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Novelist Sara Gruen Returns to Glendon’s Bonobo-Human Discourse Research Group

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Best-selling author Sara Gruen had been on a grueling book tour talking about her newly published novel, Ape House, since September. But when she arrived in Toronto for the International Festival of Authors in early November, she made time for a return visit with the Bonobo-Human Discourse research group at Glendon. She wanted to reconnect with senior scholars Jim Benson and Bill Greaves of Glendon’s English and Linguistic Studies Department, who are the primary researchers of the project, as well as the students working under their direction.

Gruen first came to Glendon four years ago during her background research for Ape House, in preparation for an in-depth study at the Great Ape Trust in Desmoines, Iowa. And by all accounts, she found her time at Glendon a most valuable and most enjoyable experience. “When I left your office, although I went to the bus stop, what I really wanted to do was head for the enrollment office”, said Gruen in her thank-you note to the two professors.

Hugely successful Ape House addresses the idea that bonobos, reared in a culture where spoken language and symbolic representation are the norm, acquire language the same way human children do: by being exposed to it. “The result is that Gruen’s novel helps establish in an easily accessible and entertaining manner a multifaceted picture of culture among great apes and other sentient beings”, explains ape language pioneer Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Scientist With Special Standing at Great Ape Trust, in an article reviewing the importance of this book.

Right: Kanzi

Funded by the Research at York (RAY) program for the past two years, the Glendon Bonobo-Human Discourse (BHD) research project is now in its sixth year, with the participation of student researchers Bruce Anderson, Charlotte Petrie, Maria Wong, Jenny Teplitsky, Meng Yang, Laura Guecha, Cadence Lavoie, and Ashley Thomas, under the supervision of Benson and Greaves. The BHD team has been exploring the ability of Kanzi and Panbanisha, two bonobos at the Great Ape Trust, to actively participate in discourse with Savage-Rumbaugh and other caregivers, using a variety of social semiotic systems.

When Gruen contacted her in 2006, Savage-Rumbaugh directed her to Benson and Greaves, with whom Savage-Rumbaugh has been collaborating in bonobo language research for a number of years. As a result of this contact, Gruen received a warm invitation from the two professors for a Glendon visit to learn about apes. Her account of her subsequent visit to the Great Ape Trust is recorded on a video.

Left: Panbanisha

This year’s Glendon stop felt like a visit among friends, as well as a scientific study. “Sara and our students spent several hours talking about their experiences meeting Panbanisha, Kanzi and the other bonobos at the Great Ape Trust”, explains Greaves. “We have all learned a lot from Sara, and she received additional information from us acquainting her with some of the archival videos that we showed her. It was a level playing field and a great conversation.”

“At the end of her visit, Sara autographed copies of Ape House, and then several of the researchers offered to take her out to dinner”, adds Benson. “And even though she had ten radio and television interviews scheduled for the next day, she was game, and they had quite an adventure!”

“Getting to dinner was quite adventurous”, confirms student researcher Maria Wong. “We got lost on the way, had trouble calling a taxi and didn't get the nicest cab driver. All this time, I was so scared that Sara would have had enough of us and decided to go back to her hotel instead of joining us for dinner. Thankfully, she stayed and we had such a great time. In addition to bonobos, we talked about her family and her pets - she told us the story of how she had acquired a goat.”


Left to right: Charlotte Petrie, Meng Yang, Maria Wong, Sara Gruen and Laura Guecha

The research team confirms that Sara Gruen has an amazing connection with the bonobos. “Normally, when we show other people video clips of the bonobos, it is always followed by a briefing of the video and an explanation of why we extracted it”, says Wong. “But for Sara, we didn't have to explain anything. She got it immediately.”

Co-organized with the Glendon Linguistics Club, professors Benson and Greaves and the Glendon Bonobo-Human Discourse research project’s student participants will make a presentation about the progress of their work on Wednesday, December 1st at 6 p.m. in Glendon Hall’s BMO Centre. The presentation is part of this fall’s lecture series under the aegis of Glendon’s Centre for Research on Language Contact. Everyone is welcome.

An article by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on November 18, 2010