA, have been largely ignored by scientists and the media, except in the 1980s, when the primates were dubbed “the ‘make love not war’ hippie ape” after a researcher reported on their frequent sexual behavior. The bonobos—estimated at 10,000 to 40,000 in number—are frequently hunted for their meat. Woods writes candidly about playing with the animals while covered in feces and mango slime; squabbling with her new husband; and interviewing locals about the Congo’s recent history of warfare to better understand her estranged father, a Vietnam War veteran. When violence broke out in 2006, the author helped her husband study the bonobos, who live quite peacefully compared to the more pugnacious chimpanzees. Their research, covered in Time and elsewhere, suggests that bonobos cooperate better than chimpanzees because they are more tolerant of one another, and because they play and have sex a lot. Brian also discovered evidence of altruism, a human trait, in bonobos, leading Woods to observe that the primates share much that makes us human and may “hold the key to a world without war.”
The bonobos have found their advocate.